New Report Offers Unprecedented Look at How Hebrew is Incorporated at Jewish Camp

July 17, 2016

Children at Jewish summer camp holding a sign in Hebrew

A new report from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, funded in part by CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education), offers an unprecedented look at the many ways, to what degree, and the reasons why Hebrew is incorporated at Jewish overnight camps across North America. Connection, not Proficiency: Survey of Hebrew at North American Jewish Summer Camps surveys the experiences and opinions of camp directors at 103 camps. As the report shows, the overwhelming majority of these camps are deeply invested in using Hebrew to connect their campers to their camps’ traditions, to Israel and to Jewish peoplehood.

“In its varying forms, Hebrew infusion at camp blends creativity with decades of tradition, resulting in deeply meaningful experiences for learners,” says Sarah Bunin Benor, who co-authored the report with Jonathan Krasner and Sharon Avni, with assistance from Stephen Brumbaugh. “The insights and findings in the report are useful for Jewish educators and leaders—not just those at summer camp—who want to better understand the many ways Hebrew can be incorporated into Jewish education and engagement experiences.”

Key findings from the report include:

  • Hebrew at camp is, for the most part, a means to develop affective sensibilities: Few camps offer Hebrew classes or a Hebrew-speaking program. However, most camps sing or recite Hebrew songs or prayers, dance to Israeli songs, use Hebrew signage, provide bar/bat mitzvah tutoring, use Hebrew names for activities, objects and places at camp, present skits that teach Hebrew words, and have Israeli staff use Hebrew informally with campers.
  • There is great diversity in Hebrew practices among camps: Hebrew is one of the many elements that give each camp its own character. Several factors are important in camps’ use of Hebrew practices:
    • Staff Hebrew ability. Camps at which staff members have stronger Hebrew conversational ability have more Hebrew practices.
    • Camp network. The camps with the most Hebrew practices come primarily from four networks: Ramah, Young Judaea, Bnei Akiva, and Habonim Dror.
    • Jewish education. Camps with more Jewish learning have more Hebrew practices, as do camps where Jewish education is integrated across the full range of camp experiences.
    • Israel connection. Camps for which fostering connection to Israel is a primary goal have more Hebrew practices.
    • Israeli staff. Camps with larger Israeli staff delegations have more Hebrew practices, but the ability to teach Hebrew is not a factor in hiring Israelis.
  • Most camps report that the amount of Hebrew they use has stayed the same or increased over the past 10 years and over the past 40 years, although there is variation by camp network.
  • Most camps expressed interest in incorporating more Hebrew signs, words, and songs, and about half expressed interest in adding more Hebrew instruction and/or a Hebrew-speaking unit or program, if financial and institutional support were available.

“Beyond providing a comprehensive view of Hebrew at camp, the findings include information that helps Jewish education practitioners and funders think differently and possibly more intentionally about Hebrew’s place in learning experiences,” says Amy Skopp Cooper, a member of the Board of Directors of CASJE, a community of researchers, practitioners, and funders that in part funded the study and works to improve the quality of knowledge for the field of Jewish education. “Connection, Not Proficiency is the type of study that can inform a field’s evolution and ultimately help to advance the educational experience.”

“This kind of research helps Jewish educators think in purposeful and creative ways about how and why to infuse Hebrew into their camp environment," adds Sharon Feiman-Nemser, Senior Researcher at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis and member of the CASJE Board of Directors. “It does not prescribe 'best practices' because no one approach is right for all contexts—and that is not the job of research. Rather it provides evidence-based 'food for thought,' including rich images of what Hebrew at camp can look like and what benefits it can bring.”

The survey report is part of a larger study of Hebrew at North American Jewish Summer Camps, the results of which will be published as a book (Rutgers University Press, forthcoming in 2017). Beginning with pilot research in 2012 and culminating in 2015, the study involved observation at 36 camps around North America, interviews and focus groups with about 200 staff members and campers, archival research, and document review, in addition to the survey whose findings are presented in this report. The study is a project of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, with funding from CASJE and additional support from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and City University of New York. Initial seed funding was provided by a Wexner Foundation Alumni Collaboration grant.

The conclusion of the study notes that “Hebrew serves as a common denominator in North American Jewish summer camps of all types: Zionist and non-Zionist, religious and secular, general and specialty…. Campers leave camp with a sense that Hebrew is a part of what it means to be Jewish in North America.”

Read the full report >