Jewish educators argue about many things; check out this past CASJE blogcast if you don’t believe me. There's one thing, though, about which they seem to agree: Jewish camp is peculiarly effective as a vehicle for Jewish education and engagement. It seems that there’s a kind of magic at camp that leaves a lasting influence on the Jewish lives of most former campers. There are few forms of educational experience that are so impactful and that are remembered so warmly.

 

This week I’m joined by a crackerjack “cast” to help make sense of that magic. Ultimately, I’m hoping that this group will think about how we transform Jewish camps into laboratories of practice from/in which all Jewish educators can learn to perform their magic, whatever institutions they lead.

 

To get the ball rolling, I want to ask the cast what the magic of camp looks like. How do you know it when you see it? What would you point to as evidence of the magic?

As one who experienced the "magic" firsthand as both a camper and a staff member, two words come to mind immediately: intensity and camaraderie.  We think of summer as a time for relaxing.  But, for me, what camp can draw out of us is an intensity and enthusiasm of engagement that is (sadly) too rare in Jewish life, and perhaps life in general. 


When you see kids singing their lungs out or dancing up a storm, throwing themselves into an activity, whether it be a softball game, a play rehearsal, a learning session, or Kabbalat Shabbat, you know that the magic is happening.  Intensity of engagement isn't just busyness - kids certainly have enough of that in their lives.  It's being able to focus one's energies and (as the saying goes) "be in the moment."  When so many of the things we're supposed to do are being done for extrinsic reasons (get good grades to get into college), camp is where we can do things for their own sake -- for the sheer fun and satisfaction of doing them, and learning how to do them better.


Alongside this intensity of engagement, the other piece of magic I look for is the powerful sense of being part of a group and the relationships that come with it.  Camp is about friends - many of whom become such for life.  I can tell you from personal experience that when those relationships aren't there, the rest of the magic isn't likely to happen.  Because camp is 24/7, and because young people are young people, it's not all slaps on the back and hugs.  But, there's no better place to learn what it means and what it takes to be a friend, and why friendships are so important in our lives.

  

So, I look for intensity of engagement and a strong spirit of camaraderie.  When I see those, I know the magic is working.

I agree whole heartily with Jon’s notion of camaraderie and power of relationships. 


Part of what makes Jewish camp magical is the fact that it is a child-centered institution. Where formal environments demand certain structure and hierarchy, the camp environment invites participants to challenge these roles. Whether these relationships are between peers or role models, participants have the opportunity to play with and re-imagine their new roles in the group, leading to a great deal of learning in these moments. This system works because there is a tight learning loop where young participants see older participants and aspire to become like them. This “role model continuum” keeps participants’ attention and devotion at every level of the educational process.  


Perhaps there are ways we could measure this both quantitatively and qualitatively within camps and within other communal institutions as well.    


To add to what helps characterize the magic (in addition to, not instead of, what Jon and Jeremy have suggested):


1. Playing Grown-Up  Camp is so empowering because (nearly) everyone is put in a position to do more than their age would allow them to in their home communities.  Where else are 6th graders given the tools and support to fully run their own daily morning services for a month, complete with Torah readings?  Where else are eighteen and nineteen year old counselors given the responsibility to keep their "room" clean, make sure their campers are fed and nurtured through meals as well as spiritually and emotionally, and charged with pushing their campers to develop as Jews and thoughtful, caring human beings?


2. Being Comfortable  Some of the magic is the intensity that Jon describes, of course.  But a great deal of the magic happens when our campers feel comfortable and safe in a foreign setting and make that setting into a second home.  That comfort, coupled with the daily and weekly routines of camp, gives the campers the space and opportunity to process all the stimuli being thrown at them, for their nascent friendships to deepen and blossom, and for the campers to get a better sense of who they are and who they want to be.  The downtime at camp cannot be over-emphasized as a crucial component of how the magic sticks and impacts them for weeks after they return and, if we are lucky, for years after they have left their camper years for good.

