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Boys in the Kitchen: Cooking Up Israel Education at Camp

Carl Schrag's picture

Before you can really get into cooking food from a country, the instructor tells his eager students, you need to know something about the country and the culture it represents.

Chef Mike didn't exactly say those words; rather, he kind of barked them - in a gruff, loving mix of enthusiasm, conviction and passion. Chef Mike doesn't lack for enthusiasm, conviction or passion - especially, it seems on this sunny July day, when it comes to hummus, shakshuka and limonana.

Welcome to Camp Airy's brand-new-for-2013 CulinAiry Arts Program - in which hundreds of campers learned how to cook during their immersive Jewish summer experience.

If that sounds perfectly reasonable to you, well... you may not understand one small detail: Camp Airy is a boys' camp, where hundreds of pre-teen and teenaged boys spend three or four weeks each summer immersed in the finer points of improving their three-point shots, knocking homers out of the park, go-karting and more.

When I first heard that director Rick Frankle planned to introduce a cooking program, and he intended to focus on Israeli food... let's just say I was skeptical. But the result just proves why Rick has been a successful camp director for so many years.

But everybody was excited about what was cleverly named the CulinAiry Arts program, and when camp staff met the Israelis who would serve as summer shlichim, they asked them all to speak to their moms and grandmothers to get favorite family recipes. Before the camp season began, Airy repurposed an old darkroom into a bright, spacious kitchen. Ovens, blenders and ingredients were ordered, and just about everything was set.

Which brings us to Chef Mike. At first glance, he's the last guy you'd expect to see heading up an Israeli cooking program at a Jewish camp: Chef Mike is a towering, broad-shouldered African-American man whose physical presence matches his booming voice. During the year, he runs the culinary program at one of Baltimore's tough urban high schools, and also teaches at a culinary school. Now, at Airy, he's decked out in his chef's whites and stands on the porch that leads to his summer kingdom, greeting each new arrival with a hearty handshake and friendly conversation. He keeps close tabs on how campers' votes are ranking favorite foods of the day -- and he's particularly keen in rallying votes for his hummus.

In the kitchen, Chef Mike is aided by two shlichim who heeded the request and brought their mother's recipes for shakshuka and more. A couple dozen boys gather around as Chef Mike introduces himself and the task at hand: He shares his own Israel story, telling everyone that before he became a chef he served in the US military. "I got to visit Haifa," he tells the campers, "and I got to taste Israeli food - and I love it!"

He shares snippets of what he's learned about Israel - "the State of Israel gained independence on May 14, 1948," he tells the boys - and he urges them to learn more on their own. Ask the shlichim while you're cooking, he suggests. And kids do it.

For the next hour, 25 boys buzz around the kitchen chopping tomatoes and cucumbers, cracking eggs, measuring olive oil, lugging ice for frozen lemon-mint slushies, and enjoying every moment of it. As they work, Chef Mike and the shlichim share stories about their lives, peppering the conversations with questions about Israel, camp and the boys' families. When it's time to move on to their next activities, the boys linger, savoring the food that fills their plates and hanging on to the waning conversations.

"The funny thing about this new program," says a staff member with a smile, "is that campers keep asking to join." As if on cue, the door opens and half a dozen boys rush in. Chef Mike hands them plates and invites them to partake.

Camp Airy has just completed its second year as part of the Goodman Camping Initiative for Modern Israel History – a joint program of the iCenter and the Foundation for Jewish Camp – and is immersed in ongoing efforts to weave Israel into all corners of the camp experience. The CulinAiry Arts program was supported through the Initiative's matching grant program, and it's just one example of how camps can create new opportunities for campers to experience Israel and gain insights into the country, its people and how they relate to it in their own lives.

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Carl Schrag is a journalist and educator whose passion for Israel infuses everything he does. A former Editor of The Jerusalem Post, Carl currently serves as Program Director of Write On for Israel, a competitive Israel education and advocacy training program for high schools students in Chicago.