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.