If I had to cite one ingredient, I would say creativity--which underlies so much of what goes on at camp. Being in a creative environment opens up another part of our brains, surprises us, amuses us, and makes all things seem possible. Creativity calls forth playfulness. Friendships emerge from co-creating with others. Experimenting, learning, problem solving are also part of the creative process. One of my favorite examples comes from a camp that had an inventive flagpole constructed of twigs and rope. As the American and Israeli flags were raised each morning, the twigs came together in the middle to form a Mogan David. The story was that every year the Israeli staff would build a flagpole. And at the end of the year it would be torn down so the next summer something completely different could be built. Why have a flagpole that is predictably the same?  Leave that for the rest of the world...not camp.


I also want to suggest that camp isn't magic at all. That there is great intentionality in how community is built, teamwork fostered, friendships cultivated, fun manufactured, and creativity expressed everywhere. The magic perhaps is the trick that makes it all look so natural, easy, impromptu when, in fact, running a camp or being a counselor is hard work (and a lot of late nights).

 

Findings detailed in the Foundation for Jewish Camp/Jim Joseph Foundation report New Jewish Specialty Camps: From Idea to Reality from the evaluation conducted by Informing Change support the elements of "magic" Jon and Jeremy offered. 


The five Incubator camps retained over 50% of their campers from year to year (which is considered high for specialty camps according to camp industry professionals interviewed).  91% of the campers said they felt like they belonged when they were at camps as this quote from a camper indicates.   "..Coming to this camp has really changed me as a person.  I felt like these were the people I belonged with.  The staff was incredible and the overall experience has left me with a better understanding of who I am as person..." The majority of parents were also satisfied with the camp experience.  A parent comments: "our son went to Jewish day school, so he was fairly Jewishly knowledgeable but this was perhaps his first time having fun in a Jewish context."


The data of the evaluation suggest fruitful directions for further exploration of the "magic" of camp and the talent, hard work, intentionality behind the curtain.

 

Thank you all for getting us off to such a resonant start.

 

I’ll take my cue from Sandy’s last words to ask: what’s “behind the curtain”? In other words, you’ve provided compelling descriptions of what the magic looks like, what do you believe produces that magic? Amy already offered some answers to that question when suggesting that this “isn’t magic at all;” its highly intentional.

 

In an audience response to the discussion someone proposed that a key ingredient is that camps keep parents away. I’m asking something more open-ended: could you point to those features of camp that educators need to be most intentional about if they’re going to produce the things we call magic.

Of relevance to this conversation is a chapter by Michael Zeldin, "Making the Magic in Reform Jewish Summer Camps" in Lorge and Zola's A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping.  Without rehashing or delving into his provocative and compelling argument where he begins to lay out a possible framework for understanding Alex's most recent question, I do want to note that, though limited, there are existing resources out there in the literature for us to consider, some of which are quite good.


Ultimately, the intentionality behind the magic comes down to staff training, program design, and institutional culture.  These areas contribute directly to the "thickness," robustness, and likely resonance of a camp's Jewish vision on its campers and staff members.  To a certain extent, a specific model for this vision is less important than its thoughtfulness, communication to stakeholders, and the theories that underlie how each camp imagines its impact will work.  For example, some camps embrace a model whereby they invest in many adults in camp, primarily to support the young staff in its work with campers.  Other camps take an alternate approach, creating a camp environment whose execution rests on the shoulders of no one over the age of 30 (if not 25).  Both camps may provide equally powerful, even parallel, moments of "magic."

There are a number of things contributing to the magic.   I would like to highlight one important issue.  


First, part of the magic of camp comes from the passion staff bring with them.  The passion is noteworthy because in so many cases, the people who fill positions in camp are not professionals.  That is, the head of sports is not a professional athlete or a professional coach.  The head of the waterfront does not run a swim school or a yacht club.  The camp songleader is not a performing musician or music teacher.  And because they are not professionals, but rather people with a lifelong commitment to an activity they love, they serve as excellent role models for lifelong learning and for incorporating that particular area of expression (dance, drama, or whatever) into your life...for the sheer joy of it.  


Two more quick thoughts on this:

1.  Really attending to the needs of the child.  I learned this from Chaim Potok z"l.  He made staff focus on every camper and pushed us to understand what would help that individual grow -- which, by the way, wasn't always what the camper was naturally most interested in.  Joe Reimer has written about challenge as an important element of experiential education, and we were encouraged to challenge campers, but in a highly supportive way.

