Camp and School: Context Matters

By Rabbi Joshua Rabin

I have never been comfortable with the question, “How we can make schools more like camp?” Yes, Jewish camps and other experiential programs are blessed with many elements that create holistic Jewish experiences leaving children with a warm feeling inside of them. However, camps are not bound by the parameters by which most schools operate, balancing the needs of general and Jewish studies in day schools, and trying to make Jewish education a priority amidst countless others in congregational schools. In truth, I find this question insulting to educators who do not work in camps, as it implies that educational institutions can only learn from camps, and that camps need not learn from anyone else.

Joseph Schwab writes that all educational experiences contain four “commonplaces”: the learner, the teacher, the subject matter, and the milieu (or context). When we think about how to use what is best about camps in schools, or vice versa, we cannot ignore the role that context plays in constructing an educational experience. For example, while a Jewish studies teacher at Schechter School and a staff member at USY or Camp Ramah might impart the same ideas about Shabbat to the same child, the context in which the child receives those ideas immeasurably impacts how the child interprets those ideas. By extension, when we are making the claim that schools need to become more like camp, we cannot forget that teaching Shabbat in a camp context is fundamentally different than teaching Shabbat in a school context. As educators, since we can identify strengths and weaknesses to teaching in each context, our task is to use the relative strength of each context to maximize the entirety of a child’s Jewish education.

As a result, rather than asking how school can become more like camp, we should ask how educators can teach one another how to use context to create robust educational experiences that are diverse and distinct. For example, a congregational school or day school will never be able to replicate the living and learning environment created at USY or Camp Ramah, yet experiential educators from USY or Camp Ramah are uniquely suited to help those schools see where their curriculum can offer more experiential opportunities for Jewish growth. At the same time, while a summer camp cannot develop the rigorous standards and benchmarks that should exist for a child who attends day school from kindergarten through grade twelve, day school educators can help educators in experiential settings see opportunities to create a more defined progression of skills, understandings and concepts to students each kinnus, each summer session, or each summer trip. No matter the subject, Jewish educators must see all the assets that each educational setting can bring to a person’s Jewish education, and then use the distinct advantages of each context to collaborate with other educators to maximize the potential of every Jewish educational institution.

Famously, my teacher Jack Wertheimer writes that we must “link the silos” to increase the impact of Jewish education. While Professor Wertheimer uses this term to outline the importance of creating connections between Jewish educational institutions, I would add that an equally important priority in Jewish education must be “tearing down the silos” of assuming that one style of education belongs in camp, another in school, another in synagogue, and so on. The more we highlight the unique strengths found in each educational context, the more educators will feel challenged to maximize the effectiveness of every Jewish educational experience, and allow different institutions to impact Jewish learners in many and varied ways.

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