Hebrew Infusion and the Camp Experience for Parents

Courtesy: Foundation for Jewish Camp

By Sarah Bunin Benor

This week in a non-pandemic year, I would be driving up to the mountains to visit my middle daughter at Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa, dropping off my oldest at the bus for Ramah in California, and hugging my youngest as she goes through airport security to fly to Ramah in the Rockies. What I find myself missing most this year is not the clean, quiet house (although that is never far from my mind), but scouring for Hebrew words in the parent blog posts and photos from my children’s camps.

For the past eight years, my colleagues Jonathan Krasner and Sharon Avni and I have studied how Jewish summer camps use Hebrew. Our book Hebrew Infusion presents historical and contemporary analysis of what we found through camp visits, interviews, surveys, archival research, and outward-facing materials like websites and parent updates. Camp leaders infuse Hebrew words, signs, songs, and fun activities into the camp experience to create a rich local tradition and foster campers’ connections to Hebrew, Israel, Judaism, and the Jewish people.

We found sentences laced with Hebrew words – mostly nouns – in dozens of camps. At Solomon Schechter, an independent camp near Seattle, we heard, “Madrichim, madrichot [male and female counselors], you can pick up dessert for your tzrif [bunk].” At Hilltop, a Reform camp in California, a staff member announced, “We’re going to the teatron [theater] for Shabbat shiur [lesson].” We call this register “Camp Hebraized English.”

New campers quickly pick up their camp’s version of Camp Hebraized English, but parents sometimes feel left out. At Gilboa’s visitors day, I observed a presentation about education, where the young staff member used many untranslated Hebrew words, including tafkid (role), merakezet chinuch (education director), and madatz mifgash (CIT meeting). A father interjected: “I’m getting lost because of all the terminology, because I don’t know Hebrew.” This parent learned how ubiquitous Hebrew words are at his daughter’s camp, and the staff member was reminded that Hebrew infusion had created an insider camp language. After that, she could have filtered out the Hebrew words, but she chose instead to leave them in and translate them, emphasizing their importance while potentially reducing parents’ alienation.

Even when parents are not at camp, they are still exposed to Camp Hebraized English through camps’ regular written updates. With the permission of camp directors, we analyzed emails and blog posts from six camps: Beber (pluralistic, Wisconsin), Habonim Dror Galil (secular progressive Zionist, Pennsylvania), Ramah in the Poconos (Conservative, Pennsylvania), Modin (pluralistic, Maine), Yavneh (historically Hebraist, New Hampshire), and Bnei Akiva Moshava IO (Orthodox Zionist, Pennsylvania).

We found that Beber and Modin’s updates used far fewer Hebrew words, about 1% each, compared to 6-11% in the other four camps. Beber and Modin’s Hebrew was mostly Jewish life words – words used in other Jewish settings, such as bat mitzvah and Tisha b’Av. In Galil’s updates, most Hebrew words were specific to camp, such as toren (flag pole), shichva (age group), and peulot (activities). The Yavneh, Ramah, and Moshava updates had many instances of both types – Jewish life words and camp words. The differences were not surprising, as Galil is relatively secular, while the others feature more religious observance. And Beber and Modin compartmentalize Judaic and Israel content into specific times, while the other camps weave them throughout the camp experience.

To give an example of how the parent updates differ, here is an excerpt from Beber: “After a yummy spaghetti lunch and quiet rest hour, we had an incredible afternoon of hobbies and cabin activities… The campers were a great audience and loved seeing their staff get up on stage and display their talent” (underlines added). Had this sentence been included in the updates from Ramah, Galil, Yavneh, or Moshava, it would likely have included several Hebrew words, such as aruchat tzohorayim, menucha, chugim, peulot tzrif, chanichim, and tzevet, replacing the underlined words above.

As the camps offer parents a taste of daily activities (and camp lingo), they must decide how much to translate. Galil’s update used the most translation, such as “tiyul, a hiking trip” and “kvutsa (small, united community).” Beber’s update did not translate any of its Hebrew words, because – with the exception of the division name Ramot – they are all Jewish life words that would likely be familiar to parents.

As we can see in these parent updates, Hebrew is a common denominator in Jewish camps. At the same time, the updates display diverse versions of Camp Hebraized English, pointing to Hebrew as a differentiating factor across Jewish camps.

The updates also demonstrate the reach of camp Hebrew. Hebrew words, songs, signs, and activities are common at camp, but they also extend to camp’s outward-facing presentation. Hebrew infusion at camp reinforces the importance of Hebrew not only for campers and camp staff, but also for their families and the Jewish community more broadly.

I look forward to next year’s camp updates and visitors days, when our chanichim (campers) will – b’ezrat Hashem (with God’s help) – gather in person.

Sarah Bunin Benor is a Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and co-author of Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps. The research for Hebrew Infusion was sponsored by the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University.