Kayitz Kef: Summers of Fun. A Lifetime of Hebrew.

By Shira Ravin

Nine Jewish day camps across the country are running a unique Hebrew program known as Kayitz Kef. Supported by The Areivim Philanthropic Group, in collaboration with Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), ”Kayitz Kef” represents the fun process campers experience during summer camp as they acquire Hebrew without even noticing.

The program was created as a pilot at Camp Ramah in Nyack, NY in 2013 – with the guidance of Prof. Vardit Ringvald, currently Director of the School of Hebrew at Middlebury College in Vermont – to bring a new approach to support the Hebrew acquisition among youth in informal educational experiences at Jewish summer camps. The approach is premised on acquiring rather than learning. Kayitz Kef camps use Hebrew for communication between campers and staff, and encourage its use among the campers and in certain camp-wide settings. Thus, experiences campers will remember for a lifetime happen in an authentic, cultural, and meaningful Hebrew environment. As campers enjoy the second language acquisition, they are motivated to communicate and function in Hebrew in a short period of time (4-8 weeks in the summer), and in a very natural and fun way.

These are just some of the strategies that comprise the Proficiency Approach to second language acquisition, which the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) endorses as the gold standard in foreign language instruction. For Kayitz Kef, native Hebrew speakers serve as Project Leaders and receive training by FJC in this Approach and in different methodologies to engage campers in Hebrew acquisition. Counselors also are native Hebrew speakers who undergo a training process designed to maximize the opportunity for campers to interact and connect with the counselors’ authentic “Israeliness” –  all while they implement the Hebrew proficiency approach throughout camp life.

We’re only in the fifth summer of the program but, the results are promising. Here’s some of what we’ve learned from an independent evaluation:

Language Gains Among Children: The immersion program, based on the proficiency approach, provide Campers with the best opportunity to maximize their language acquisition experience.

Deep Connection to Israel and Israelis: Campers interact with charismatic Israeli role models in an authentic and engaging way, creating a strong emotional connection that is not achieved to the same degree when Israeli counselors are speaking to children primarily in English.

Transformed Perceptions of Hebrew among Parents: Parents learn that it is possible for their children to have fun while learning Hebrew. Some parents even become inspired to learn Hebrew themselves.

Halo Effect: The ongoing presence of campers and counselors speaking Hebrew intensifies an Israeli cultural presence and engagement with Hebrew for adults and campers throughout the camp.

Jewish Content Area for JCCs: For Kayitz Kef programs taking place at JCCs, camps welcome contemporary Hebrew culture and Israeli educators as a means to build a sense of Jewish Peoplehood beyond religious belief or practice.

Summer to Summer Language Gains: Returning campers show that they recoup their language gains from the previous summer within less than three weeks, providing them with at least four to five weeks to build higher levels of proficiency.

The rhythms and routines of camp include such a broad range of life experiences – communal meals, study, play and (in some contexts) worship – that experiencing these moments in Hebrew provides for a genuinely unique, rich initiation into the language. Although each camp runs as a separate unit within one of the successful nine day camps, the camps in the program all enjoy the support from FJC, which provides ongoing support to camp staff before and during the summer, and helps them create a program that fits their individual camp and community. In fact, we’re seeing that participating in Kayitz Kef helps camps reach a new pool of families in their communities, and that Hebrew becomes a connection for families to Israel, to their Jewish identity, and to their culture.

But the program doesn’t just work because of the talented camp staff and native-Hebrew speakers – as critical as they are. A key part of the programs structure, and early success, is that it leverages existing assets. In other words, this “specialty camp” approach does not rely on the creation of new institutions. Rather, Kayitz Kef is designed specifically to work within institutions that are already appreciated for their camp programs and that have great potential for national penetration. The strong reputations, camper-pools, and human resources of such institutions are a critical foundation, as camps recruit new personnel especially suited to the purposes of these new programs.

Finally, as anyone in the camp world (or almost any other youth engagement effort) knows, parental buy-in to any new program is integral to its success and future potential. Evaluation by Rosov Consulting shows that parents are overwhelmingly pleased with the program. Parents report that their child had fun, developed greater self- confidence, learned and improved their Hebrew skills. They also indicate that their child speaks more Hebrew at home than he/she did before and is now more enthusiastic about learning Hebrew. As one parent noted:

I can tell she now has an ear for Hebrew. She was in a museum the other day and two Israelis walked by, and she stopped to listen. It wasn’t day school Hebrew they were speaking. I see in her, developmentally, that she has a nicer, solidified ear for it. She doesn’t need to switch gears when transitioning to Hebrew.

With summer in full swing, we’re excited about the continued growth of the program and its potential for long-lasting, deep impact on participants, their families, and the Jewish community. As we say at Kayitz Kef: Summers of Fun. A Lifetime of Hebrew.

Shira Ravin is the Hebrew Director for Kayitz Kef at Foundation for Jewish Camp. Kayitz Kef is supported by The Areivim Philanthropic Group, a unique consortium of major North American philanthropists committed to developing and supporting transformational projects which are meant to significantly impact the next generation of Jews through formal and experiential Jewish, Hebrew, and Israel education. National funding for Kayitz Kef is also provided by The William Davidson Foundation, The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, The AVI CHAI Foundation and the Marcus Foundation.