Hebrew School as Camp

Joel Lurie Grishaver

School Metaphors

Schools use metaphors to know who they are. For a long time the “Hebrew School” (Congregational, Religious School, etc.) was imprinted on the American public school that in turn was rooted in the industrial revolution’s platoon system. Rows, textbooks, blackboards, talk of classroom management, homework, recess, and the other trappings of public schools were seen as optimal models for Jewish learning. Just as a generation of public school transformed Jews into Americans, American Jewry decided to use the same technology to Jewdify these new immigrants. Look at the work of Dr. Samson S. Benderly.

Similarly, Cherie Koller-Fox’s adaptation of the “open classroom” model (that had its ten minutes in the sun) gave birth ultimately to CAJE and a whole series of innovative educational strategies. Similarly, Nechama Skolnick Moskowitz and the URJ’s involvement in Understanding By Design shifted planning and assessment in many Jewish settings.

In each of these cases a dominant “public” school methodology became a metaphor for Jewish schools to innovate. Today, imitateo ex technologica is one of the new voices from JE3 bringing social media, You Tube, Smartboards and the rest of the technological classroom into the Jewish world.

There are authentic Jewish Learning models. These include Hevruta, the Talmud Circle and even older text-based models such as those created by Rabbi Joshua ben Gamala (Bava Batra 21a). This was the founding of the yeshiva.

Jewish Summer Camps

Jewish Summer Camps have long been regarded as a success story in American Jewish education. It should be no surprise that lots of educators (many of whom were once camp counselors) are now calling for the use of “camp” as a metaphor for Jewish education. Just like few of us will do a goal line stand for the use of black (not green or white) boards, there is little point of fighting too hard to defend the lecture or the Socratic discussion (though both can be effective) in favor of experiential education.

I wrote an article a number of years ago about ways for schools to be like camp. I am now reposting it in four postings over Sukkot on my blog. It is called “If We Were the Rulers of Hebrew School Planet” and it focus on the issue of staffing.

Most schools staff at the ratio of one teacher (and perhaps one madrikh or madrikhah) for every 14-20 students. Camps with counselors, assistant counselors, and C.I.T.s staff at the radio of of 1-4 to 1-8. One of the things I believe is that this staffing ratio is one of the reasons that camps can be so successful educationally. The article “If We Were the Rulers of Hebrew School Planet” suggests classrooms with a teacher and two to three madrikhim, breaking classrooms down into two or three bunks, each with their own counselor. This allows supervised small group work, each group should discuss the lesson and then make a poster on the lessons of Sukkot. One teacher alone in the room can’t assure that that will happen.

It can be argued that other factors, the informal socialization, the physical environment, the lack of parental influence, the Stockholm syndrome and other factors contribute to the success of camps. I won’t argue with any of that, but I will argue that if we want our teachers to be successful and do experiential/informal education, not only do they need specific training, but they need advantange of a staff team. We already know that school linked with youth group and Israel experience is one of the most powerful cocktail applications that the American Jewish community can offer. At the moment, the deck is stacked against the school.

Jewish camps have their own educational technology that Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute labeled “Shiur-Shihah” (Experience/Discussion Group). This is a strategy that is pretty hard to actualize at one to twenty, but easy at three to eighteen. There are resources to staff stations, debriefing can take place in small groups, and there is always an extra body to deal with problems.

Change takes investment and effort. The model I am suggesting (and if you want to know if it works talk to Linda Kirsch at Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo) takes human and cash investments. But it also pays off big time. It makes camp at school doable.

There is a letter floating around criticizing one school for renaming itself Mahaneh. The letter argues that the losses in this transition far outweighed the gains. I don’t know the setting and it would be gossip to republish the letter and unprofessional to comment. All I will say is that I know, both as a product of my dreams, and as a product of observation that camp can be a useful metaphor for school. It is not automatically our enemy.