Setting: Camp Ramah in California
Time: Nightfall, mid-summer
Each year a haunting melody ignites a distinctly familiar tingle; the feeling is a clashing mix of sorrow and serenity. This melody is invoked just a couple times each year – between renditions of Avinu Malkeinu, Oseh Shalom, and Eli Eli – to tell a story of mourning. It sweeps through the outdoor chapel in which I sit with over 800 people for whom I care deeply, and bounces off the flashlights and paper-bag lanterns that dot the aisles. We sit on the ground, inevitably damp, and are carried into a day during which we ponder the destructive nature of sinat chinam (senseless hatred) and commit instead to tikkun olam (repair of the world). The melody is imprinted on my soul, along with the important messages of the holiday. It is Tisha b’Av, the annual day during which we recall a few distinct tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. …and I’m willing to bet that “camp Jews” are amongst the only non-Orthodox in North America who can tell you about it.
For 18 straight summers I had the honor of working at a Jewish summer camp. Camp is where I came to embrace my professional journey in Jewish education. When I was a 19-year old counselor a supervisor referred to me as a “Jewish educator,” and I almost fell over. Jewish educators were the day school teachers who called my parents to report that I was misbehaving in class. Jewish educators were the Hebrew high school teachers who tried in vain to teach me the definition of a shoresh and who marked me down for the incorrect conjugation of verbs in hefeel (still haven’t figure that one out). How could this supervisor possibly mistake me for one of “them”? I was a camp counselor! I organized relay races, broke up fights, hosted camp fires, and told bedtime stories. I also taught kids the prayers of the Shachrit service, explained and modeled the customs of Shabbat, got my campers excited to lead birkat ha’mazon, and figured out clever ways to sneak Hebrew words into our spirited cheers. My camp had a very clear mission to engage kids in the ritual of prayer, the use of Hebrew, the observance of Shabbat, acts of tikkun olam, and a commitment to Israel. I realized that my bluff had been called, and that like it or not I was indeed a Jewish educator.
I doubt I will ever find a job as fulfilling as directing a Jewish camp. In thxc at setting my audience was pretty captive. Kids enjoyed their independence from the pressures at home, made lifelong friendships, and really got into the groove of Jewish living. I was lucky to work with some of the most creative, passionate Jewish educators who – literally – worked from dawn through dusk to create a safe, vibrant Jewish educational community. I had it easy, despite episodes of homesickness, challenges of bullying, anxious parents, and some pretty nasty outbreaks of illness (the 2009 season affectionately became known as “Swine ‘09” due to a norovirus/swine flu epidemic). My campers and staff were hungry for the Jewish learning and living that the summer provided.
Between summers I spent a lot of time visiting the synagogues, Hebrew schools, and day schools which the kids in my catchment area attended for purposes of recruitment. This also provided a great opportunity to connect with respected colleagues and to see my kids in their year round settings. Visits to the Hebrew schools grew increasingly discouraging over time. While these schools were run by some fantastic educators, the cards seemed to be stacked against them. The regularity of class time diminished, advancements in technology and customer service presented wholly new expectations from children and their families that seemed unconquerable, and trends in individual and family identity widened the diversity of the children in a way that made it hard to establish common ground. These challenges diluted the quality of these schools and made substantive learning nearly impossible.
I began to feel “guilty” that I had it so easy at camp and felt that I was falling short in two specifics ways. First, it seemed that my fellow camp directors and I had an opportunity to extend the power of the summer experience to keep our campers and staff engaged in Jewish learning throughout the year with a similar amount of ruach. If (most) kids love camp, why restrict its magic to the summer – especially at a point in time where social networks and technology, the ease of travel, and the power of imagination are tools to bridge distances and convert almost any idea into reality. I completely missed the boat when my phone calls to these schools focused solely on scheduling a recruitment visit, instead of a conversation about how we could work together to engage Jewish families.
Second, I felt that we camp educators had a responsibility to study our approach to Jewish education with the goal of identifying those techniques that can be applied to other settings of education in order to achieve similarly powerful results. In short, how could we help take the best that Jewish camp has to offer through our experiential approach to education and leverage it in year round settings?
Jewish camps with a serious commitment to a fun-filled education yield results that look similar to what Hebrew schools aim to achieve. Studies have shown an association between camp and a commitment to lifelong Jewish practice, support of Israel, synagogue/community involvement, and Jewish leadership (Keysar & Kosmin, 2004) (Sales, 2011). Anecdotally, I am motivated by experiences like the one with Tisha b’Av. Ask a camper or staff member who has observed Tisha b’Av a couple of times at camp to tell you about this holiday. Okay, so the first response you’ll get is likely: “That’s the day when we can’t eat, archery is cancelled, and we have to pray more.” Press them, and they will tell you about the reading of Eicha, the rituals of sitting on the ground and refraining from joyous music, the destruction of the Temple, and the importance of fighting sinat chinam. This seems like a learning outcome that any respectable Jewish educator dreams of achieving.
One primary reason for successes like Tisha b’Av is the staff members who work at camps like Ramah. From the trained professional Jewish educators who serve as directors and lead programmers to the emerging adults who serve as counselors – camp staff eat, live, and breathe experiential education. They get what it means to facilitate these experiences, they know how to set serious learning objectives using techniques that are active and fun, they honor the importance of community and friendship in the equation, they are emotional and spirited, and they blend Judaism into daily living in a way that is (Kress, 2013). Most of them are summer-only staff members, and we must ask how more can be recruited, trained, and empowered to translate their work from camp to schools.
It was incredibly hard to leave the camp world in pursuit of new professional challenges, but I am excited to be part of a team at The Jewish Theological Seminary who are committed to supporting the educators who are entrusted to steward congregational learning. Currently we are trying to reframe the approach in these schools to one that is more camp-like, or experiential, in nature. While I work with some truly awesome colleagues at JTS, we know that the best ideas for how to reframe our approach will come from the practitioners in the field who run and teach in these schools and/or who work at camp. Through our ReFrame initiative we will work with a broad scope of education leaders to more explicitly integrate the universal attributes of experiential Jewish education into congregational settings. We are bring a diverse set of stakeholders to the table so that what occurs in congregations will connect with other experiences through which families might navigate. Social media and online platforms will allow us to connect with anyone interested in this endeavor, and we will also seek out certain school to serve as sites for action-research where we can design, pilot, and learn from new models.
Dr. Zachary Lasker is Director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education for The Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously he served as Camp Director for Camp Ramah in California. Zach holds a doctorate in education leadership from the University of California at Los Angeles and a Masters in Education from the American Jewish University.
Cohen, S. M., & Kotler-Berkowitz, L. (2004). The Impact of Childhood Jewish Education on Adults’ Jewish Identity. Jerusalem: Hebrew University.
Keysar, A., & Kosmin, B. (2004). Research Findings on the Impact of Camp Ramah. New York: National Ramah Commission.
Kress, J. (2013). ReFrame White Paper: What is Experiential Jewish Education? New York: JTS.
Sales, A. (2011). Limud by the Lake Revisited. New York: Avi Chai Foundation.