Mission Possible: Strengthening Congregational Schools through a “Camp-Like” Approach

by Dr. Zachary Lasker

For 18 summers straight I had the pleasure of working in a Jewish summer camp where I sat at an epicenter for Jewish living and learning. From that seat I got to work with a lucky slice of the Jewish population who attended camp. Encouragement came from the studies of Jewish camp by great researchers such as Steven Cohen, Ariela Keysar, Barry Kosmin, Amy Sales and Leonard Saxe who demonstrate an inspiring association between the camp experience and a positive Jewish identity and commitment to Jewish living and learning. In my current work at The Jewish Theological Seminary I have the opportunity to serve the full spectrum of settings in which Jewish education occurs, and face the reality that most children enrolled in a program of Jewish learning are in congregational (or other non-immersive) schools.

My work in camp was emotionally fulfilling in a way that I suspect will remain unparalleled. In that setting my audience was pretty captive (no pun intended). Kids enjoyed their independence from the pressures at home, made lifelong friends, and really got into the groove of Jewish living. I was lucky to work with creative, passionate Jewish educators who – literally – worked from dawn thru dusk to create a safe, vibrant Jewish community. I had it easy, despite episodes of homesickness, bullying, and some pretty nasty outbreaks of illness (the 2009 season was affectionately nicknamed “Swine ‘09” due to a norovirus/swine flu epidemic). My campers and staff were hungry for the Jewish learning and living that the summer provided. As a counselor I organized relay races, built and performed at camp fires, and told bedtime stories. However, many Jewish camps also serve as settings for serious Jewish education. As a Jewish camp counselor, I taught kids the prayers of the Shachrit service, explained and modeled the customs of Shabbat, figured out clever ways to infuse our spirited cheers with Hebrew words, organized tikkun olam projects, and helped my campers form relationships and learn from Israeli staff who joined us each summer.

A review of mission statements and curricular priorities for our congregational schools is strikingly similar to many Jewish camps. Professionals in both settings aim to cultivate a positive Jewish identity, form chevretot of friends, instill some combination of practices/skills/values, and secure kids as lifers in Jewish learning and living. While our schools are run by some fantastic educators, the cards seem to be stacking against them. The regularity of class time is diminishing, advancements in technology and customer service present wholly new expectations that seem unconquerable, trends in youth development and family identity have widened the diversity of children in a way that makes it hard to establish common ground without the luxury of a residential environment. These challenges dilute the quality of our schools and make substantive learning nearly impossible.

Towards the end of my tenure at camp I began to feel rather guilty. First, it seemed that my fellow camp directors and I had an opportunity to extend the power of the summer experience to keep our campers and staff engaged in Jewish learning throughout the year with a similar amount of ruach. If (most) kids love camp, why restrict its magic to the summer – especially at a point in time where social networks and technology, the ease of travel, and the power of imagination are tools to bridge distances and convert almost any idea into reality. Second, I felt a responsibility to study our approach to Jewish education in camp with the goal of identifying those techniques that could be applied to other settings of education with similar objectives. In short, how could we help take the best that Jewish camp has to offer and leverage it in year round settings of education?

Mission: To extract techniques in Jewish education that are effective in settings such as camp and Israel programs and apply them to schools.

This is not a new idea, and there have been a lot of recent attempts to try out “camp-like” approaches in congregational school. A year ago Dr. Jeffrey Kress, a respected colleague at JTS’s William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS, published an excellent article titled “So You Want Your School to Be More Like Camp?” Dr. Kress is one of the pre-eminent thinkers in experiential Jewish education, and while he applauds the spirit of these efforts, he raises some important questions about how schools might become more camp-like. I share Dr. Kress’s concerns, especially when I hear about models that rest on shifting classes to a chugim (elective) model as “the answer.” While it might be a lot of fun for kids to take a Jewish cooking class, I’m not convinced that 60 minutes of stirring egg noodles, cottage cheese, and apricots into a kugel really achieves our goals. Nor does it truly reflect the attributes of experiential Jewish education.

Attempts to “make school more like camp” call for a mindful reframe of schools to be more experiential in nature. This will have implications for teaching and learning, and will yield exciting ideas for how educators are prepared and for how curriculum is developed. The Davidson School at JTS is committed to this reframe. Not only will we draw on our expertise in experiential Jewish education, but it is critical that we engage the voices of our partners in a variety of educational settings – including congregational schools and camps – to steward this process forward.

Take a look our video “Camp + Hebrew School at the Drawing Board” and let us know what you think!

Dr. Zachary Lasker is Director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at the William Davidson School of Education for The Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously he served as Camp Director for Camp Ramah in California. Zach holds a doctorate in education leadership from the University of California at Los Angeles and a Masters in Education from the American Jewish University.