Prompt: How does Hebrew at camp reflect larger issues about Hebrew literacy and education?

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Writer: Cheryl Magen

Wordle - CMagenOne of the greatest criticisms of Jewish supplemental education has been its failure to teach Hebrew as an active, living language. Instead, the importance of actual language acquisition was subsumed by a focus on acquiring “siddur-Hebrew,” which left students unable to use Hebrew to communicate. This sort of supplemental Hebrew education was generally tied into a short window of time that children were available to continue their education in much the same format as their public/private school education. It consisted of classrooms, teachers, books, lesson plans, homework and tests. Although this model proliferated for decades, the expanding world of experiential education has much to add to the way we view learning.

Experiential education in the form of camps, youth groups and the like, has been extremely successful in transmitting knowledge and creating deep connections to Jewish living. However, experiential education generally existed in parallel with more traditional supplemental education, with very little crossover between them.  Merging the two has value not just in strengthening one modality of education, but in strengthening the holistic and year-round approach to Jewish learning and living, resulting in a more symbiotic relationship than it has in the past.

With regard to mastering Hebrew language skills, the optimal approach is to merge the two seasons (school year and summer) in order to reinforce the acquisition of language. Language is acquired from an early age by immersion, environment, repetition, Total Physical Response (TPR)[1] and motivated need.

TPR is a language acquisition strategy that emphasizes on the coordination of language and physical movement. TPR’s goal is to mimic the way young children first learn language, in that early interactions between parents and children often often took the form of speech from the parent followed by a physical response from the child. Thus, in TPR, instructors give commands to students in the target language, and students respond with whole-body actions.

The method is an example of the comprehension approach to language teaching. Listening serves a dual purpose: it is both a means of understanding messages in the language being learned, and a means of learning the structure of the language itself. Grammar is not taught explicitly, but is induced from the language input.

Learning a language through traditional supplemental education curricula is, by comparison, much harder, because it comes from the outside in. Sitting down to learn a language through vocabulary, grammar, reading and testing is a much harder and less effective way to learn a language, although such activities are certainly important components of the educational process.

However, TPR can be effectively used in a supplemental education environment, to achieve positive results. For example, TPR can be used in synagogue schools, which often emphasize siddur literacy, by using it as part of the choreography of prayer. Standing up, sitting down, bowing from the knees or waist, twisting side to side, kissing your fingers to touch a sefer Torah are all examples of total physical response. If we teach the movements along with the words and/or music, the learning can be deepened and reinforced.

Language acquisition must be organic, systemic and holistic and focus on the acquisition of everyday linguistic rubrics that are natural to communication. From a young age, we are taking in all the language we hear and go through a “quiet period” until we are ready to say words and then put them together into short phrases and then into complete sentences. The people around us however, are not changing the way they speak; full sentences are being expressed, not just one word at a time, or even two or three words at a time. This exposure to natural language patterns is what helps us learn even before we, ourselves, are ready to be verbally expressive.

The AviChai Foundation granted the National Ramah Commission support for 5 years to increase active Hebrew language usage in all the Ramah camps (8 resident camps, 3 day camps) in North America. The resulting program, known as Daber, was instituted in 2009. Through Daber, we learned essential language acquisition strategies, all of which are more broadly applicable and could easily be translated for use in the supplemental school setting. Some highlight’s of Daber’s work thus far include:

  • · Trained a group of Fellows to speak, infuse and inspire Hebrew throughout the learning environment
  • · Used  תבניות – language patterns. Emphasize the use of phrases and patterns to engender Hebrew speaking and not just peppering a word here and there throughout a sentence
  • · Encouraged repetition in activities, games, songs, תפילה, play, eating, competition and everyday routine
  • · Trained staff in all aspects of the materials and methodologies so consistency was achieved
  • · Challenged participants to use the תבניות as they were presented
  • · Created male and female cartoon characters (Hani and Rami) that came to life and only spoke Hebrew
  • · Engaged a Hebrew specialist at each site to spearhead the program and coordinate content
  • · Enlisted others who were already Hebrew speakers to be דבר חברי and support the program.
  • · Shared best practices as the program was in progress
  • · Organized ongoing check-ins and troubleshooting with the staff

There are very few remaining “Hebrew-speaking” camps – places which promote and expect routine activities to be conducted in Hebrew.[2] In these remaining experiential learning laboratories, the emphasis has shifted from vocabulary words (single nouns) to whole phrases that can be used in a variety of settings. Instead of “It is time to go to the אגם , אוכל חדר, זריף “ filling in the one Hebrew word, the phrase, “_________ ל ללכת זמן.” allows the learner to master a phrase that can be repeated and used many times a day, rather than just the one word that is specific to a particular incidence. Even if you do not know the word in Hebrew for where you want to go, it is better to learn the תבנית first and then fill in the noun later.

Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927), a liberal Russian Jewish thinker and a leading Eastern European Jewish essayist, was one of the first to recognize the necessity of using Hebrew as a modern-day language to unite Jews all over the world.  The Daber program’s Hebrew work does just that – working to ensure that Jewish children in a number of environments can be united by the common bond of language.

The key to any initiative is buy-in and modeling from the senior staff of the organization as well as thorough staff training and ongoing support. If it is a priority for the senior management team and they are willing to learn alongside their participants, willing to make mistakes and be vulnerable, willing to have fun and laugh along the way, then language can be built into the environment in important and intentional ways. In order for educators and leaders to succeed, staff members need to be trained to understand what language acquisition principles are and what the core components for successful integration look like. Appendix A provides the “10 Commandments” of successful implementation of training techniques. When staff members across the board utilize the same approach, the consistency reinforces the way language is acquired.

Other helpful elements that reinforced Hebrew:

  • · Taught cheers and songs (ם’ למורא) that can be used and repeated in all aspects of the program
  • · Developed a culture of linguistic goals for each session, activity, and program. Everyone learns the same linguistic goal and uses it consistently. No new program or learning unit is introduced without the linguistic goal being at the center of the objectives
  • · Provided resource materials (In Hebrew and English) to educators on etymology and history of Hebrew words and phrases that would be interesting and inspiring
  • · ( ת’עבר של רגע) Prepared a דברון “newsletter” to be distributed twice a week in all camps. This included facts about Israel, sports, camp, trivia, puzzles etc. again emphasizing the phrases and patterns (see Appendix B)
  • · Created card games to teach linguistic patterns and reinforce other basic vocabulary (3-4-5 and רבעות)

In 2012, The Jewish Learning Venture in the Philadelphia area, requested that the Daber method be taught city-wide to teachers in supplemental schools to begin to infuse those schools with some of the principles that were successful in the camp setting. Several of the schools whose Directors of Education were committed to the goal of Hebrew infusion were successful in utilizing the Daber approach. Although these supplemental schools will always have the challenge of time constraints, Hebrew language is the basis for Jewish education and must remain high on the list of educational priorities. In the future, a partnering program for these supplemental schools could help to ensure greater access to the language-acquiring lessons that Daber has yielded thus far.


Cheryl MagenCheryl Magen is on the education staff at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, serves as the educational consultant to the Ramah camps and is Director of the Master’s in Camp Administration and Leadership at Touro University Nevada. The official prayer book of Camp Ramah in the Poconos is Siddur Lev Yisrael, authored by director emeritus Cheryl Magen.




[1]  TPR is based on Dr. James J Asher’s Total Physical Response.

[2] The Ramah camps along with the oldest group at Olin Sang Ruby Union institute (OSRUI), a URJ camp in Oconomowoc, WI, are some of the only camps (still operating) where Hebrew is expected to be spoken.


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