2.  Living Jewish values, or what we at our foundation call "Jewish sensibilities."  It's almost a cliche that camp provides a Jewish environment 24/7.  The real payoff for this comes when campers and staff are able to see the relevance of Jewish ideas and practices -- the characteristic ways in which Jews perceive and respond to life situations -- to everything they do.  This is where the particular and the universal come together.  There is a "Jewish way" to play baseball -- though being able to hit a curveball helps too.

I completely agree on the importance of camp staff and the role they play in working behind the scenes to make the magic happen.  A key question for the broader Jewish community is how we recognize, reward, and empower these staff members/educators who have direct influence over the youth experience. At camp, the “inspirational arch” seems to culminate in campers becoming staff members. As compared to the quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck, “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made,” camp actually becomes enriched when you are let in on the secret of “how”. When the curtain is pulled back and you find out how much your staff members cared for you, you feel the charge to put as much care into your campers’ experience. This continues the virtuous cycle of demonstrating care by creating extraordinary and intentional Jewish experiences. How might we ensure that more of our campers return as staff members and get to continue this cycle? Maybe those reading have some suggestions to add to this conversation?

Again, I turn to the evaluation of the Jewish Specialty Camp Incubator to respond to Alex’s question, as many of these key lessons apply to the Jewish camping world at large.

The evaluation identified an important factor in the Incubator camps' success as integration of Jewish experiential education in a wide array of camp programming, frequently unstructured and informal, rather than in formal lessons or workshops. The Incubator curriculum was a strong support for this, helping the camps select key Jewish values that meshed with their specialties and overall camp vision and determining how those values could manifest in their campers, both immediately and in the youths' future.

Indeed, throughout the evaluation, a point is emphasized over and over: effectively blending a camper’s specialty of choice (in other words, an activity they love—be it theater, sports, outdoors, or other) with Jewish values and learning is key to delivering dynamic and resonate camp experiences. Additionally, there are four program components identified that support the development of high-quality Jewish environments: 

1)     Embedding Jewish education within the programs that campers love

2)     Offering a Jewish environment with options - campers can choose ways to be Jewish, celebrate Shabbat

3)     Making meaning of Jewish traditions and teachings - getting at the "why" behind Jewish ritual or teaching

4)     Hiring staff who are strong Jewish role models and training them in the camp's approach to Jewish education and to be comfortable invoking Jewish values in a natural, easy way during daily camp activities and answer camper questions about how to live a Jewish life. 

No one thing—or one person—is “behind the curtain.” To build on Jon Woocher’s example, many factors contribute to effectively show that there is a “Jewish way to hit a curveball”—and to help make camp the meaningful experience we know it to be.

We seem to have done a good job laying out the ingredients in the magic and where educators need to be intentional in order to give the ingredients their potency. The comments remind me of why I am so compelled by camp, but they also have me wondering why camp does not captivate every child. How can all this be true (the staff, the environment, the passion) and yet there are children who refuse to go to camp, or go and hate it? I've long known that camp is not for everyone, but why not? There are a few obvious reasons: The camp was not a good match for the child; the child was not ready (e.g., came down with severe homesickness, that peculiar but real camp ailment); the child is not a communitarian and does not appreciate such group experiences. It seems the magic may only work for some.


Sometimes turning a question upside down leads to new insights. Thinking about those who are not camp lovers may help us understand better how camp works. Or, more appropriately, may help us articulate the conditions under which camp is more likely to be experienced as magical. 

Amy you beat me to it! I was going to steer the conversation in precisely the direction you went.


Having heard some really insightful (and literature-informed) suggestions from the group about what lies behind camp’s magic curtain, I wanted to ask: what are the questions we need to answer in order to understand why camp isn’t for everyone? To put it in terms of a CASJE signature question: what do we need to know that if we did know would enable us to engage those not yet spellbound by camp's magic?

I'd like to respond to your question, Alex, first by challenging the assumption.  When we say camp isn't for everybody, we're generalizing from a specific situation to a general situation.  That some people (campers or staff) experience a poor fit at a particular camp doesn't automatically mean there isn't a camp somewhere that would be a better fit.  Of course, no one has access to all the camps in the world, so it's not realistic to assume there's a camp for everyone, even though philosophically the idea is appealing.


On the other hand, it is interesting to imagine creating a camp for people who hate camp (there's a broad continuum connecting those who are not "spellbound" and those who are miserable at camp).  Would we even recognize it as camp?  And does that matter? That is, what are the minimal criteria for being a camp?


