Being “Just Like Camp” is Not Enough: Renewing Jewish Learning Afterschool

by Rena Dorph, Ph.D.

DSCN5820Parent’s e-mail message: “This is all surprisingly more emotional for all of us than I could have imagined. For myself and each other parent that I’ve talked to, the topic of Jewish education really tugs at our heart strings and it’s hard to feel like we can do right by our kids and our pocket books and our commitments to school and other activities. ooph. I haven’t heard about any families where the kids are driving the want to be at something Jewish after-school. The kids seem to want to veg out at home or with their friends or be at a specific sport practice; and the parents are working so hard to set up a good Jewish learning and community experience; but it’s all so much effort in terms of encouraging kids and schlepping and paying for it that it exhausts us parents.”

Rena’s response: “Interestingly, it is exactly the trend that you are reflecting on that we set out to change. The kids in our program are often asking for more Edah. They are having a very positive experience that they connect with their Jewish selves. We are trying to turn the tide so that kids will drive the want … we’re looking for the sweet spot of will and skill. It may be only because of the types of Jewish learning experiences they had that the children you are referencing currently don’t have the will.”
(excerpt from an email exchange)

Research regarding the impact of Jewish education contextualizes this parent’s experience. Cohen (2006) notes that (1) some dosages of supplementary school (in particular the once-a-week format) may actually have a negative impact; and (2) participation in 3 informal educational experiences (including camp, youth group, and Israel) during one’s teen years actually surpasses the impact of day school.

Data like Cohen’s and others suggest that camp makes a difference for children’s short and long-term Jewish identity and commitment. Persistent discontent with the experience and outcomes offered by Jewish supplementary education has led to a barrage of educators calling for the “make religious/Hebrew school like camp” solution. “Hey, if we make supplementary Jewish education like camp then they’ll like that too, right?” When educators suggest this solution it is with the hope that we can make the afterschool setting as powerful as the best outcomes we’ve seen from Jewish camps. Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard the same compelling stories I have: the child who comes home from camp and tells her parents she’s keeping kosher; the young adult that marries within the faith because of a relationship that began at camp; or the camper who decides to become a Jewish leader because of an incredible counselor, teacher, role model she met at camp. Don’t we want that from our supplementary school education?

Sounds great! Yes? But, alas, it is too good to be true.
It’s time to change this conversation.

We must recognize the complexity of developing high quality afterschool learning experiences. Camp has a very different set of affordances than afterschool spaces. And, one of the most important of these features is that camps can be totally immersive experiences for extended periods of time (days, weeks, months). In fact, it is noticeable that this feature is also present in each of the types of experiences that Cohen et. al. (2006) mention (Israel trip, camp, youth group).

Afterschool experiences face several particular challenges. First and foremost, they are after school. Think about it from the child’s perspective. I’m 6, 8, 10 years old. I’ve sat (yes, mostly sat) quietly (yes, mostly quietly) in school for 5, 6+ hours already today. I’ve read, behaved, written, behaved, computed, behaved, discussed, behaved, self-regulated, behaved, focused, behaved already today for 5, 6+ hours. And did I mention that I’m not even allowed to lie down or touch anyone else during rug time at school. And I hardly get any recess and when I do I spend half the time trying to figure out who to play with today or waiting in line to play wall ball. Now its 2:30 or 3:30, bell rings, schools over. I’m HUNGRY. No, not hungry – I’m STARVING! It’s been at least 3 hours since I’ve eaten lunch – that cold floppy cheese sandwich someone packed me that I didn’t really like (gosh I’d trade my favorite toy if I was allowed to have peanut butter at school). And, I can’t believe there were carrots and apple slices in my lunch box, uh-gain! Even though I’ve made it very clear to my parents that I DON’T WANT ANYMORE CARROTS IN MY LUNCH! What do they think I am, a rabbit?

Does this sound like the frame of mind of a camper?

