A More Accurate Analogy? Thinking About Synagogues, not Schools, and Camps

by Jeffrey S. Kress, PhD

It seems that the idea of making supplemental schools more “camp-like” has gained even more momentum over the past year. In that time, I have engaged in many conversations with practitioners and researchers who shared my mix of hopefulness and skepticism about the idea. The hopefulness often springs from the freedom to think creatively about education while at the same time maintaining a developmental-growth framework to inform new initiatives. Skepticism, on the other hand, often emerges from pointing out the ways in which schools were not like camps (camps being seen as voluntary, having more contact hours, etc.).

I have come to wonder about the camp:school analogy, specifically in the instance of overnight camps and congregationally-based schools, as being flawed on a more fundamental level. The comparison of apples to oranges in this case has to do with comparing a part to a whole. Overnight camps are multifaceted settings that encompass many aspects of youth experience. They can be seen as a “whole” made up of many component parts, a well-bounded organizational system. While congregational schools may also have many components (classes, trips, etc.) they are, by definition, a “part” of the greater whole of the congregation; it is an organizational subsystem. I believe this unbalanced comparison leads us to begin the “congregational-school-like-camp” conversation at the wrong point.

In the bounded system of a camp, or at least in our hyper idealized image of it, all subcomponents of the organization (the formal education program, but also the sports program, swimming, dining, etc.) are geared to maximize the growth – socially, emotionally, Jewishly – of the youth participating therein. Starting our discussion with a comparison to the congregational school already assumes that the Jewish growth of youth will be relegated to only one part of the synagogue. The reverse analogy would be to imagine that Jewish education only happens during the times at camp designated as “class” or “learning group,” a notion regarded as heretical by camp professionals. Rather, camp becomes a holistic learning environment because of coordination of a variety of elements to suit the developmental needs of campers. Drawing the analogy to a congregational school implies that there is a designated place, time, and subset of personnel with primary responsibility for youth outcomes. There is a danger, to put it bluntly, of letting the rest of the congregation off the hook in terms of youth development.

It is tempting to hone in on the real and significant differences between congregations and camp and abandon attempts to learn from the camp context. However, we might also benefit from switching the parameters of the discussion. Rather than asking how a piece of one organization can be like the entirety of another organization – “how can congregational schools be more like camps” – a better question may be “how can congregations be more like camps?”

A Voice for Youth

At camp, there is no question that the developmental interests of youth are accounted for. What should the curfew be for counselors? Should we hire non-Jews to work as kitchen staff? Sports staff? Bunk counselors? Should we change the clocks to “camp time?” Decision making around these issues is complex and certainly frought with compromises having to do with finances, multiple constituents, logistics, and such. However, the campers’ voice is strongly represented. While the same is likely to be true for the subsytem of the congregational school, it is less clear how the voice of the youth is represented in the decision making of the broader organization. When should services start? When should they end? What spaces are used for youth programming? How do hiring practices – again, beyond the school – reflect staff competence with and enthusiasm for youth work? It stands to reason that making changes for the betterment of youth will require the enfranchisement of this group. Some synagogues may consider including members of the youth community on committees or even on the board (at least in an advisory capacity). Another model would be for each synagogue committee to have a member designated as youth-gadfly, tasked with the responsibility of repeatedly asking how any given decision or policy would impact the youth community of the synagogue. At camp, it is acknowledged that everyone – from the bunk counselor to the van driver – has the potential to impact, positively or negatively, the Jewish experience of youth. A lesson we learn from the congregation:camp analogy is that everyone – those in the office as well as on the bimah – must see themselves as part of educational team.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation

