How do Jewish residential summer camps provide campers and staff with opportunities to learn and grow as Jews? Sales and Saxe (2004) have viewed this growth through the lens of their socialization theory. This article asks: Can there be more to the camp experience than being socialized into the norms and values of a well-aligned Jewish environment? Based on a case study of the drama program in Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, the author proposes viewing certain camp experiences through the lens of optimal Jewish experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). These are moments when individuals—often operating in a group context—rise to the challenge of new Jewish learning and succeed to present their accomplishments before appreciative audiences. The conditions that give rise to these optimal Jewish experiences are explored and suggestions are offered for how other camp leaders can create these conditions in their camps.
From Michael Zeldin's Editor's Note:
"Joseph Reimer addresses the importance of leadership in his article “Providing Optimal Jewish Experiences: The Case of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin” only after he explores his main theme: how Jewish camps can move beyond providing socialization experiences. He acknowledges the power of camps to socialize campers and staff so that they get “swept along by the great currents of camp culture.” He argues, however, that some camps move beyond socialization to offer what he calls, drawing on the work of Csikszentmihalyi, “optimal learning experiences.” Such experiences challenge learners to exceed what they might have thought possible and engage them in “flow” experiences that they will long remember. He illustrates this notion with a description of how campers who are not fluent in Hebrew nonetheless produce the musical Oliver entirely in Hebrew.
Reimer then turns his attention to the important role that camp leadership plays. Quoting Seymour Fox, he suggests that camp leaders pay a critical role in crafting a vision of “an exciting camp program that will engage our campers at a level of Jewish exploration that they have never encountered before in their Jewish education.” Reimer details the steps that the director of the camp he is studying took: He created a 10-year plan, brought on key staff members to envision components of a camp program that would enact that plan, and empowered them to create programs to translate the vision of Hebrew and the arts that were at the heart of the plan. Reimer's analysis emphasizes the important role of leadership. At the same time he makes it clear that there are no shortcuts that leadership can take to creating the optimal Jewish learning experiences that make a vision come to life. But leadership does, he argues, start with vision."