What’s Happening at the Flag Pole? Studying Camps as Institutions for Israel Education

November, 2018

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 84:4, 337-358 


Jewish overnight summer camp has been touted as an especially well-suited venue for Israel education. This article brings an institutional lens to test this proposition. Data come from the survey responses of 1,382 campers, CITs, and staff at 12 overnight and day camps. We find that Israel education does indeed occur almost anywhere at camp. At the same time, across a variety of camp settings, the outcomes produced by these features are variegated. Relative to other immersive experiences where young people encounter Israel, camp has much less additional impact on Israel engagement.

In this article, we report our use of an institutional frame for the study of Israel at camp. To clarify our stance: We presume that campers might learn about Israel at almost any moment during their time at camp. They might develop relationships with Israelis through informal or formal interactions with Israeli staff hired to work at camp, whether as sports instructors or as Torah educators. Alternatively, they may come to understand something about Israel’s significance through Israel-focused ceremonies or rituals, whether at flag-pole time or during prayer services. In a different way, they may become familiar with aspects of Israel’s geography through observing signage around the camp or artwork hung in the dining room. They may form emotional connections to Israel through learning Israeli dance or through hearing Israeli music around camp. And then, most obviously, they may learn about Israel’s past or present in program time devoted specifically to aspects of Israel’s history, politics, or culture.

Promoting the potential for Israel education at camp, the iCenter, on its Web site, expresses these possibilities in the following way:

Jewish summer camp is an ideal setting for Israel education. It offers an all encompassing environment where the day is full of diverse activities; staff members are young, accessible Jewish role models; and an increasing number of shlichim help shape the program. This immersive experience provides great opportunities to infuse Israel into the fabric of everyday life, and to sustain a meaningful culture of Israel education.

Viewing camp as an immersive setting for Israel education, our research has been geared to uncovering what campers notice and learn from all of this extensive activity. In short, we ask two questions: Where do campers observe Israel at camp, and of all of the Israel-rich stimuli and activities they experience at camp, which are the most powerful agents of Israel education?

Data for the study were gathered through a survey of staff members, CITs, and campers at 12 camps (nine overnight camps and three day camps) during the summer of 2016. At the day camps, only staff were surveyed. At the overnight camps, as many campers as possible were also surveyed along with staff and CITs. The participating camps, located in central or eastern Canada, are all supported in some way by the UJA Federation of Toronto, the sponsor of the study. The sample included seven youth movement overnight camps and two community/independent overnight camps. Two of the day camps were run by the JCC and one by Bnei Akiva. The majority of campers at these camps live in Toronto during the course of the year.


The findings produced by this analysis affirm the educational assumptions that inspired this study. Israel education can occur almost anywhere at camp: during the course of daily or special programs, in so-called nighttime activities, in the context of religious services, at mealtimes, and at the flagpole. Campers and staff also affirm how they are made aware of Israel in this environment by hearing Hebrew being spoken by staff and by peers; by the presence of Israelis, whether or not they speak in Hebrew; and by features of the physical space, such as signage and artwork.

At the same time, in the aggregate, across a variety of camp settings, the outcomes produced by these features of the camp setting are variegated in terms of which forms of Israel engagement they cultivate and in terms of how powerful such outcomes are. Overall, the impact of these features does not seem to go very deep. To take a couple of examples: Hearing Hebrew at camp may bring a flavor of Israel to the environment, but that does not leave much of a discernable impact; staffing camps with Israelis may nurture emotional connection to Israel, especially among staff, but it may not contribute much to additional Israel-related outcomes.

Overall, these findings confirm the tentative conclusion of a previous study that prompted this inquiry in the first place (Rosov Consulting, 2015). Relative to other immersive experiences where young people encounter Israel, such as day school, and even more so compared to experiencing Israel itself in the course of a trip, camp has much less additional impact on Israel engagement.

This is not surprising. Camp is a seasonal experience, lasting for a maximum of eight weeks, and for many campers not even half that time. The camps are concerned with a broader set of educational goals, such as cultivating Jewish community, Jewish religious commitments, and in some instances a larger social/political agenda. Nurturing knowledge of and connection to Israel is a small part, therefore, of a much larger social and cultural agenda. That surely explains, for example, why Israel Day is perceived to be the moment at camp where Israel’s presence is most commonly experienced. This day is a one-time episode that stands apart from the rest of the summer’s flow and focus. Its design does not speak to an integrated educational approach.

Given how much is evidently being invested in Israel-related experiences, through bringing Israelis to camp and through the time devoted to Israel focused programming, it does seem as if these elements in their separate parts do not currently add up to a very powerful approach to Israel education. One might say that, at present, Israel education at camp is a case in which the sum of the experiences is not greater than the total of the parts. The ingredients are in place, but they do not yet seem to have been fused into an especially potent mix. Creating such a potent cocktail is surely the next frontier for Israel education at camp, aligned with a powerful vision of the purposes of Israel education in these settings. It won’t be sufficient to throw into the pot additional quantities of the same ingredients, such as greater numbers of Israel staff, most frequently touted as some form of special sauce. Such ingredients need to be blended together as part of a larger plan. 

Updated: Jan. 27, 2019