Alumni From CYJ to CEO
Humans of Young Judaea Spotlight: Dan Elbaum
“Your name is Jacob Kotsis and you are a Greek Jew. You lost your entire family in the Holocaust. Tonight, you are going to sneak into Palestine.”
I was actually a fairly pampered 11-year-old and from a northern suburb of Chicago, but I nodded solemnly and took my little cardboard identity card.
I was at Camp Young Judaea-Midwest. My fellow campers and I were participating in an activity that would make Jewish history come alive. We hid in the mud from our “British” counselors’ patrol, we joined the Haganah, and we ended the day singing Hatikvah and dancing. As we returned to our cabins, we were a lot dirtier, a little smarter, but most importantly, we had had an amazing time.
Today, as the CEO of The Jewish Agency for Israel in North America, I am sometimes asked what inspired me to dedicate my professional life to the cause of building connections between Jews and Israel. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is more than one factor. Yet I do know that it was at Camp Young Judaea where Judaism and Zionism came alive for me for the first time in a way they had not before. Israel was no longer just a country that my parents talked about every night; it was exciting and fun, and I had a personal connection to it.
I often think about my time at CYJ as I work with my colleagues at The Jewish Agency to deepen the bonds that Jews feel to the state of Israel and each other. Through our many programs, including providing Shlichim (Israeli emissaries) who serve as counselors at CYJ and other camps, and immersive experiences, we touch over 1.2 million Jews a year.
The Jewish Agency is on the ground in over 60 countries finding innovative new ways to strengthen the relationships between Israelis and world Jewry, ensuring our shared heritage unites us and that the Jewish story continues. We also facilitate Aliyah, helping any Jew who wishes to move to Israel to do so while simultaneously working to ensure that Jews around the world are safe and secure in their home countries. We make sure there is no need for other Jacob Kotsises to try to sneak into Israel.
The work The Jewish Agency does is meaningful and makes a difference. But CYJ taught me that it must also be fun. I am incredibly grateful to CYJ for teaching me that lesson. And this summer my daughter will go to CYJ for the first time. I can’t wait to hear about her experiences and the lessons she learns there. I know they’ll have a huge impact on her too.
Dan Elbaum is a former CYJ Midwest camper (1986-89). He is currently the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Head of North America and President and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development (JAID).