Hands-on, Hearts-on Jewish Learning: The Gift of Camp for Jewish Day Schools

Kate O'Brien

“Knowledge is fostered by curiosity; wisdom is fostered by awe.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who is Man?


According to the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s 2016 census, more than 80,000 children between first and twelfth grades attended 160 American Jewish overnight summer camps that year. Magic happens in the “bubble” that is Jewish summer camp. Campers’ curiosity is stoked by the campfire, in bunks with young, lively and earnest role models, on adventurous excursions, and during Shabbat experiences. Lifelong friendships are forged. Campers who are intentionally guided through Jewish events and experiences determine freely which essential elements of Judaism they will incorporate into their living and learning, both during the summer and long after.

The camp experience in nature, removed from the everyday, fosters the curiosity and awe about which Heschel writes. But what to do when campers return to school, without the mountain or the lake? And what of educators who also have spent the summer as directors of education, specialists and top-level administrators at Jewish summer camp? This small group of day school staff has a unique capacity to invite students into their own learning and to bring some of camp’s openness and experiential approach “off the mountain,” taking the rich, creative, mind-opening and soul-sustaining essence of Jewish summer camp and sharing that energy with willing partners in local year-round Jewish programs in JCCs, synagogues, congregational schools and day schools. In so doing, camp has the potential to provide guidance and inspiration to students and fellow teachers alike.

The goal of all Jewish education is to cultivate holistic hands-on, hearts-on learning experiences for our children that support their impetus to explore Judaism and to create a lifelong relationship with Jewish religious and/or cultural traditions. We have done our job well if they mature into young adults who make informed, authentic Jewish choices. By design, Jewish camp and day school provide two very different but complementary structures to achieve this goal. The unique structure of Jewish summer camp prioritizes fun, experiential engagement and freedom from everyday responsibilities. Camp relies on an intensive 24/7 peer experience away from home guided by role models who may be only a few years older than campers. These counselors come with a particular kind of Jewish and secular wisdom that opens campers’ eyes to a world of wonders in new ways.

Whereas camp is characterized by an intense, brief period of engagement, day school has all of the challenges and opportunities associated with a long engagement with students in their home environments. Students at Jewish day schools luxuriate in an abundance of time with teachers, peers and content in a context that regularly injects Jewish tradition and practice throughout the school day and the school year. Day schools have their own unique ways of building community, not only within grade levels, but also across the school through Jewish holidays, Jewish life experiences and a focus on developing Hebrew as a common language.

Yet while the settings differ significantly, Jewish day schools and camps are not mutually exclusive. Ideally, they are supportive of one another and are able to present families with options that meet their needs for encouraging and sustaining their children’s Jewish lives. On a basic level, both Jewish camps and day schools hope to inculcate a connection to and knowledge of Judaism in children. Both have a desire to build children’s character using a Jewish lens and Jewish language. Both also try to strike a balance between keva (set times for tefillah, celebration of sacred moments, adherence to a schedule) and kavannah (intention or mindfulness, teachable moments, coaxing inspiration and action). These points of intersection have the power to crack open the doors of Jewish day schools to let in the light and warmth of Jewish camp.

The process of bringing camp off the mountain means identifying possibilities for transmission and transformation from camp to day school. It emphasizes the liberating educational practices of camp. Collaborating on this effort, Jewish camps and day schools can together provide worthwhile Jewish education that trusts in children’s natural abilities to learn, feel and do new things alongside energetic and exciting role models who advance campers’ and students’ intellectual and social-emotional development. While many day schools invest in the affective elements of their programs, their primary purpose is content-driven, in both Judaics and general studies. Day schools are responsible for the ongoing educational lives of students. In addition, they are beholden to Common Core State Standards and the attendant high-stakes testing.

And yet this reality does not mandate a dry educational experience, nor is it at odds with the ethos of summer camp. Below are three recommendations for day school improvement based on the thoughts and experiences of professionals who occupy both realms of Jewish camp and day school: introducing or enhancing experiential learning, connecting day school and camp professionals, and creating near-peer opportunities for students’ engagement with Israel.

Experiential Learning

The design of Jewish summer camp immerses all children in a world of experiential education that fosters discovery of self and subject in a community of peers. As defined here, experiential education is rooted in Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship in which an educator and learner (counselor and camper, teacher and student) encounter each other as whole human beings. They co-create an active experience of a subject (such as tefillah, Torah or ropes course), reflect upon it and apply that learning to “real life.” Camp is expert at creating experiences that challenge, stimulate and engage children at their level and in their language among their peers. This does not mean dumbing down the curriculum or sacrificing rigor for fun. It means that Jewish education at camp is an organic part of campers’ waking lives—so organic that it is often slipped in while they are not looking.

Day school has great opportunities to make its learning more experiential by pushing activities beyond the classroom (kinetic events like field trips, taking advantage of nature, scavenger hunts and learning relays), connecting content to visual and creative arts, employing technology, and creating spaces for debate and writing. Essential to this project is hooking lessons to students’ prior and background knowledge. Equally important is connecting students with their peers for study and for fun. By engaging students’ senses and creating opportunities for play, students’ minds and bodies are opened to curiosity and wonder.