Finally, I think the question is a reminder of an critical aspect of camp and human endeavor:  while we control the public activity at camp, it is always the individual who determines the experience. Part of the magic of camp is the unpredictability of it: the discovery that someone you never expected "got" something you never imagined out of an activity you designed.

I'm also not sure that it's a reasonable or worthwhile goal to try to make camp "magical" for everyone.  There are many circumstances that can make a camp experience less than we would hope it would be -- a particularly cliquish bunk, a miserably wet summer (I speak from personal experience).  Some we can do something about -- and should.  Some we can't.


No question that creating more options for Jewish youth to experience camp that speaks to their particular interests and sensibilities is a great step to making the experience available and attractive to more children and families.  In that sense, my first answer to your question, Alex, would be more research on the kids and families to better understand what they're seeking and what excites them (and that applies to all of Jewish education, not just camp).  Then we can look at the camp experience itself and begin to drill down on the factors -- most of which have been identified in previous posts -- that are critical to its success.

With so many different types of kids in the world, our community should be offering a wider variety of experiences to meet their varied needs.  There are so many different formats, session lengths, areas of focus that could really make the difference for a kid who may not have fallen in love with their first overnight camp experience. That is why the specialty camps have resonated so greatly with the more 4,000 campers that have attended. 


This also opens up the conversation about the magic at Jewish day camps. They are doing important work as well and overnight camp may not be right for every kid.  Most obviously, day camp works for younger group of campers. It is also has incredible potential for family engagement. How might the magic of camp impact the entire household of the camper and not just the camper individually?

In response to the question of what makes camp magic:

Jacob's point above is a succinct summary of the application areas of intentionality, which I do feel is the major driver of the camp "magic". 

With that said, I think the institutional culture component stands out from the oth
er areas for two reasons:

First, it is less tangible. Any organization can provide effective and meaningful staff training and can design quality programs with adequate planning, the right resources , and proper focus. Moreover, the organization can count on the successful implementation of the training and program with reasonable confidence before (in the case of camp) summer starts. On the flip side, intended culture is difficult to define in advance beyond broad notions (transparency, spirituality, supportiveness, etc.) and cannot be "implemented" or "measured" with the same analytical confidence that training success or program quality can be evaluated.

Second, it is out of the control of the organizational leadership. At the end of the day, training and program design are prepared in advance by a smaller group of subject-matter experts (administrators, educators, etc.) and are given to staff to enable them to interact effectively with campers. Culture is something that is not only dependent on the specific and unique makeup of a camp population (including administrators, staff, and campers), but is readily influenced by any member of the population or unplanned events. Camp leadership can proactively influence institutional culture, but the culture has equal if not greater dependence on the individual people and events.

Given this (and to answer the question directly :D) camp magic is made in an environment with a foundation of quality training and program, a common understanding of community values and expectations, and a willingness to actively embrace the nuances of individuals and events in a constantly evolving institutional culture.

I appreciate the push-back from a number of you to my last question, succinctly expressed by Jon as “I'm also not sure that it's a reasonable or worthwhile goal to try to make camp "magical" for everyone.” Elegantly put!


So, let me ask a different but related question, for which I take inspiration from Jeremy’s last comment about the many ways in which camp’s impact could be extended: 


What should our research priorities be in figuring out how to extend and understand camp’s impact, whether for those who are currently outside the charmed circle or for those already inside, perhaps even behind the curtain?

Intentionality is not unique to camp.  What is unique to camp is the closed environment that sits at a remove from the all the usual contexts of people's lives...schools, offices, synagogues, homes, etc.   This contributes mightily to its ability to magically appear, Brigadoon-like, each summer, as a place where the tropes of the other world do not apply.  


Every camp, at its core, makes a counter-cultural statement just by existing. All the other aspects of camp--the peer culture, the learning by doing paradigm, the wide-open spaces, the holistic approach, all build on camp as a liminal space supporting communitas and encouraging campers and staff to let go of the stereotypic notions imposed by the city culture of who they are supposed to be so they can explore without constraints who they would like to be.  Camp is magic because it is all the things the city isn't.  

