Color War Isn't Just for Campers

Ayelet Margolin Lehtman

Anyone who’s ever attended a Jewish summer camp knows all about color war. Traditionally, it’s the highlight of an intense summer filled with spirit, camaraderie and shared experiences.


But does this exemplar of “informal” education have a place in the Jewish day school environment?


It does at Denver Jewish Day School. Since 1984, when they first introduced color war to upper division students, DJDS faculty and staff have found that providing a setting for social comfort, fun and belonging in a nonacademic environment only enhances what students learn in the classroom. Typically held in March, toward the end of the third quarter, the four day event creates a forum for engagement with Jewish content and ideas, mastery of academic knowledge and the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Though they begin planning the event as juniors, color war is organized and led by the school’s senior class, under faculty supervision. It is a true endeavor in leadership, collaboration and teamwork.

“We have always encouraged our students to stretch their horizons and become intentional participants in their own Jewish lives,” says Jerry Rotenberg, lead faculty supervisor for the event. “Particularly for those whose talents lie outside the classroom, shared experiences like color war provide students with alternative opportunities to thrive, take on leadership roles, and participate in a Jewish experience that appeals to them.”


Ultimately, the skills Denver Jewish Day School students gain through shared experiences like color war will benefit not just the school community, but the greater Jewish and world communities into which they graduate. The Jewish day school environment can often be an intense and competitive one; such experiences, which are critical both socially and emotionally, show kids how to support one another even as they compete. Students—especially those that lack confidence academically—learn that they can achieve in other ways, and the level of community-building is further enhanced by the variety of opportunities for success.


Generally, color war begins with an exciting “breakout” event. Those at DJDS have included a helicopter landing on the school's quadrangle with both team captains in tow, the local fire department leading a fake fire drill, and a salsa dance performance—all planned by the Senior class. During the four days of competition, 6th through 12th graders in two teams participate in a variety of events. More traditional challenges include tug-of-war, dodgeball and other sporting events that put a student’s athletic abilities to the test. Others like lip-sync competitions and art contents allow those whose passion lies in the arts to contribute to their team’s success. More unconventionally, Denver Jewish Day School places marked emphasis on the integration of academic subject matter into the competition through events like a quiz bowl in secular studies, Hebrew language and Judaics, science challenges, and “mathletics.”


While the competition primarily engages middle and upper schoolers, even 4th and 5th graders have an opportunity to participate in a limited capacity, whetting their appetite for further participation in later years. At night, a senior hosts the students on his or her team, providing the group with more opportunities for socialization (under adult supervision, of course). Despite the inherent risks of after-hours interaction, past experience has shown that the fellowship of color war generally leads to a respect of the school’s middot even at home.


“The intense ruach and camaraderie of color war creates a connection among students and the school community that would not otherwise exist here,” says Rotenberg. “The kids become passionate about something outside the sphere of their formal education, but are engaged within its context.”


The value in DJDS’s color war lies in the fact that, while it relies on the very best social elements of experiential education, it is unlike anything students will experience at summer camp. School color war means a shared experience with the classmates a student learns with 10 months out of the year. Day-to-day relationships are strengthened, as is the connection to the school. Color war at DJDS is a way for students to own their educational experience in unprecedented ways. Responsible for planning and executing the event, students take on genuine leadership roles, learning how to address issues that arise with creativity and ingenuity, supported by their adult supervisors. Older students accept responsibility for planning and development of the entire event schedule, and their decisions determine the nature of the experience for younger classmates.


With numerous competitions in a variety of subject matter areas, color war allows those with different skills to shine throughout the week. Color war is particularly beneficial for schools that lack drama, art or dance programs, as it provides opportunities for students who excel in the arts to showcase their skills. For teachers, color war provides a break in the schedule and allows them to expand their vision of what is possible, using new and innovative ways to reinforce the content they are charged with imparting throughout the year.


Color war benefits the school as well. It’s as important in building community within the school as it is in bringing new students to grow the school. Potential families who come to experience color war are often blown away by this unconventional learning opportunity. Students who may be considering leaving the school or debating whether to continue from the lower division to the upper division often make the decision to stay and continue at DJDS after participating in this unique educational experience. Alumni and parents, too, are invited to attend a special event on the final night. Generally, around 500 people attend, and the camaraderie and team spirit of the students infects alumni and parents as well. Alumni are reconnected with their alma mater, much as those at universities stay connected through sporting events, and parents enjoy seeing the joy on their children’s faces.


While at DJDS color war has blossomed into a much anticipated yearly event, other schools can start small and grow, shaping the event to fit their own culture. This activity traditionally associated with summer camp, when done right, goes a long way toward enhancing school spirit and students’ educational experience.

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HaYidion Athletics Winter 2015
Winter 2015