Saturday, June 12, 2010

Hands On Exploration: Is Jewish Camp the Answer?


In the summers of 1997 and 1998, while in my early 40s, I served on staff at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) camp, the premiere (IMHO) camp of the Reform movement, in beautiful Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I had never attended an overnight Jewish camp during my childhood, so this was a truly wonderful experience for me, even though it was also very hard work. It was rewarding in many ways. I worked as Media Specialist, which basically means helping campers to create short video presentations, and also creating the camp’s promotional video. (While video was never my specialty, I guess my background in theater technology and computer technology made me suitable for the job. And I was a quick study, learning to use what was at that time, fairly state of the arts digital media editing software that ran on Macs equipped with special cards and add-ons.)

Now, here it is 12 years later. I’ve been grossly under-employed as a Jewish professional for the last 18 months or so, and the outlook for employment in the Jewish world is bleak for many, and not just for me. When an opportunity presented itself to return to work at camp, I hesitated at first. It would take me away from home for 10+ weeks, and camps have never been known for competitive salaries.

I’d be repeating my work as Media Specialist, although a lot has changed in 12 years. Now there’s no need to take analog recording media (i.e. VHS tape), digitize it, and edit it. Everything is digital. I also believe that the campers themselves may be more familiar with the equipment and ideas behind digital video – both capturing and editing.

After a little negotiation and self-exploration, I decided that a summer at camp could be just the right thing for me at this time. It will be a great place for me, as a professional, to network, and perhaps find some full-time work after camp ends. It will be spiritually nourishing. Finally, it will be a lab setting in which I can evaluate all I and many of my colleagues in Jewish education have come to believe about camp, its value as part of the Jewish education process, and it perhaps serving as a role model for how we structure our supplementary schools and Jewish education programs.

As Jewish supplementary education continues to unravel before us (and a question to be asked is whether this is potentially as much a good thing as a bad thing)  it’s a good time to take a look at all the ideas and theories out there about what Jewish education for the 21st century and beyond needs to be.

One predominant idea has been to point to the success of the Jewish camping model and seek ways to incorporate the best of this generally informal style of education into our schools. Others go a bit further and suggest that instead of using a classic Horace Mann classroom model, we ought to model our programs after the informal setting of camp. I suspect the vast majority are more comfortable with the former. I’m not sure where I stand anymore.

We’ve about one more week to prepare for camp, and then the campers arrive. Even so, this pre-preparation week has been a useful period for me to learn. Already I have met camp leaders and counselors with very different ideas and approaches to what camp is all about. For some, the emphasis really is on making it a fun and positive experience for the students. For others, myself included, the focus is a bit more pedagogic, with the “fun” being as much as means to an end, a way of planting seeds, as it is about fun. It will be interesting to observe how the campers react to those with different premises about what the camp experience can be.

I certainly intend to use this summer as an opportunity to explore and learn. To see what works and what doesn’t work in the Jewish camp model of informal Jewish education. To examine what the best possible models (plural intended) might be for 21st century Judaism. I invite you to join me in this exploration.

Shavua Tov,



  1. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts as the summer unfolds! : )

  2. Adrian, you should write a article about your experience this summer for the URJ's glossy magazine.

    I too am worried about keeping our Sunday school curriculum in step with the times and with kids' developmental stages. I particularly love the "you be the judge" book series which brings Jewish ethics to the level that kids can appreciate and encourages meaningful argument and debate. It shows kids that being Jewish means doing the right thing, not just saying the right brocha, and hammers home the lesson that it's not always easy to achieve a definite answer when it comes to ethics.