After Year of Service in Milwaukee, Omri Bitan is Going Home...to Camp

June 4, 2018

These days, you might find Omri Bitan connecting with students in a classroom at Gan Ami Early Childhood Education, bringing energy and heart to a Jewish community event, or breezing through the halls of the JCC between his many responsibilities. He’ll give you a warm smile and a sincere greeting, embodying just what we hope a Shin-Shin in our community will be.

The Hebrew letters Shin-Shin stand for Shenat Shirut, translating to “a year of service” and titling the emissary program organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel in partnership with the Israel Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and other partner agencies including the JCC. As Shin-Shinim, Omri Bitan and Amit Glass have spent this year working in the community, sharing a bit of Israel everywhere they go.

Come summer, you’ll find Omri and Amit at the Steve and Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken JCC, Omri not for the first time. Actually, this will be Omri’s sixth summer with camp. In a delightful and unprecedented story, Omri has found his way from Israel to Interlaken, and Interlaken to Milwaukee.

Omri’s father always loved the idea of sending his children to a summer camp in the US. “My father didn’t grow up with much,” Omri says. “He tried to make our lives as interesting as possible.” In 2011, he did his research and chose to send Omri and his younger brother from the small village Lehavim to Camp Interlaken. He remembers every detail of that summer, from the homesick tears peppering his first week to the exciting beginning of friendships that stand strong to this day. He remembers thinking, “There’s no way I’m not spending all my life here.”

Over the subsequent years, Omri fell in love with the camp tradition of super-energized Friday night Israeli dancing, “even though we don’t dance like that ever in Israel,” he laughs. “It’s my thing.” He feels especially connected to the community through Havdalah, which camp spends lakeside under starlight, singing peaceful prayers to conclude Shabbat. Omri’s open heart and deep appreciation for Interlaken formed him into an excellent Ozo, meaning “helper” or staff-in-training, in 2016. That summer, he became close with the 2015-2016 Shin-Shinim, Omer and Orni, who introduced the possibility of spending a year in Milwaukee.

Omri feels that he has been especially impacted by camp, being from Israel. “There’s nothing like [camp] in Israel I think. I see the world in a much different way than my friends. I’m much more open-minded.” He reflects quietly for a brief moment, eyes bright, and adds, “Things seem much more possible and much more accessible. I feel like anywhere I go in the US, I have someone.”

Interlaken has shaped Omri’s life, and now Omri will continue to shape Interlaken. When it comes to bringing Israel to camp, he explains, “I have been an emissary of Israel all these years, it’s just formal now, it’s the same.” He pauses and adds, “I have more support now, maybe that’s what’s different.” Omri and his Shin-Shin counterpart Amit want to open conversations with campers and dig a little deeper, helping them “find their connection to Israel and figure out how we can make it better at camp.”

As Omri talks about this summer, he adopts a bittersweet expression. Mingling with the immense excitement of being a counselor is a touch of sadness, because in August, Omri will move back to Israel to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. This will mean an absence of at least a few years from camp, so he is determined to make the most out of this summer. He says it will be “closing the circle, because I grew up as a camper and came back as an Ozo. I have the opportunity to give back and do more.”

The circle continues, and Interlaken will always have an open door for Omri in approaching stages of life. It is heartening how he began as a nervous camper from a small village in Israel and grew into a prominent young leader in the Milwaukee Jewish community. This spark has ignited immeasurable connections to Israel, winding new stories in individual lives impacted by his presence here. Omri’s impression on Milwaukee will last, inspiring us to build bridges with Israel, act with the kindness and integrity that he carries, and go all-out for Israeli dancing every Shabbat.