Seeing Clearly With Double Vision

by Robert Lichtman

Why do children learn in parallel rows in the winter and in circles in the summer?

The parallel rows are the desks in the day schools. We can demonstrate what day school students learn about the history of our people, Hebrew language and literature, Torah, Israel, holidays, Jewish Peoplehood, culture and folklore.

The circles are the depressions in the grass left by thousands of Jewish tushies that sit around camp fires, song leaders or story tellers in Jewish overnight camps. We can demonstrate that campers enjoy celebrating the Jewish experiences of Shabbat, music, dance, community-building, Zionism, and nature.

The American Jewish community has developed two brilliant but bifurcated models for nurturing Jewish identity, for invigorating Western Jewish minds, for inspiring Jewish spirit, and for growing Jewish citizens. Where is it written that the way we teach should be determined by the temperature? Both systems work exceptionally well separately. Can they work better together?

Day schools have been moving to increase informal or experiential learning opportunities. Student Activities directors are common on their faculties. Camps are also more cognizant of the educational power that counselors possess. Avi Chai and the Foundation for Jewish Camp are among those who understand the potential that has yet to unfold there. Here in MetroWest, NJ, we can point to one example of infiltration between school and camp. The Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School and Bnei Akiva’s Camp Moshava are developing a springtime retreat for the high school students at the camp focusing on Zionism and incorporating experiential activities related to Jewish identity, continuity and Peoplehood.

Here’s another opportunity: As students move from one grade to the next, 5th grade teachers meet with 4th grade teachers to review each learner as they transition to a new stage. Well, if any of those children attend Jewish overnight camps in the summer between 4th and 5th grades, and with Jewish overnight camps demonstrating educational power, should not the camps also consult with the 4th grade teacher about the children coming their way? Should not the 5th grade teacher also inquire with the camp about what the children headed for her classroom learned over the summer? Or does the learning that takes place during the dozens of days, hundreds of hours, thousands of experiences, not count towards the ongoing Jewish identity development of these children? Here in MetroWest we have raised that question among our schools and with the camps involved in our Jewish Camp Enterprise, and we are bringing willing partners together to experiment in “following the learner” as she moves from school to camp to school to camp.

These two examples of infiltration create synergies that yield deeper and better educational results as well as more confident, successful learners. They provide greater value and better outcomes for the same dollar invested by the learner.

What if we were to move beyond infiltration to integration of day school and overnight camp? Machanayim (literally, two/double/split encampments) is our imaginary program that operates 12 months a year and contains modules of experiential learning and formal instruction varying in duration and location. Students will go to camp in December. They will learn Algebra in July. And just as the temperature should not determine the educational methodology, neither should the environment. Some students will learn science in the camp environment. Other students will learn music in the academic venue. The lines between school and camp, between formal and informal will become blurry in order to allow the concepts and the content that define actual learning, especially Jewish learning, to become clear.

Undoubtedly, the logistical and political challenges to this vision are huge. And even if we get past these, there are other questions: Will this model save money through efficiencies of joint administration? Will there be increased value in utilizing real estate year round? Will there be greater return on personal and public investment in teacher preparation for a new cadre of professionals attracted to 12 month employment? Can families save money by purchasing school and camp in this integrated package? I really don’t know. But in the spirit of sharing an idea in the “ought to be considered” category that may lead to more effective Jewish learning and more vibrant communal life, here are some of the benefits that make this style of Jewish education accessible and attractive:

It tears down the wall that separates “Jewish life” from “life.” Things the rabbi says = Jewish life. Passover Seder = Jewish life. Family vacation to Israel = Jewish life. Cheating on a test; is that non-Jewish life? Doesn’t Jewish law inform me about that? What causes to volunteer for; is that non-Jewish life? Can Jewish history inform that decision? Blending experiences at camp and school will blur not only academic and experiential lines; they will also diminish the mindless distinctions made between Jewish life and “the rest of life.” A learner at Machanayim sees the “Jewish” in every aspect of life because he lives it all year long. He is not looking at life through a Jewish “lens.” Glasses can be knocked off; contacts can be removed. He is looking at life through Jewish eyeballs. Academically and experientially, theoretically and practically, his vision is the same. It’s Jewish and he can’t turn it off.

It creates a new paradigm of “Jewish educator.” Initially the faculty at Machanayim is drawn from academic and experiential disciplines, and they guide each other in introducing styles of teaching that complement their formal training. Academic educators learn how to bring Jewish learning to life: that is, how to enliven a lesson. Informal educators learn how to bring Jewish learning to life: that is, how to enrich activities with educational content. Over time institutions that prepare Jewish educators will produce graduates in the Machanayim style, educators who can move seamlessly from text to context, from script to life. They will be producing such graduates because increasingly, learners and institutions will demand these educators who succeed in making Judaism relevant and meaningful to learners. These new blended educators are role models who represent an integrated and holistic approach to life (not only “Jewish” life) infused with Jewish knowledge, values and purpose.

It gets ahead of the curve in specialty camping. Camp professionals are planning to meet growing demand for camp sessions of shorter duration and/or more specific focus. It will not be unusual in just a few years for campers to attend two or more programs of two or three weeks each summer. Basketball camp may be followed by a social action camp. Music camp may be followed by a science camp. This is already the culture on the west coast. As long as customers are moving this way, the camps will follow. Why spend a whole summer in isolated two and three week fragments? These shorter, focused experiences will be integrated thematically at Machanayim into a year-round educational plan based on learner interest.

It creates a real opportunity for life-long learning. This is the greatest benefit of all. Campgrounds provide a safe space for families to live and learn together for days or weeks at a time. The camp environment is accessible to parents who may feel intimidated or awkward around the expectation of Jewish knowledge beyond their own. With the right guidance of Machanayim educators who work with families on site, and who are available to support families all year long, young learners will see that their parents value, pursue and enjoy Jewish learning. A child who experiences this adventure periodically with his parents is imbued not only with Jewish content knowledge, but with a powerful parental example of the interest to seek that knowledge on his own all his life. Day school plus camps can easily cost a family $200,000 or more per child. The additional communal investment per child is also enormous. If that cumulative learning peaks and then starts to dissipate at age 18, what a waste – on every level imaginable. But if it continues to grow on its own based on a holistic year round experience buttressed by parental involvement… that is an investment worth making.

Machanayim may not save money. It may even cost more. Don’t be fooled; you can’t get more with less. But if Machanayim yields a better return for the life of the learner, the life of her family and the life of our community, it’s worth it.

Robert Lichtman is the Executive Director of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the Jewish identity-building organization in MetroWest, NJ with a mission to Bring Jewish Learning to Life.

This post is from the series Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times.