I want to duck your question for now, Alex, to respond to David's comment.  I completely agree with him on this (and love the Victor Turner reference).  That is camp's great strength, and also its potential Achilles heel.  Much has been written about the gap between the "Jewish life" campers and staff experience at camp, and the "Jewish life" they experience the remaining months of the year.  To continue with Turner's framing, we have to return from the liminal, anti-structural communitas of camp to a "structural" reality that is quite different.  But, ideally, at least some of what happens at camp should impact that reality -- not just the individuals who carry the memory, but the "city" itself.  Is that asking too much of camp, or is that what we're starting to see happen as people try to bring the culture and practices of camp into various arenas of Jewish life (worship services, "school," etc.)?  Maybe the real question isn't how to get more people to experience camp (worthy as that goal is), but how to get more of Jewish life to embody more of what makes camp special.  Or is that just totally unrealistic?

Actually, one area ripe for research relates directly to your earlier question. We should be studying the campers who come to camp for one summer/session and never return.  We have an expanding body of knowledge about the camp people, but still know very little about the reasons people (campers and staff) leave camp.

Jon, you ask important questions. And I want to push back on them.  It is important and useful to ask what can we learn from camp and how can we incorporate that into our programs and institutions in the city.  It is also important to admit the city isn't camp and most likely never can be.  


When you state camp's (metaphoric) distance from the city is its Achilles Heel, it makes me wonder what your unit of analysis is and what your measure of success is.  Camp is excellent at what it does.  It is not a weakness of camp that other communal institutions are not. (And it is important to remember there are many schools and synagogues, to name but two institutions, that are excellent at what they do.)   


Ideally, the relationship between our institutions is symbiotic...participation in one leverages the impact of participation in the other.  But that may rely less upon the institutional structures than the motivation of the individual.

Just want to add a few thoughts to Jon and David's repartee. 


First, in terms of connecting camp to the expression of Jewish life in the off season, I would salute the Reform movement which intentionally transformed congregational worship to reflect the songs/music of Debbie Friedman z”l  at camp.  We definitely want to encourage more linkages between all of our communal institutions.  


Second, year round engagement from the trusted brand of camp needs to develop even further.  Some camps have large, full time professional staffs that are able to engage their campers and staff year round, while others run on a shoestring.  Maybe another area of research should be whether increasing camps' year round staff would result in increased year round engagement. 


Third, what is the right "dosage" (number of weeks, number of years) of camp that results in life-long Jewish connection?


We highly welcome the comment from "sammymarks" and wonder if there are others who have suggestions for us.  

It strikes me that one dimension of camp that has not been adequately called out yet and it is axiomatic- or has been until now- is the closed, communal nature of camp. For some kids and adults living in community is hard. Whether it is related to personal, psychological dispositions or something else may merit further exploration. 


This is also a challenge that we have with Jewish engagement of some young adults, post college who are perfectly content to be living their own cloistered lives with a few close friends and find the Jewish scene- a bit much. 


Camp as Communal living; Camp as Jewish Community. Could you envision a Jewish camp that allowed for autonomous, independent living for the duration of the camping period? 

David, thanks for the push back.  Yes, we should not blame camps for being successful at what they do.  My concern is only that we have allowed an idea to creep in subtly that implies that one can live Jewishly 24/7 only in an environment like camp.  It's the old "can't do Havdalah, no lake" syndrome in a more consequential key.  But, indeed, my intention was not to say that this is camp's problem, or that the answer is to make everything in Jewish life more camp-like.  It's just to say that for all the "magic" camp can create, it's not a self-sufficient solution for the larger challenges (and opportunities) that face us as a community.  What role camps can and should play in addressing those challenges is obviously a question now getting much greater attention - viz. Jeremy's post.  But, we definitely can't put all the weight on camp's shoulders.

Just adding to the astute suggestions of other members of this blog cast: The specialty camps have benefited from an external independent evaluation and the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Camper Satisfaction Index (CSI), to help them understand the camp experience, details about retention rates, and feedback about how to improve their effectiveness. Building on what these individual camps have learned, future research could aggregate the information to share among other camps more broadly to better understand impact. This research would also have the potential of informing experiential education in other settings.

I want to second what Jon said about not putting the entire weight of larger communal challenges on the camps' shoulders. Camp is successful so people look to it to do all kinds of things--add content, do more Jewish, do more Israel, do year-round programs, build virtual camp communities, etc. Camps appear to have great elasticity, a capacity to absorb multiple initiatives. But there may be (or should be?) a limit to what they can absorb. 


