By Elan Kramer, Communications Manager
Cultural exchange provides an opportunity both for Americans to be educated about foreign countries and customs, and for people from around the world to learn more about America and to acquire American values to transmit back home. Kutz provides a unique opportunity for youth to engage in important and educational cultural exchange. Through our Israeli visiting faculty we build essential ties between the American and Israeli Jewish communities that strengthen ties between these strategic allies and establish life-long interpersonal bonds. Additionally, Kutz employs several other international staff members that foster a connection between North American Jews and Progressive Jews throughout the rest of the world. The Kutz Camp’s international staff not only has a positive experience with America, but also helps to ensure that participants learn about different cultures overseas. In order to bring international staff to camp, Kutz relies upon the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program. J-1 visas are nonimmigrant visas for foreign citizens approved to participate in exchange visitor programs throughout the United States.
Not only are J-1 visas important to Kutz; but also, they are essential to the running of all 13, soon to be 14, URJ camps across North America. The Union for Reform Judaism is the designated State Department sponsor for 300 camp-counselor visas every summer for international counselors. Collectively, Jewish camps bring approximately 1500 international counselors to North America every summer. This is a substantial number even if it’s only a small portion of the approximately 25,000 camp counselor visas issued by the State Department every year in total. URJ camps also use contracting companies to hire over 200 other international staff members who contribute to the camp community in vital support staff capacities. Without all of its international employees, the URJ would not be able to provide the same caliber of programming and experience for its campers, who come to camp to learn essential skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.
Currently, the senate is voting on a bill that would change the nature and procedure of granting J-1 visas. Ultimately, if ratified, this bill would drastically raise the cost of bringing international staff to camps across the country. While the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, or the RAC, supports changes to the J-1 visa program that would help reduce abuses and mistreatment of exchange visitors, the RAC believes that the immigration reform bill currently in the Senate has provisions that could be harmful to URJ camps’ abilities to bring in foreign staff. While the bill includes many comprehensive solutions to the broken immigration system that the Reform Movement is championing, it has come to the RAC’s attention that some provisions related to J-1 visa holders could detrimentally affect all 13, soon to be 14, URJ camps across North America. These proposed changes would affect both our Israeli (the “shlichim”) and non-Israeli foreign counselors and other international staff, including specialists, maintenance staff, kitchen staff and more.
The staff members of the URJ Kutz Camp decided to take action and speak up for the numerous international employees at Jewish camps across the country. Kutz is unique to all other URJ camps in the fact that it has staff and participants from all over North America and the world. Together, the Kutz staff was able to reach out and call 44 senators, urging them to support amendments, sponsored by Senator King (I-ME) and Senator Johnson (R-WI), which would fix the J-1 visa problem and add in important protections. The Kutz staff explained to senators that the proposed legislation might have a direct impact on the international staff visas that Kutz is a sponsor of and the summer work travel visas that many staffing companies use to bring support staff to Kutz.