By Rabbi Tom Cohen, founding rabbi of the French-American synagogue of Paris, Kehilat Gesher, and an OSRUI faculty alum.
The terrorist attacks in Paris last January suggested to some French Jews that they try to find a safer haven elsewhere. For many others, however, these traumas have only reinforced the desire to continue building a proud Liberal Jewish community in France that is faithful to the prophetic dream of being a light unto the nations.
Even before that tragedy, in 2014, my wife and I had established a Jewish summer camp. Its seeds were planted many years earlier at URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), the Union for Reform Judaism’s camp in Oconomowoc, WI.
In her youth, my wife Rabbi Pauline Bebe spent a joyful and memorable summer at OSRUI. Upon her return home to Paris, she dreamt that one day she would be able to share that experience with other French teenagers.
Years later at a URJ Biennial, Pauline reconnected with OSRUI’s longtime director, Jerry Kaye. That encounter rejuvenated her dream.
For several summers thereafter, Pauline and I brought French kids to OSRUI to immerse them in the Jewish camping experience. Then, in 2014, we established MahaNetzer, a contraction of the Hebrew words mahane (camp) and netzer (sprout, shoot, or branch). The name of our camp also plays on the fact that Netzer is the name used for Reform Jewish youth groups in countries outside of North America.
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