Who’s in Charge?

Making Hebrew School More Like Summer Camp

David Bryfman

I frequently get asked the question of how to make Hebrew School more like summer camp. Good question! After all summer camp is fun and Hebrew School is, well, at least in our collective narrative – not. If only life were so easy.

There are of course some core elements of summer camp that can’t be replicated in a conventional complementary school environment. First and foremost summer camp takes place in the summer, and for any of you have waited in carpool on those dreary winter evenings you know exactly what I mean. Second, by and large summer camp is voluntary. Very rarely do children, especially older ones, or those returning to their second plus summer, feel as if “they have to go.” And third, and this is not a flippant comment, summer camp is often deemed so successful largely because it is not school.

But all is not lost. Even with these core “unreplicable” elements there are some aspects of summer camp that can, and I believe should, be introduced to Jewish complementary schools –not just because they work at summer camp – but because they constitute good learning (and yes summer camp, when done well, is good learning).

  1. Learner-Centered Education: An approach to learning that focuses on the needs of the learners rather than those of others involved in the educational process, such as teachers and administrators. Camp learning is all about relating broader concepts to the daily lives of campers.
  2. Experiential Education: The process whereby learners can make meaning from their own direct experiences – learning through doing and not by someone telling you what to do or think. Many camp activities encourage campers to achieve tasks and learn for themselves.
  3. Positive Jewish Role Models: Over and over again learners report that they learn best from people whom they admire, respect and want to emulate. Camp counselors often rate very highly as positive role models who can often relate better to the experiences of their learners more so than many of their Hebrew school counterparts.

None of these are revolutionary elements. For decades, educators in the general and the Jewish worlds have written about all three many times over.

But to this list I add a fourth – what I consider to be possibly the most difficult of all, because it challenges at its core the very essence of Jewish life and living in the 21st century western world.

It often surprises me how much Jewish kids love celebrating Shabbat at summer camp, youth group convention, at seminars, on Israel trips etc. It only surprises me inasmuch as the same kids are also the ones who hate, and I mean loathe, going to Shabbat services at their local synagogue. How is it that the same kid can love and hate what is both intrinsically the same experience? Over and over again they tell me, perhaps not in these words, that when they are at their “youth only’ events they are empowered to create their own Shabbat. They decorate their environment, they create their own siddur, they sing their own songs, they dress in their special clothes, they deliver their own sermons, hug their friends, deliver Shabbat-o-grams…and the list goes on. And even the younger kids, who sometimes don’t get to do all of the above, are filled with the excitement and anticipation that one day soon they will get to do all of that and more. And when they get to services in their home community they are told to sit still, turn the page, listen to someone else’s sermon, sing someone else’s tunes and told to be quiet.

This is a generation of youth who are empowered in so many other aspects of their lives, so sitting passively in someone else’s prayer service, especially when they know that they have the capability to create a more powerful, personally meaningful and rich experience themselves – makes them rebel against their parents synagogues.

So, what is it that Hebrew Schools can really learn from the quintessential Jewish camp experience of creating one’s own Shabbat?

Today’s generation of youth and young adults have been transformed from consumers to producers – or as some have suggested -“creator-consumers” or “prosumers.” In so many aspects of their lives they have the capacity to create their own experiences, whether it be building their own playlists, re-mixing their own music, making their own movies, or contributing to their own encyclopedia entries.

If taken seriously this newly found agency, often enhanced by technology, is both empowering and threatening. Empowering because the youth of today have the capacity to literally change the world in which they live at a click of a button. If you don’t believe me check out some of the social causes they belong to on Facebook, the environmental movements that they belong to online or the governments that they bring down in the Middle East and elect right here at home. And threatening, because empowering our youth literally means that our educators need to cede control of the established way of doing things.

In a world where our youth are empowered, the youth, not clergy or teachers, or even camp counselors, have power. In a world of empowered voices, no single text has automatic authority, not a curriculum, not a documentary and not even a sacred source.

For Jewish Complementary Schools to succeed, just like summer camps, then we need to re-evaluate who is really in charge.

But before educators panic and think their jobs are overtake note that not all is as it may first seem. Illusions are powerful because they make you think one thing when the reality might be very different. Just because the campers create their own Shabbat, or youth group participants build their own programs, when done well there is almost always a significant, yet often very discrete, Jewish educator somewhere behind the scenes. Summer campers are virtually never in full control even if they believe they are. Behind the curtain, the parameters have been established for the “magic” of summer camp to emerge. At every important juncture they are infusing every experience with Jewish sources, attention to safety, years of experience, and an encouraging smile….

And that becomes the greatest challenge for complementary schools wanting to become more like summer camp. How much autonomy are educators really willing to cede? How willing are our schools to say that the learners, and not the curriculum or the teacher are the most important components of the classroom? How willing are our educators to take on a different role creating the parameters and opportunities for students to learn for themselves? How willing are we to say that our children are not just our future but also our present?

David Bryfman is the Director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership and Teen Engagement