It is sometimes said that through providing the experience of living in a Jewish community, camp provides the skills and/or motivation for campers to participate in “real” Jewish communities back home. While this may be true, it is certainly the case that through providing the experience of living in the camp’s Jewish community, camp provides the skills and/or motivation to continue to participate in the camp’s Jewish community year after year. Each age group is excited to step into the shoes of those ahead of it. Age-appropriate “real” Jewish opportunities are planned at each level. This year, campers learn to sing X, Y, and Z prayers, next year they get to help lead those prayers, while learning a bunch of new ones. This process, which psychologists and anthropologists refer to as legitimate peripheral participation, is similar to an apprenticeship and is a modality of initiating members into a community. Learners take on increasingly complex roles and responsibilities, moving in an incremental way from the periphery of the community to the center. In many synagogues, however, it often seems that the expectation is for youth to remain at the periphery until they land, fully formed and ready to lead, at their bar or bat mitzvah, taking on the yolk of responsibility for a set of communal responsibilities that has been, for all intents and purposes, opaque up to that point. At camp, there are many ways to be meaningfully involved in the community. Those who do not excel in their Judaica studies or Hebrew (for those camps for which this is a focus), those who sleepwalk through prayer and mouth the words to birkat hamazon – all have the opportunity to be stars elsewhere. At camp, the gardeners, artists, jocks, and thespians are celebrated, even when the “Jewish” connection of their activity is tangential at best. To me, this is perhaps the most complicated issue for congregational schools to tackle, and I welcome posted comments and input about this (and anything else, of course): When we demand that our congregational schools promote “synagogue skills” or tools for Jewish participation, have we narrowed the parameters so far as to exclude many who have much to give to the community?


Noted Community Psychologist Seymour Sarason proposed a thought experiment involving an extraterrestrial visitor, which I adapt here to our discussion: Imagine that a friendly but naïve traveler from another planet dropped by to observe your congregation. What would this visitor infer about the place of youth and the centrality of youth development? What are the spaces that seem to serve youth best? Worst? What times during the week seem to provide a rich experience? A weak experience? Such an inventory may provide a productive starting point for discussion. Thinking holistically about creating positive settings for youth may mean taking youth education into account even in venues often excluded from the discussion.

There is clearly far more complexity to the issue than discussed here. For example, we might wonder about how parents can be brought into this discussion as a way of expanding the systemic reach of the congregation. And, there are questions about how congregations balance the needs of multiple constituencies. However, a fundamental principle of many successful, large scale interventions for positive youth development is that focusing only “improving” the youth and their most proximal educational settings is insufficient. Head Start, for example, is about far more than just good pre-schools. Successful models are holistic, or, to use a developmental term, “ecological,” encompassing as many aspects of a child’s experience as possible. Making synagogue schools more like camp is too low a bar. Having the congregational rabbi “on board” (a term I have often heard used to indicate the tacit support of a rabbi for new initiatives in the school) is insufficient. The question of how to make synagogue school more like camp already sets us up for communal failure. The answer – however complex it might be – relates to making our synagogues more welcoming to youth, and in developing the types of authentic and diverse rituals that allow all youth to become meaningful parts of a community

Jeffrey S. Kress, PhD is Associate Professor of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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  1. says

    Jeff Kress, you know I am a fan of yours!

    I appreciate the tweaking of the camp:school analogy so that it is camp:shul. You offer great questions resulting from that revision.

    I think my big takeaway question is, in your words, looking at our institutions, “What would [a] visitor infer about the place of youth and the centrality of youth development?” You offer camp as a great model of how the interests of children are evident throughout the system. We could extend the question beyond the synagogue and look at our Jewish community at large. The city of Reggio Emilia, Italy, offers an example of how to make visible the centrality of children in society, as the city features children’s creations in galleries, the central theater, and other public galleries.

    In Rabbi Sacks’ words this week: “For us as Jews [having children is] the most sacred responsibility there is… For four thousand years our people… saw education as the conversation between the generations: ‘You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home or travel on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.’”

    Thanks for the insightful piece!

  2. says


    Your article is so very “on point.” In congregations, we tell the kids that they are becoming or have become adults in the eyes of Judaism, but we don’t afford them opportunities to do adult things or participate in more complex ways. Like camp, adults can participate in congregational life in ways that are comfortable to them. Don’t attend services? Fine, you can be a member of the Brotherhood. Don’t want to do community service? Fine, you can come to adult education programs. We are accepting of all the different ways adults participate in Jewish life, yet we seem to be unable to give our youth these same choices. In a camp setting, kids are encouraged to try new things, not forced. If a camper wants to do arts and crafts all summer, that’s okay. You are correct when you say that congregations should be more like camp. I never really thought about it this way before, but it makes an incredible amount of sense.

