During our Staff Week Training we invited Joel Chasnoff, Jewish comedian and author, to run a program about Israel with our staff. Americans, Israelis, Brits, Jews, and non-Jews on our staff participated in a high-level conversation about Israel. Below are the reactions of three of our staff members:
Gabi Hersch, Ropes Course Specialist from Fort Myers, Florida
During Staff Week, each staff member is handed a schedule of the day. One of these days, I noticed an hour put away with the title of the program called, “Joel Chasnoff”. My first thought was that he would be a Jewish singer, similar to Dan Nichols, Alan Goodis, or Beth Schafer. I then heard a rumor that Joel Chasnoff was a comedian. My interest was piqued. A comedian during staff week- how strange.
Little did I know that in the ten years that I have spent my summers with URJ Camp Coleman, it would be this comedian Joel Chasnoff who would facilitate one of the most interesting, deep, and intense discussions that I have ever experienced at camp.
To provide some background, Joel Chasnoff is an American Jew (from Chicago) who served in the IDF (Israel Defense Force) as a combat soldier and later married an Israeli. He has thorough knowledge on many different perspectives on Israeli politics and Zionism.
For his program during Staff Week, he began by telling us his story through jokes about how as an American Jewish kid, he was told about a romanticized Israel and how much they want Americans to visit or live there. He talked about the Israeli Scouts Caravan that dances and sings for American Jews to go to Israel. He even showed us a board game entitled, “Aliyah” in which the object is to “move to Israel”. He continued by saying once he began his time in the IDF, the first question all of the Israelis had for him was, “Why did you come here? Why didn’t you stay in America?”
A more intense and serious tone was set when he transitioned into the next part of the program about asking the Coleman staff community was Zionism means to them. The way he structured this was by playing four different characters: an Israeli bus driver, a Jewish NYU student, a lawyer for AIPAC, and a rabbi from Virginia, who all told their perspective on Zionism.
-The Israeli bus driver claimed that if you did not live in Israel, you are not a real Zionist because Zionism means living where Jews always pray to live.
-The Jewish student from NYU was very liberal, supported the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions- see footnote), went on Birthright, and claimed that Zionism means caring for Israel’s future and doing that by making changes in its immoral policies.
-The lawyer from AIPAC claims that because he supports Israel no matter what Israel chooses to do, promotes Israel, and gets resources for Israel in order to accomplish those goals, he is a Zionist.
-The rabbi from Virginia talked about how although Israel is very important to Judaism, he believes that we, as Jews, should stress the values of Judaism (doing mitzvot, going to services, etc.) and not get so caught up in the politics of Israel, and through living by Jewish values, you are a Zionist.
Now think about this presentation for a second. In this room, watching Joel Chasnoff, are Jews from all over the Southeast of the United States, there are Jews from England, Jews from Israel, and some non-Jewish people. There were many intensely strong emotional reactions and there were some people who did not really care. Joel Chasnoff then opened the floor for these viewers to ask questions to any one of the characters.
Of course, the NYU student received a lot of attention. The majority of the room disagreed with the student for supporting the BDS movement, for his negative opinions about Israel’s policies, and so on. I began to hear people becoming furious at this character Joel named, “Jared”, beginning to talk about kicking him out- even though he was not a real person!
Now, my experience with Israeli politics is very interesting. I grew up in a very pro-Israel family. I attended NFTY throughout my high school career, and URJ Camp Coleman has been my summer home ever since I was nine years old. I have always loved Israel. I now attend Brandeis University where I take many classes involving Judaism and Israel. Brandeis is a very liberal school, and also a very Jewish school, and with that combination, Israel and its politics is the most heated topic there. I have met an Israeli who supports the BDS movement. I have met Jews who believe Palestinians should just leave and find a new home.
I am glad that Joel Chasnoff brought out the character of Jared to this program and portrayed him right on point. The majority of the students in my classes about Israeli politics have been just like him. I do not think that many American Jews who attend Camp Coleman have conversed with the “Jareds” of the world, because I know I did not until I went to Brandeis. I think exposure to those opinions is really necessary. They also infuriated me at first, but as I continued the conversation, I saw better into their perspective and more merit in their views. I may not agree with everything, but I do believe that the more people you allow to tell you their story, the more developed you become as a person.
A lesson that I took away from this program, (aside from BRING JOEL CHASNOFF TO BRANDEIS ASAP) was that everyone has a story, and everyone has an opinion based on their story. To open your mind and hear something that might not be so pleasant -like an Israeli telling you that you are not a Zionist- might be able to add to your story and influence the way you view the world. Thank you Joel Chasnoff for the amazing program, Staff Week planners for bringing him, and Coleman staff for participating until we ran late for our next program!
Katie Wilson, Lifeguard from England
Before arriving at Coleman this year, I had a think about what I hope to achieve. This summer I expect to inspire children, become part of a community, teach and learn about the Jewish faith (which was alien to me before I came here).
In September I will be returning to London where I attend King’s College University, reading Political Economy. I have sat through endless lectures surrounding the subject of international affairs, so the Arab-Israeli conflict isn’t entirely new to me. However, when Joel Chasnoff came into speak to the Coleman staff during Staff Week, he opened my eyes to a whole new dimension of the topic.
I have never witnessed such precision in a talk. Within two minutes, after having the whole room roar with laughter at his tremendous humour, he had provoked a discussion that raised people out of their seats in order for their opinions to be heard.
The evening left me astounded with how much I had learnt about Israel and the people it holds. A lot of the British specialists that have come over to camp did not understand the meaning of Israel for the Jewish community. Joel created a perfect platform for the Coleman staff to vent their enthusiasm and insane knowledge; I do not think I have ever witnessed such a passionate debate.
Becoming part of the Camp Coleman community is a huge deal for me, as I suppose it is for every other first year staff or camper. The opportunity to see my colleagues own up with their opinions directly toward Israel and Judaism has made me feel far more connected to them and their beliefs.
I not only found it intellectually stimulating and formed a valuable connection through Joel, that I can hopefully bring over to King’s College, but I learned a great deal about what the meaning of Israel is to both the Americans and the Israelis, who have experienced more of the troubles first hand.
Roy Ezuz, Counselor from Israel
When i was first informed that there would be a stand up comedy routine in which the main topic is the Israeli culture, I thought to myself- “ahhh well, I have been in hundred shows like that in the past.”
After Joel started speaking, I realized that it would be far away from being a regular comedian show that I am familiar with in my own country.
I discovered that in addition to being a a comedian and an alum of acting school, Joel is a very knowledgeable educator who speaks in front of universities and big conferences all over the world.
Since Joel is a former IDF soldier, he had the opportunity to experience the Israeli culture and was able to share his own point of view about the life in Israel as well as the significant period in the military service and he did it in a very funny way that kept the audience laughing non stop.
After a short term of quality comedy show, Joel started to speak about what he really came for which is the discussion of the question of “what is Zionism?”
Joel put on the table the issues that stand behind this question as well as the issues of the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a very unique way; he impersonated to four different characters with completely different opinions.
Due to his acting talent and the huge knowledge he possessed, Joel conveyed through these four characters the message perfectly and left the audience, including myself, fascinated with mixed emotions and raised a lot of questions and comments.
After this half lecture half comedy show, I understand the sense that stand behind many opinions around the world and have more patience for them despite the fact that I don’t necessarily agree with them.