Camp lets Guatemalans experience Jewish life

MUNSTER | Four teens from Guatemala are experiencing Jewish traditions and life in America’s Midwest during summer camp at the Jewish Federation of Northwest Indiana.

Rebeca Orantes, 13, and her 14-year-old brother, Ismael, arrived from Guatemala City on July 5 along with Mario Valdez, 14, and his brother, Isaac, 16. Each is staying with a host family until the camp ends in late July.

Michael Steinberg, the Jewish Federation’s executive director, invited the teens to the JCY Day Camp after a visit to Guatemala.

Born Christians in a predominantly Roman Catholic nation, the teens and their families converted to Judaism and founded Casa Hillel, a fledgling Jewish community in Guatemala City. Although Guatemala has other Jewish communities that were started by émigrés from Europe, those who convert to Judaism experience isolation, said Pablo Orantes, the teens’ chaperon and brother of two campers.

“There are about 1,000 Jews in Guatemala. Other communities are not as open,” Pablo Orantes said. “There’s a cautiousness.”

However, he said, attending a camp sponsored by a Jewish organization gives the Orantes and Valdez children “an opportunity to meet other kids and learn about their similarities. They’re forming bonds.”

Steinberg said it can be difficult being Jewish in Latin America, but the four teens are having “religious and Jewish cultural experiences” at the camp. The teens said they were immediately accepted by their fellow campers.

“Children are children, wherever they’re from,” Steinberg said.

The 70 children at the day camp range in age from 5 to 12 and come from all over Northwest Indiana.

Isaac Valdez, who stands about 6 feet tall, said he especially enjoys basketball games. Mario Valdez became a new “big brother” for the 8-year-old son of his host family. Ismael Orantes said his favorite activities are “eating and learning English,” while Rebeca said “socialization” has been the highlight of her experiences.

“We have a sense of belonging that we thank everyone so much for,” she said.

During a recent dinner, the teens met members of the Tsofim, the scouting organization in Israel. The 17-year-old Israeli scouts performed at the Jewish Federation’s center and at the Family Christian Center during their two-day visit.

“We were super interested in meeting the Jewish scouts,” Pablo Orantes said.

“One of them spoke Spanish, and he gave the children wristbands in the colors of the Jewish flag.”

The four Guatemalan students also each received a flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol by a representative of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.

“This is such an honor,” Pablo Orantes said. “We feel so good knowing these people have such an interest in us.”

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