Kayitz Kef is a program in Hebrew language immersion running at 10 Jewish day camps across America that its backers hope will grow to 48 camps in the next decade. For six hours a day, a staff of mostly Israeli counselors speaks only Hebrew to the campers as they participate in the routine activities of summer camp. English isn’t used unless there’s a safety concern.
As with parents teaching children to speak, Kayitz Kef relies on repetition, hand gestures, playacting and other visual cues to build Hebrew vocabulary among campers who sometimes have zero background in the language. The one thing counselors never do is translate a word into English. If a camper needs to go to the bathroom, she will be prompted to ask if she can visit the “sherutim.” When campers are heading to the pool, counselors will tell them they are going to the “breichah.” If ice cream is on the lunch menu, campers need to ask for “glidah” if they want to be served. Campers learn not just the Hebrew words but also to incorporate them into full phrases and sentences.
The approach can be challenging, particularly at the beginning. The program currently caters to campers entering kindergarten through the fifth grade, and the immersion in Hebrew begins on day one, from the moment they arrive. Camp directors often caution parents to be prepared if their child doesn’t love the program at first and encourage them to stick it out. Data from a study commissioned by the program’s backers show that kids and parents quickly experience the program as fun and engaging, resulting in high retention rates at each camp.
The Kayitz Kef approach is rooted in a language acquisition methodology known as the proficiency approach, which was developed in the 1950s by the U.S. government for its own purposes, then expanded to academic settings in the 1980s. It was adapted for Hebrew language instruction in the early ’90s by a team at Brandeis University and implemented under the leadership of Vardit Ringvald, then director of the Hebrew language program at the Boston-area school.
“The proficiency approach is really about asking the question: What can learners do with the language in terms of functioning in all language tiers?” Ringvald said. “It’s not a question of what they learn. It’s a question of what they can do with the language in real-life settings.”
In an academic environment, the approach needs to be simulated, with instructors prompting learners to respond to imagined real-life scenarios and then hoping they can bring that knowledge with them into the real world. In summer camp, those scenarios emerge all the time, affording learners opportunities to hone their skills in real life.
“Camp is really the ideal setting for this,” Ringvald said. “People need stuff, they need to eat, they need to go from one place to another, they need to react and connect. It’s actually the essence of what proficiency is all about. In a classroom, you need to artificially create this setting. In camp it’s natural.”
Ringvald initially helped implement the proficiency approach at Hebrew Public, a nationwide network of Hebrew language charter schools, before adapting the method for summer camps with the creation of Kayitz Kef in 2013. The camp staff receives training before and during the summer in using the proficiency approach. Last summer, over 300 campers were enrolled in 10 camps, and three more camps will be added this summer. Sponsors hope to expand the program to overnight camps, too.
Kayitz Kef is a project of The Areivim Philanthropic Group, a consortium of seven Jewish philanthropies, in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp. To its backers, the program offers a potent means of Jewish engagement to a North American Jewish community that is predominantly secular.
Read more at JTA.