    Gloria Becker, EdD
    Director, Learning Technologies
    Jewish Learning Venture

  3. Shalom Orzach says

    Thanks Jeff for this extremely insightful piece. I suggest a different paradigm for the discussion which I think is implicit in your remarks. As opposed to asking how we make schools and Synagogues more like camp, I would challenge us to ask how do we make camp more like Schools and Synagogues. I say this as a huge fan of camps and with immense respect and awe for what they achieve. However the need is to develop a holistic model that generates paths for continued inspired Jewish engagement throughout the year and within all the frameworks in which our youth will learn and grow. I believe we must challenge all of our institiutions to demonstrate and celebrate their excellence. This dialogue as opposed to a monologue will generate far more meaningful conversations not only enabling the sharing of best practices in a collaborative mode but also a joint sense of responsibility for the on-going compelling Jewish experiences the community as a whole must provide .

    Shalom Orzach is the Avi Chai Foundation Project Director and Director of Education in the Shlichut and Israel Fellows Unit of the Jewish Agency.

  4. Susan Klingman says

    In response to: “at camp, the gardeners, artists, jocks, and thespians are celebrated, even when the “Jewish” connection of their activity is tangential at best. To me, this is perhaps the most complicated issue for congregational schools to tackle….” Rather than defining so much as Jewish and not-Jewish, using broader definitions of what is “Jewish” is a start. I disagree that gardeners, artists, jocks, and thespians are connected tangentially at best, and firmly believe it is the leadership’s job to help identify and honor those connections and create bridges between everything in life and applicable Jewish themes, values, teachings, and ideals. What’s “Jewish” can be incoporated into all life, rather than being a separate thing from our “other” activities and pursuits. e.g. gardening is about nature, the environment, and our world; athletics can take care of our bodies and also be about how we treat others; art can be both spiritually uplifting and perhaps Divinely inspired, etc., and there are Jewish teachings that can help people appreciate and navigate all of it.

    Susan Klingman
    Creative Liturgist and Communications Consultant

  5. says


    I’d be interested in learning more about how camp should be like school/synagogue. As a kid at Jewish overnight camp, if camp were more like my synagogue, I wouldn’t have gone back for a second summer. Granted, I’m fifty and my camp days are behind me and the separation between camp and congregation was wider, but even so. What about synagogue/school life would you like more of in a camp setting?


  6. says

    Jeff, Great article. Spot on in terms of the limitations of the camp/synagogue school analogy. Yesterday, I had been reviewing some of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s work in human ecology theory of which I know you are a student. Bronfenbrenner, a co-founder of Head Start (as to your example above) suggests “child development research is better informed when institutional policies encourage studies within natural settings and theory finds greater practical application when contextually relevant.” What prompted this review was considering The Covenant Foundation’s investment in youth and families. Brilliant minds have come before us and tackled the same problems we are tackling today. The shell may look different but the essence is the same. There is work being done now to update Bronfenbrenner’s theories for the 21st century, particularly as it relates to the ecology of the family in our digital age. It will be interesting to see what becomes of this new investment as it moves out through the ether. You create a compelling argument that reminds us to reach back to what we know to be true about the basic elements of ecological systems theory (also know as development in context or human ecology theory) when considering approaches to youth, family and community engagement. Thanks so much for putting your thoughts out there for us to consider and respond to here. Joni