It is for this reason that many afterschool programs don’t even try to attempt any “serious” or “academic” learning. Supervised play, fun activities, homework help, clubs, enrichment, and sports are the usual suspects in afterschool offerings that are popular choices for parents. Further, I’ve seen several religious/Hebrew schools follow this path using the idea of “camp” or “experiential” learning to provide cover for substituting substantive Jewish learning experiences with decontextualized activities like gaga, planting a garden, and Shabbat-o-Grams.

So, how can we renew Jewish learning after school … yes, in particular, during the hours that happen after school? What role can the lessons learned from camp education as well as education in other contexts play in supporting this renewal? What can we learn from other afterschool programs that successfully meet “serious” learning goals (e.g. science, mathematics, arts, etc.)?

At Edah in Berkeley, California we are tackling this complex challenge head on with the generous support and wisdom of the Covenant Foundation, UpStart Bay Area, and both local and national advisors and donors. Edah’s mission is to inspire and engage children and their families through experiential, Hebrew-infused learning in order to nourish collective commitment to Jewish life and learning. We are guided by a central principle: authentic, immersive experiences provide powerful learning opportunities through which people create meaning, develop Jewish identity, build strong relationships, and nurture community. We marry features of camp that are known to be effective with powerful elements of other relevant learning spaces. It is in the intersection of these multiple spaces that we designed Edah.

edah programs diagramThe Edah model builds upon the best of several existing program structures as depicted to the right. Drawing on elements of several existing educational and enrichment structures, Edah is designed as a community of Jewish doing and learning. Edah builds on the existing structures and youth development goals of afterschool programs, the experiential, immersive, free-choice learning environments fostered at high quality Jewish summer camps, the commitment to daily Jewish learning and Jewish chevreh that characterize Jewish day schools, and the value of families learning and practicing together embodied in high quality family education programs. Edah meets daily, offering participants the option of as many contact hours for Jewish learning as available in day schools. Edah also meets for full days or weeks when school is out AND we also has an annual retreat – yes, a little bit of that camp magic!

Working within this framework, we developed Edah as a program for children in Kindergarten through 5th grade that would both offer amazing Jewish learning for children and their families AND provide a national model for extensive and intensive Jewish education. The following diagram summarizes the theory of action that underlies this program:

edah jewish learning diagram

The program is designed to include Jewish learning experiences that are: experiential, Hebrew-infused, immersive, learner-centered, and project based. These experiences will operationalize the concept of na’aseh v’ nishma – we will do and we will understand[1] – by providing participants and their families with opportunities for doing Jewish practice, learning Jewish content and values, and being Jewish.

Edah 3These opportunities support participants to become curious about, interested in, motivated towards, engaged in, and skillful in Jewish learning and practice. As a result, these participants develop both the will and skill to engage in Jewish living and learning and realize our program’s learner outcomes in age appropriate ways. These outcomes include: (1) positive Jewish identity; (2) knowledge of Hebrew, Jewish tradition, and values; and (3) capable of engaging in Jewish ritual and communal life.

We at Edah are not alone in the effort to reinvent Jewish learning experiences for children after school. The Edah pilot was conceived of and developed by a group of parent volunteers (of which I am one) who were seeking to create a new model of afterschool Jewish learning experiences. From its inception, the creators of Edah received requests to share their insights with other communities in North America. As a result, the leadership of Edah catalyzed and lead the Nitzan Network with the generous support of the Covenant Foundation. The purpose of the Nitzan Network is to support the renewal of Jewish learning after school.

Through this budding network, Edah leaders and Nitzan affiliates are actively engaging in changing the conversation about what it takes to renew Jewish learning after school.

Being “just like camp” is not enough.

[1] Na’aseh is translated as “we will do” and nishma is translated literally at “hear” but interpreted as understand. This biblical concept is very much in line with Edah’s constructivist pedagogy.

Rena Dorph, Ph.D. is Co-Founder of Edah (Berkeley, California) and Nitzan Network (North America) and also Director of The Research Group, University of California, Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science.

This article first appeared on JESNA’s InnovationXchange.