What is a “Camp-Like” Approach?: Bringing the Magic from Cabins to Classrooms

GUEST POST BY: Michelle Shapiro Abraham

Twenty years ago, I walked in to my first Religious School teaching job.  I had just finished an amazing summer as a camp counselor at URJ Camp Swig and was filled with ideas.  On that first day of school I covered the walls with giant posters of text, created a massive pair of sunglasses hanging from the ceiling, handed out black ray-ban knock-offs, and challenged my students to “wear their sunglasses at night” as they went on a scavenger hunt by flashlight to uncover how the Torah could “shine light” on their daily lives.   During that school year I would use every programming technique that I had learned at camp – basketball games with changed rules to explore Jewish leadership styles, group art work to imagine modernized Torah scrolls, and wrap-up discussions around fake camp fires.   My students enjoyed themselves and learned, as did I.  But in the end, I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing something.  Despite integrating the best informal and experiential education models that I knew, in the end it was just religious school.  A good year for everyone – but still just a better-than-average isolated year of supplemental education.

In my professional life now as a Jewish Camp Consultant I am often asked how to bring the magic of camp in to schools and synagogues.  Indeed, recent articles on ejewishphilanthropy.com, jesna.org, and other blog rolls suggest that this is a “hot topic.”  When people ask this question, they often share with me stories much like my own – stories of bringing in the best experiential programming, but still falling short of the life-impacting outcomes that they crave.   Despite bringing in the program, the “magic” is missing.

When we began the Foundation for Jewish Camp Specialty Camp Incubator, Adam Weiss (Cohort 1 Project Director) and I talked a lot about the magic of camp.  Indeed, we had a unique opportunity to work with camp directors to create new cultures and new camps.  To be successful, the Specialty Camps needed to intertwine high level specialty education with Jewish celebration and learning in a seamless synergistic relationship.   In order to support them in this task, we needed to break down, articulate and plan what was usually accepted as just the “magic” of the camp experience.

As we worked with the Incubator camps, we realized that there was a continuum of strategies at play. On one end of the continuum was what we came to call “Surface Strategies.”  Surface Strategies refer to the planned camp activities that campers and staff organize.  Activities that fall on this end of the continuum have overt goals and occur at a scheduled time of the day or week.  These activities can be isolated, one-shot programs, or “linked curriculum” with ongoing activities that occur regularly and seek to foster accumulated knowledge or developing skill.  When driven by outcomes and meaningful content, Surface Strategies can be powerful tools for building Jewish identity and knowledge.   They can and often do utilize the best of experiential education – they are active, learner centered, have opportunities for growth and challenge the campers.   These Surface Strategies are relatively easy to integrate in to synagogue settings and are often held up as the model when schools try to be “more like camp.”  Indeed, it is this type of programming that I introduced in my first classroom, and that many have referred to in their articles and blogs.

However, when we stop at Surface Strategies, we miss the other end of the continuum that camp people know is where the “real magic” lays – Embedded Strategies.    Activities on this end of the continuum are not on the daily schedule, but lie below the surface of camp and define the camp environment and experience.  When utilized with intentionality, like Surface Strategies, Embedded Strategies are powerful tools for forming identity.   Indeed, without them, camp loses its impact.  Strategies on this end of the continuum include intentional role modeling, relationship building, rituals, utilizing Jewish teachable moments, aspirational arcs and creating sacred spaces.    Making schools more like camp is not just about integrating experiential education techniques (though these are important), it is about wielding the power of Embedded Strategies and taking advantage of every asset camp offers, to create communities where Judaism is a living, vibrant reality.

At intentionally crafted camps, counselors are prepared not to just teach, but to create meaningful relationships with their campers and fellow staff members.  They are told the importance of getting to know the kids, and are encouraged to share their love and excitement for Judaism casually throughout the day.   Campers are told that camp is a place you make “life-long friends,” and the entire institution supports this goal.   Rituals are intentionally crafted to touch souls, and frame days and weeks.   The Dining Hall is the Chadar Ochel, and Hebrew becomes the “secret language” of camp.  Campers know that when they come back every year they will have more privileges and responsibilities, from later bedtimes to running Maccabiah.  Staff tell campers that they are “being a mensch,” and “showing kavod” when they help a friend, and everyone cries while they pack their bags and head home.  These Embedded Strategies don’t happen by chance – they are intentionally crafted, outcome focused, and reinforced in staff development and daily decisions.

If we truly hope to learn from camp how to create synagogues and school based education programs that impact lives, than we need to utilize the entire continuum of intentional strategies.   We need to go beyond just program, and ask ourselves questions such as:

  • Who do we hire to work in our congregations and schools and how do support them in building relationships, being role models, and sharing their own Jewish journeys?
  • What rituals do we craft that frame the experience and are impactful, relevant and engaging?
  • How do we foster a community that views Jewish learning and celebration as positive, meaningful, and on-going?
  • How do we build aspirational arcs where students and adults see the potential for growth with expanding learning opportunities, privileges and responsibilities?
  • What unique assets do schools and congregations have and how can we leverage these assets to impact Jewish identity building?

From Family Education tracks to hybrid Daycare/Hebrew Schools, new models of supplemental education are emerging across the Jewish world.  Though these new models and approaches are exciting and hold great potential – they are no more or less powerful than trees, lakes and cabins.   What creates “summers that last a lifetime” isn’t just the setting or program model.  Summers that last a lifetime are intentionally crafted below the surface, cultivating magic, interaction by interaction.

Ray-ban knock-offs, however, are always helpful.


Michelle Shapiro Abraham holds a Masters Degree in Jewish Education from the Rhea Hirsch School of Education – HUC.   She currently works as a Jewish Camp Consultant with individual camps and organizations including the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Jewish Teen Funders Network, Ramah and URJ.  In addition, Michelle serves as the part-time Director of Education at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, NJ.

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