One reason camp is precious is because it is time delimited. I think of the crying at the end of the season (I may be reflecting girls' side here), the unbearable thought of separation and then the yearning to return. I don't think it would be as delicious if you had it all the time. (Analogously, think about whether Shabbat would be as precious if it were everyday.) So I like the language of "connecting camp to the expression of Jewish life in the off-season" and Jeremy's example of Debbie Friedman's music. Both suggest more synergy and flow across institutions rather than expecting camp to do all the work. 

Fellow cast-members, it has been a privilege joining your discussion these last few days. The wisdom of this group is precious. I’m excited that (according to our analytics) more than a thousand people have been following your conversation. 

 

I want to try my luck with one last question prompted by the notion of camps as laboratories that produce new forms and new thinking for themselves, and for the broader community. This got me thinking. Just as scientists take experiments up to the international space station to run tests in an environment free of the gravity down on earth, what educational experiments would you want to run at camp, in this gravity-free environment? If camp could be a laboratory for practices from which all Jewish educators could learn to perform their magic, what should we be trying to learn?

 

While you chew  on that before my west-coast CASJE colleagues pull the plug, I will wish you a Shabbat shalom from a Jerusalem beautifully blanketed in snow. Thank you for being so generous with your time this week.

Before I turn to  Alex's latest question, I'd like to continue responding to yesterday's thread.  We've all been talking in grand terms about camp, but it 's important to acknowledge our images all have been based in overnight camp.  It's useful to remember day camps possess a unique magic we also should be concerned with.  While day camps often are seen exclusively as feeders to overnight camps, I suggest that is a mistake. Many Jewish children spend their entire camp careers (as campers and as staff) in day camp, for various reasons. When we consider how camp isn't for everybody, we shouldn't exclude day campers from being in the world of camp.


I also believe the question of connection to the other ten months of the year looks a bit different when we consider day camp.  Overnight camp's strength is its distance from the city.  It's limitation (for generalizability) may also be its distance from the city.  And while day camp can never achieve the 24/7 immersive power of overnight camp, it does possess unique strengths of its own that overnight camp cannot match.  Specifically, that is the year-round touch (since everybody in day camp lives, usually, within a reasonable driving distance) and the daily reach into the home (because everbody goes home at the end of the day).  We should be thinking about how to harness the power of day camp, an under-appreciated asset, to help strengthen the Jewish community.


I'll address today's question in a separate post.

Alex, I look at this question from a different angle.  Given what we know about the power of camp as an educational environment, instead of asking what we can learn, I'd like to ask what should we be helping our campers and staff learn.  And while every Jewish camp addresses the issue of Jewish living as per its specific mission, I wonder if our camps are as engaged in applying a Jewish lens to the global issues of our day. I'm mindful of Riv Ellen Prell's article about Jewish camps in the sixtieis and the civil rights movements.  Where are the programs in our camps on racism, on economic inequality, on collaboration, on hate, etc., that use experiential paradigms, role playing, simulations, etc., to drive home the issues?  It is an opportunity to use camp as a lab to demonstrate the importance of being rooted in Jewish wisdom to help navigate the currents that push all of us, whether we are aware of them or not.

For any summer camp experience, day or overnight, we should consider another kind of magic in this conversation, Disney magic.  Walt Disney said “I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be six or sixty. Call the child "innocence". The worst of us is not without innocence, although buried deeply it might be. In my work I try to reach and speak to that innocence, showing it the fun and joy of living; showing it that laughter is healthy; showing it that the human species, although happily ridiculous at times, is still reaching for the stars.”  Remember, Disney started out making movies and then later expanded to the park experiences.  Today people experience the magic of Disney in a myriad of different ways and not all of them are going to a theme park. Upon further reflection, we should be thinking about how to make the Jewish experience not only “year-round” but “life-round.”  There are so many ways that we can tap into magic of camp and pull it through the rest of Jewish life that could really create a lifetime connection to our inner child. 

First and foremost I want to say to Alex and my other colleagues that it's been a privilege to participate with you in this conversation.


