Hebrew Infusion at American Jewish Summer Camps

Apr. 02, 2016

Source: CASJE


This article introduces the idea of Hebrew infusion, based on research I have conducted on Hebrew use at North American Jewish summer camps in collaboration with my colleagues Sharon Avni and Jonathan Krasner. This study involved observations at 36 Jewish camps across North America (ranging from secular to Haredi), interviews with about 200 staff members and campers, and a survey of over 100 camp directors. My thinking on infusion is influenced by Netta Avineri’s concept of “metalinguistic community,” which came out of her analysis of Yiddish in the United States.


Through our research, we found that most camps do not teach Hebrew formally, but a large majority incorporate Hebrew words and recitation in various ways. Camp Galil is on the more intense end of the continuum; most camps do not use full Hebrew sentences for announcements. But all camps we found recite Hebrew blessings/prayers or sing Hebrew songs, and most have Hebrew names for some activities, camp units, or bunks, as well as Hebrew signs around camp (either in Hebrew letters or transliteration). For example, at Camp Alonim, a pluralistic camp in California, the units include Sabras (Israeli cactus), Tzofim (scouts), Nachshonim (initiators), and Kochavim (stars). At URJ Jacobs Camp in Mississippi, the Maccabiah (color war) teams have Hebrew names (Kahol/blue, Yarok/green, etc.), and locations around camp are marked with artistic stained glass signs.


Why are there so many Hebrew words, signs, and songs at Jewish camps? Is it a way of teaching Hebrew in a more informal way than Hebrew school? Perhaps. Using Hebrew words within English sentences may teach those specific words, but, as critics argue, it will not teach the Hebrew language. In the words of a staff member of the Daber Program, which promotes Hebrew use at Ramah camps, “A language is not just a noun;… you can only learn how it behaves…if you hear its flow, if you hear its intonation, if you hear its rhythm. And if you say, I'm going to the breicha (‘pool’), what is that?... They're giving camp a flavor [of Hebrew].”


Camp directors recognize this. Our survey found that Hebrew proficiency is not prominent on camp directors’ lists of goals. Only 20% reported “strengthening proficiency in spoken Modern Hebrew” to be a primary or important goal, compared to about half who checked “strengthening connection to Hebrew” and “strengthening knowledge of select Hebrew words or phrases.” As the director of Camp Ramah in California says, “We don’t formally teach Ivrit [Hebrew]… the goal is for us to infuse the day with Ivrit, from hodaot b’ivrit [announcements in Hebrew], and kol shelet b’ivrit [every sign in Hebrew]… and to lehachnis milim po v’sham v’lilamed k’tzat [insert words here and there and to teach a bit] and to put words here and there in Hebrew, to give kids a good feel.”


Note this camp director’s use of “infuse.” And note how he discusses what his camp is doing in contrast to formal language instruction. This is an important hallmark of Hebrew infusion. In contrast to traditional language pedagogy, whose goal is language proficiency, the goal of infusion is connection to the language and, especially, the group, which could be the camp community, Zionists, Israelis, Jews around the world, etc. Singing Hebrew songs, posting Hebrew signs, and incorporating Hebrew words into English sentences are just a few of the means to achieve those goals. In fact, although only half of camp directors report the goal of strengthening connection to Hebrew as primary or important, the vast majority report goals of “Enhancing personal Jewish identity” (96%), “Strengthening connection to the Jewish people” (93%), and “Strengthening connection to the State of Israel” (89%). In interviews, many camp directors report that Hebrew infusion plays a role in achieving these goals of connection at their camps.


A good metaphor makes you think about things in new ways. Since I came up with the metaphor of Hebrew infusion, I feel I have gained a better understanding of how Hebrew is used at Jewish camps. As we continue to analyze our data, we will further develop this metaphor. In the meantime, I hope that Jewish educators and communal leaders in other groups with a special language will also find the metaphor useful as they think about how they use — and might use — their special language.


Read the entire article at CASJE's website.

Updated: Apr. 07, 2016