Spring Training: Israel Education for Summer Camp – Blending Content with Context

By Steve Kerbel

Last week, the Center for Israel Education (CIE) in Atlanta, with the cooperation of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, led a three-day Israel learning retreat for 35 overnight and day camp staff most of them either in college or recent college graduates. Participants represented twelve US summer camps which were either unaffiliated or part of the URJ, Young Judea, and Ramah camping movements. The three-day workshop focused on enhancing one of the most successful Jewish education models, summer camp, with historical, fact-based content and state of the art informal education methods. A beneficial dual result from working with these students is that they will not only use the information gleaned from our time with them, but they will return to campuses where their information base can be used in asserting Israel’s story.

Camps were invited to send cohorts of up to five staff members, including a member of the camps’ senior leadership team. Core funding for the retreat [held at Camp Ramah Darom] came from a New York based foundation that supports facilitating Israel identity in Jewish environments. Content included origins of Jewish identity, peoplehood, Zionism, state-making, and contemporary issues. Time was devoted to implementing the content for camp experiential engagement. Each camp cohort spent time figuring out how their unique camp settings could infuse Israel into interactive, experiential educational programming.

“We’re mindful of the long time contributions of Israeli summer shlichim (emissaries) and that a lot of North American camps have long incorporated elements of Israeli life, lore and culture into their camp programming” said Steve Kerbel, camp project director for CIE. “This is about ramping up the content, to be more than an Israel Day or an Israeli Scouts fire sign. This is about giving the campers, through their staff, the important content about Israel that reaches far beyond front page headlines and news bites. This is about building historical foundations that provide innovative ideas for engaging campers. We did not shy away from focusing on questioning tough issues.”

Recounting her experience at the camp retreat, Elana Pollack, Program Director of Camp Judaea in Hendersonville, NC found the time a delightful interlude to what she normally does. “As a full-time camp program director and part-time religious school teacher, I spend most of my time in camp leading and setting up the discussions rather than participating in them. The seminar challenged me to think and respond in ways that I hadn’t in several years about topics that did not actually require my solution – oh how refreshing as the summer camp season is upon me! After allowing myself to sit on the student side of the classroom, and learning from the CIE staff and the the impressive, young participants, I now feel more properly positioned to encourage these exercises and conversations in camp.”

Emory Professor and CIE President Ken Stein noted that “Some participants wrote feverishly jotting down ideas from peers, others challenged their own perceptions of Israel’s story, and still others figured out through brisk exchanges how to apply content to their camp’s settings. As a teacher, watching each of them belong to Israel’s story in their unique ways, generated similar outcomes to what educators, teens, and clergy have experienced in previous Israel learning sessions with us. Common to all of them is understanding content in context. By asking poignant questions, most realized that is possible to concretize their attachments to Israel and still be critical where appropriate. It is all about substance and nuance.”

If you’re interested in having your camp participate in the program next summer or want to learn more about CIE’s Israel engagement work, contact Steve Kerbel at Steve@Israeled.org or visit the website, www.israeled.org

Steve Kerbel, an educational consultant in the Washington area, is the camp project director for the Center for Israel Education.