The key is making learning real by attuning ourselves to the lives and priorities of students and crafting units and lessons that reach them at that delicate point where ability meets challenge (Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development). Students want the answer to “So what? How does this affect my life?” From mathematics to Mishnah, day schools can answer this question effectively if open-minded teachers and administrators embrace experiential education not as another teaching tool, but as a way of being. The result is enlivened classrooms where students reflect upon and apply their learning to the world around them. This is how we create mensches. It is how we raise children beyond textbooks to become, in Heschel’s words, “text people.”

Connecting Educators

Rarely do day school teachers have the opportunity to learn in situ with their counterparts at a Jewish summer camp; likewise, few Jewish camp educators and leaders have had the chance to visit fellow teachers in their local day schools. However, some of the strongest levers for change are the day school teachers and leaders who straddle both worlds, working in both day school and camp. The benefits of this crossover experience for schools and students cannot be overstated.

Several of these people shared how significantly their own camp experiences as young people—including the direct impact of young counselors and other role models—influenced their decisions to become Jewish educators, in both settings. These educators, including teachers and administrators, related how deeply those experiences affected the type of educators they have become. These professionals have brought the best of their camp experiences to their day school lives and also have brought strengths of day school education (including content knowledge, deliberate planning and blended instruction) back up the mountain.

What would it look like if we created venues for ongoing learning among camp professionals and day school professionals? Perhaps this takes the form of a series of online seminars enhanced by an in-person gathering during a school vacation. Maybe it looks like Jewish summer camps inviting local day school staff to “shadow” the lead Jewish educator for a day or more. In return, camp educators would visit the same day schools to experience a “day in the life.” It could even be an online hevruta in which partners or small groups study a subject of mutual interest and discuss application to their respective settings, such as character education/mussar. The effect could be powerful: increased knowledge, respect and open exchange among professionals who have a tremendous impact on the Jewish future.

Engaging with Israel

Day school and Jewish camps share the critical mission of inspiring young people to live involved, meaningful lives. At the same time, both experience difficulties getting “off campus” to put learning into action. This is perhaps most evident in our teaching and learning about Israel. One of the great benefits of Jewish summer camp is the presence of Israeli shlichim. In general, campers benefit enormously from being under the care of young, relatable staff who are deeply invested in their learning and their enjoyment every day. Simply by virtue of being somewhat exotic, of having access to a valuable language and culture, and of being this kind of young, hip staff member, the shlichim have an enviable status in the eyes of most campers. As such, they make Israel come alive for children through music, discussions, games and more in a way that communicates joy and possibility. Campers are inspired to learn a bit of Hebrew and to try to understand a place that can seem distant and hard to understand.

One of the differentiating strength of day schools, in turn, is their ability to teach Hebrew intensively. For many campers, the two to seven weeks they spend at Jewish summer camp is their only experience of and only connection to Jewish life. For the majority of these families, Hebrew is not a priority. Even recognizing the various degrees to which Jewish camps embrace some Hebrew, and those that are attempting Hebrew immersion, camps by and large are not teaching Hebrew mastery. In contrast, part and parcel of most day schools’ mission is to graduate literate Jews who can navigate the many Jewish worlds available to them. What is lacking is that near-peer relationship with young Israelis that excites campers to learn about Hebrew and about Israel.

One possibility is bringing those shlichim off the mountain to work with as many age groups as possible in the day schools. Day schools and camps might identify collaborative opportunities for employing shlichim, or even using bnot sheirut who come to the US for their national service (e.g., working two months at camp, then working 10 months in day school). For example, several Jewish day schools in the Greater Toronto Area currently work with a cohort of 24 shinshinim (Israelis on a volunteer gap year) who spend the whole year in the day and supplementary schools and the summers at camps. Educators in these schools marvel at how much the children love working with the Israelis and how effectively the shinshinim are making Israel come alive for students, teachers, staff and families.

Another approach would be for day schools to take advantage of the camp counselors or older teens in their schools or communities who would be eager to work with younger children to excite them about Hebrew and Israel in similar ways. Such linkage between camp and day school would benefit day schools routinely challenged to find fluent Hebrew speakers. It also would stimulate a new kind of Israel education for students seeking real-world ties to connect them to this critical piece of their Jewish lives.

When firing on all cylinders with knowledge and wisdom, camps foster curiosity and awe in their camp leaders, staff and campers. The rarefied world of Jewish summer camp contains a kind of captivating energy that schools may often find elusive. While Jewish camps and day schools share some modalities, aims and goals, camps have much to offer day schools, particularly in terms of how they create points of entry to learning and how they make Jewish culture and wisdom fun and enduring. This hands-on, hearts-on legacy of camp can enrich day schools’ visions for their future and the future of their students. The Foundation for Jewish Camp is continuing to explore creative opportunities to bring camp off the mountain and to design educational environments for campers and education professionals that allow as many people as possible to access the magic of Jewish summer camp.

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