    Joni Blinderman
    Associate Director
    The Covenant Foundation

  7. says

    I just want to make one substitution in this essay, that every time Dr. Kress mentions “youth” we change it to “Jews”. Camp may be a model community for youth, but synagogues must be a model community for Jews; All of them. Our adults, more often than not, are no more advanced than the youth when it comes to Judaism and Jewish education. We train our children at camp to take on adult roles in the Jewish community but the adults are not able to take on adult roles. If camp is a holistic environment for teaching Judaism, we need that same environment for adults as well.
    Synagogues have, for too long, only been a place where children learn. Our Adult learning is a very, very poor stepchild in the education program at a synagogue. At Camp Ramah, there is a worldview that every person in camp has to be learning. The same needs to apply in a synagogue. When the youth see Jewish education as something adults do, they will look forward to the day that they too can participate with the adults at the “grown up” table (or to keep the camp analogy, the “staff” table)
    Now that would be an analogy that would really move Judaism forward.

  8. Shalom Orzach says

    Gloria thanks for your comments and questions,

    The conversation must address what ought to be and not just what is. A couple of examples. Can the compelling visions and missions driving and shaping schools be as explicit in camps? Can the inspirational leadership and strong sense of community of Synagogue life enhance how we create community at camp? How can the continuous nature of school and Synagogue year round provide new ways of designing and utilizing camp? There are many more examples and I invite additional ideas to this exciting discussion. I believe that our conversations and as such our methodologies will be richer if we challenge one another to share best practices, that challange should inspire all to feel a sense of pride if not obligation to truly excell and share what they do.

  9. Eli Kornreich says

    Interesting to me is the depth to which the point here is taken, and the limits thereof. I agree with the notion if looking at “whole” and “part” and that it is important to see them as such. Where I think the analogy falls short, is that Synagogue is still in the realm of “part,” in comparison to the “whole” of camp life.

    Trying to position Synagogues as a “whole”and or fully immersing experience, as compared to camp, sets one up for failure unless one is an employee or extremely dedicated volunteer if said Synagogue.

    Looking to incorporate numerous connection points for youth in their larger Jewish community, including the Synagogue as one of them, seems to me a better parallel to the camp analogy approach.

  10. says


    I can see the point you are trying to make, but I also see it the other way around. The mission of camp was always very explicit. I was a camper at URJ Camp Harlam for several summers and returned for many years as an adult faculty member. Everyone at camp bought into the mission. We lived it, breathed it, ate it, and dreamed about it. Everyone knew what was expected of them. Camp acknowledged that it wasn’t the right fit for everyone, kids or adults.

    Synagogues, on the other hand, may have a mission, but often, there is not the total buy-in like at camp. To hold on to members, congregations try to be something to everyone and they aren’t really interested in helping members decide if the relationship is a good fit. Can you imagine what would happen if we walked into a main-stream, suburban congregation and said, “Everyone is expected to learn. This is a requirement of membership. If this isn’t a good fit for you, there are plenty of other congregations who do things differently.”

    I’d love to find a congregation that has that kind of explicit mission and provides the opportunities to fulfill the mission for the entire range of participants. I’ve yet to find it.

  11. says

    Of course there are synagogues that have a mission and have everyone buy into it, just like camp. And there are more of them all the time. The synagogues who are in trouble are the ones who are trying to do everything for everyone and they end up making everyone miserable, including the Rabbi and Staff. You will see more and more synagogues who are mission driven and while being open to everyone, will have more expectations on the membership than just paying dues. After all Synagogues are not fund raising institutions, we are religious institutions first. Those who don’t buy into the style of worship and the learning/programming, will either go elsewhere or not go at all and buy their Judaism a la cart.

  12. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom All,

    Gloria wrote: “I’d love to find a congregation that has that kind of explicit mission and provides the opportunities to fulfill the mission for the entire range of participants. I’ve yet to find it.”

    Shim’on ben Zoma asks and answers, “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” Pirke Avot 4:1

    The megachurches below (among others I could cite) are measurably successful examples of what you’re looking for. Sadly the Jewish world has yet to even try to find out why/how this is so AND actually apply and implement the resultant learnings.

    Check out Willow Creek Community Church in So. Barrington IL, Northpoint Ministries in Alpharetta, GA, Sasddleback Chuch in Lake Forest, CA, and Lifechurch.tv in Edmunds, OK.