It Turns Out, You Really Can Learn Hebrew at Camp

Hebrew at campBy Alex Pomson and Vardit Ringvald

Our two organizations – Rosov Consulting and Middlebury College – have been involved in studying an initiative that is at a point of inflection, on the brink of transitioning from start-up to scale. We have had the opportunity to document and evaluate, from the time of its birth – really, since its conception – the Areivim Hebrew at Camp Initiative. With the initiative moving to a second stage of development, developing a co-brand with the Foundation for Jewish Camp, this a timely moment to share some of what we have learned.

The goal of the Hebrew at Camp Initiative is to create a movement of Hebrew immersive and partially-immersive Jewish day camp programs where pre- and elementary-school-age children can experience, learn and enjoy modern spoken Hebrew utilizing the Proficiency Approach, a gold standard in language education. The concept is this: young children spend their summer at Jewish day camp; their ability to communicate in Hebrew develops dramatically, they develop a positive connection to Israel, and they have as much fun as their fellow-campers.

The Proficiency Approach is widely seen as the most efficient framework for the acquisition of a learned language in settings in which the contact hours are relatively limited. By adopting the notion of performance as a core principle, the Proficiency Approach focuses on learners’ abilities in the target language by concentrating on what the learners know about the language. Consequentially the approach supports the teaching and the learning of language in contexts where it has meaning (where the focus is on what scholars call “the pragmatics” of the language). This focus is what helps learners internalize the language. It is not about what they know about the language but on what the CAN DO with the language.

Five years ago, ahead of the Initiative’s start, the concept of a Hebrew Proficiency based day camp program seemed outlandish. When we conducted a thorough investigation of Hebrew at Jewish camps before the Initiative’s launch, we found a general lack of investment in Hebrew in the day camp sector. In the overnight sector, most camps related to Hebrew in positive but largely symbolic fashion, as a report has recently confirmed. Few children returned from camp having learned Hebrew such that they could communicate in any sensible way. Decades after what some recall as a golden age of Hebrew-speaking overnight camps, just a few institutions soldiered on. We found one camp where Hebrew was widely spoken, but only in the present-tense. In others, certain staff were specifically tasked with infusing Hebrew into camp but that Hebrew consisted mainly of nouns. In many camps, staff made announcements in Hebrew that campers then asked their counselors to translate.

Launched by a group of philanthropists with a passion for Hebrew and a belief in the language as a key to both Jewish and Israel engagement, the Initiative confronted some tough questions at its start. Having identified special promise in the Jewish day camp sector, with more than 100,000 campers estimated to enroll every year, what would the Proficiency Approach look like in a day-camp setting when until now it had only been employed in all-day schools? Could the Approach really deliver sustainable progress in Hebrew over eight weeks of camp? Who would staff the programs so that the experience would be qualitatively different from previous efforts to bring Hebrew to camp? Would enough parents sign up to cover the additional costs of running the program?

The Initiative started with 19 participants in one camp, in 2012. This past summer, 220 campers took part at seven camps: Camp Ramah at Nyack, and six JCCs day camps. Next summer several additional JCCs are expected to come on board.

Over these past four years were have learned that day camps are peculiarly fertile places in which young people can develop both proficiency in Hebrew and a love of the Hebrew language. Just as the funders had dreamed, at camp it is possible to learn Hebrew in a fun-filled way while employing the language as part of everyday life. And, exceeding all expectations, once the program has run for a couple of years in a setting, it enables camp-providers to grow their markets.

Specifically, here are some learnings:

This is a camp program: It turns out that the Proficiency Approach may be ideally suited to camp. The approach is not based on a specific curriculum but on using Hebrew in the course of living daily life, and daily camp life is invariably varied, including meals, song, shiurim, swim, arts, play – all of the elements of the typical day camp. There is no need to tailor a curriculum to camp; the curriculum is camp life as it being experienced.

Language gains: Even in camps that serve a great diversity of families and where Hebrew is not an integral part of the camp culture, the experience produces language gains among children and high levels of satisfaction among parents. Regardless of their proficiency levels at the start of camp, the great majority of campers have demonstrated at least modest levels of language gain, if not more. Most noteworthy, returning campers who are not exposed to Hebrew during the year since the previous summer take about two weeks to catch up with where they were at the end of the last summer, and then they move forward.

There is a market: The initiative has found a patch of Blue Ocean. With families increasingly exploring specialty camp options for their children, the Hebrew at Camp program has caught the edge of a wave. Typically, it doesn’t seem that way at first. In Years I and II in a new site, enough parents have to take the plunge. Once they do, they then relish the fact that their children are having fun at camp; they’re actually surprised by how much their children enjoy camp, even when quite young, while communicating only in Hebrew. More than 70% of families are re-registering for the next year, a leading indicator of camper satisfaction in a competitive market.

Strong staff exist: A coordinated strategy of staff recruitment through a partnership with The Jewish Agency is producing an emerging cadre of trained staff from Israel, sometimes paired with local Hebrew-proficient counselors, who develop the kinds of warm relationships with campers that are the hallmark of positive camp experiences, even when communicating entirely in Hebrew. A recruitment system now exists for bringing ever greater numbers of young Israelis to camp for these purposes.

A positive halo effect: Although the Areivim Hebrew at Camp model is designed to create a discrete specialized track within a larger camp, once the program is established, it sets in motion a positive dynamic across the whole camp. The program produces a spillover effect that transforms Israeli cultural presence at camp. In some cases, the programs more than double the number of Israeli staff at camp who interact with their colleagues beyond the program. The program has been an effective means to intensifying the Jewish culture of camps.

As researchers, it is rare that we get to witness and explore the emergence of genuinely new models for Jewish education. The Hebrew at Camp initiative is one such genuinely new educational proposition.

Alex Pomson is Managing Director at Rosov Consulting.
Vardit Ringvald is Director of School of Hebrew, CV Starr Research Professor of Languages and Linguistics at Middlebury College.