To your question:  I strongly agree with what David suggested as an added focus for camps' educational agendas.  The great Jewish issue of our time is whether our accumulating (that means evolving and never finished) Jewish tradition has something to say to our whole lives.  Camp creates a holistic Jewish environment, but, as we've noted, it's also a somewhat insulated and artificial one.  We know that it can send campers and staff back to the "real" world having grown in both Jewish and general knowledge, skills, and confidence.  Can it also send them back more highly motivated and better equipped to engage with the broad range of issues -- social as well as personal, human as well as Jewish -- that they will encounter in their lives?  I'd love to see a camp that took up this challenge through a Jewish lens, as David suggests.


I'd also love to see a camp that tackled the task of preparing campers to live in a truly inclusive and pluralistic Jewish community.  Again, one of the strengths of (many) Jewish camps is that they embody a distinct culture and ideology -- denominational, Zionist, etc.  For the Jewish people to thrive, though, we need to complement the commitment individuals feel to their way of being Jewish with deeper respect, understanding, and appreciation for how others are Jewish (at our foundation we call this an 'elu v'elu' sensibility).  Can camp contribute to this?


There may well be camps already doing what I have proposed.  If so, I'd like to understand better how they're doing it and how they're faring.  There's a research topic for you.  And if there aren't enough instances to research, there's a worthy experiment.


Shabbat shalom to all.

I am intrigued by the question of the gravity-free experiment. The question shifts the lens from camp as the subject to camp as the setting (the laboratory) for learning about other phenomena. In the 1950s, camp was the setting for the Robber's Cave experiment (Sherif & Sherif), seminal research on group formation, group culture, and inter-group competition, hostility, and cooperation. The 1950s also gave us Lord of the Flies (Golding), a novel about a natural experiment in the formation of a society, and in leadership and follower-ship. Fiction to be sure, dystopian and disturbing, it did show what might happen in a child-run alternative world.


Several years ago, we were hired by the Claims Conference to do a study of the emerging Jewish summer camps in the former Soviet Union. These camps were relatively short; held in places that did not look like our traditional camps; with an intense educational agenda. The program was a simulation. One camp we visited was run as a society. Each camper had a role. I remember talking to a boy, could not have been more than 10 or 12 years old, who had been a member of parliament. He was forced from his position and was devastated (something we would not allow in our camps). But he rallied and in a subversive act took over the camp "radio station" and essentially controlled the "media"-- selecting the music and voice that would come out over the loudspeaker. Another camp was run as a university. Each camper had a "major." They all had to do dissertations which they defended before a council of "faculty". Simultaneously the curriculum of these camps was the story of the Jewish people. But the learning extended greatly beyond subject matter. It gave campers--as Jacob mentioned earlier--the chance to play at being adults and the chance to learn about themselves and about how the world works in a very powerful way. In turn, what can we all learn from such "experiments"?


Thank you, Alex and colleagues, for a great week of conversation!



Sorry to have been out of it for some of these fruitful back-and-forths.  It has been a pleasure, as well, to take part.


On the gravity-free experiment front, the great opportunity that educationally-minded Jewish summer camps provide is a platform for cultivating and developing new generations of practitioners, stakeholders, and researchers of Jewish education.  The experimental nature of camp and, as others have noted, its inherent liminality and ingrained status as being countercultural, makes it a setting ripe for empowerment.  We should aim to create laboratory camps, institutions that think of themselves consciously as educational for both campers and staff and that invite cohorts of prospective and seasoned educators to learn, observe, and play within them.  No place better makes the case for a vibrant Judaism in contemporary America than summer camps.  Already, no place does a better job of nurturing the next generation of lay and professional leadership for the Jewish community.  An obvious next step is to up our game in these regards and help camps become even more conscientious about what it is that we are doing there, magic and all.

I too thank you all for including me. It has been a privilege to participate in the rich conversation about camp.  For me, the discussion has raised a question about the distinction between evaluation and applied research, particularly when you, Alex, frame the question in terms of experiments. From our funding perspective, our grants support the launch of experimental camps/models/initiatives/programs. We then work with the grantee to define the evaluation questions that enable the evaluator to develop a plan to address the questions. Shabbat shalom.

This has been a great conversation. Thanks to everyone who participated and especially to the Foundation for Jewish Camp for being a partner for the blogcast.


Please visit CASJE.com for more information about the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education and to read our previous blogcasts.

Thanks! We'll send you an update as soon as a new conversation starts.