Becoming connected to Israel through Hebrew: Promising new evidence

March 19, 2021

Source: eJewish Philanthropy


Over the last few months, we have been provided with an opportunity to examine the question of the effect of immersive Hebrew learning on the students connection to Israel anew. For the last seven years, we have been evaluating the emerging phenomenon that is Kayitz Kef (‘Summer of Fun’ in Hebrew). The program is supported and managed by the Areivim Philanthropic Group and during the summer of 2019 comprised 12 Jewish day camps. Kayitz Kef is a day-camp Hebrew immersion program shaped by the Proficiency Approach to Hebrew language learning, operating within the framework of JCCs and other camp settings and staffed almost entirely by Israelis, operating entirely in Hebrew. In the summer of 2020, the program pivoted to a mix of in-person and virtual platforms, providing a range of Hebrew experiences, engaging over 2,000 campers through both day and overnight camps.

We’ve previously reported on some of the noteworthy features of the program: how much children enjoy their time at camp even while communicating entirely in Hebrew; and how various forms of assessment reveal impressive language growth over the summer. We’ve also noted how parents report their children’s greater interest in and excitement about Israel following six weeks in the program. Until now, we haven’t known how much these feelings about Israel derive from the program itself and how much they’re shaped by the families who choose to send their children to such a program. That has been a hard methodological problem to crack.

Following a summer with less in-person camp activity due to COVID-19, we have had a chance to focus our efforts on better understanding, retrospectively, what has been produced these past seven years at the longest-running Kayitz Kef program, known as Sha’ar (Gateway). Sha’ar, a Hebrew immersion track, operates at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack and provides a special opportunity to explore the extent to which immersion in Hebrew contributes to a greater connection to Israel.

Ramah Nyack as a whole is an Israel-rich environment. Israel and Israeli culture have long been a major focus of camp life. Contemporary Israeli music and song is heard throughout the camp every day, and the camp’s staff includes a mishlachat (delegation) made up of dozens of young Israelis each summer. Within Nyack, Sha’ar functions as a special track operating entirely in Hebrew, unlike the rest of the camp. For those age cohorts for which the Sha’ar program was offered, Sha’ar represents 20% of campers who were enrolled at Ramah Nyack in the most recent summer of in-person activity.

Given the Israel-infused character of the whole camp, we hypothesized that parents who sent their children to the general Nyack program were likely as connected to Israel as those whose children were enrolled in Sha’ar. If we found that Sha’ar children are more connected to Israel than children in the general program, then there’s a strong chance that it had something to do with their experience in Sha’ar’s Hebrew program. Campers in the general Nyack program are exposed to Hebrew through a ‘Hebrew infusion’ approach. They encounter Hebrew in the physical environment of camp, through the songs they hear and sing and in the formal announcements made by camp leaders. In an infusion setting, campers are mostly exposed to Hebrew words that refer to objects and particular activities. These words typically function within English sentences through a phenomenon now referred to as ‘Camp Hebraicized English.’ Infusion campers are not exposed to understanding full Hebrew sentences and do not gain capacities to communicate in Hebrew as do campers in a Hebrew proficiency program such as Sha’ar.

Building on a body of research that shows how parents are reliable observers of their young children’s attitudes and experiences, the Rosov Consulting team surveyed the parents whose children have been in either Nyack’s general program or in Sha’ar over the past seven years to see if their assessment of their child’s connection to Israel and Israelis differ from one another. (A report of our findings can be found here.) 

We learned first that the great majority of families who had one child in the Sha’ar program were almost as likely to have another child in the general program. The demographic profiles of the families in the two programs are generally similar. This helps rule out home background as a differentiating factor in our data.

When it comes to children’s attitudes to Israel, the findings are striking. Parents of the campers who have experienced Sha’ar perceive their child to be connected to Israel and Israelis, to be communicating in Hebrew, and to feel positive about the language to a degree that significantly exceeds what is perceived by parents of children at Nyack’s general programs.

These differences are consistent across an extensive set of measures: the range of meanings their children attribute to Israel; the character traits their children ascribe to Israelis; their child’s interest in Israel and Israelis; and the strength of their emotional connection to the country. In all of these respects, Hebrew immersion campers’ attitudes are perceived to be significantly more positive than those of the other campers. (This is even more striking considering that the other Ramah campers’ levels of positive responses across all these measures are already extremely high.) They also exhibit significantly greater gains in their ability to communicate in Hebrew and their parents perceive them to feel more positively about the language. Finally, Sha’ar parents are much more likely to attribute their child’s connection with Israel and Israelis to their experience at camp than do parents in the general program. From past research we conducted at Ramah Nyack, we know that parents have expressed an appreciation for the special relationships their children were able to experience with their Israeli counselors when those relationships were exclusively in Hebrew. It appears that Hebrew immersion campers at Ramah Nyack have a different sense of the Israeliness and personalities of their Israeli counselors than non-immersion campers.

These findings, drawn from the unique laboratory of this camp setting, help substantiate a proposition that has been exceptionally hard to support with data until now: the experience of intensively learning modern spoken Hebrew can make a significant difference to campers’ connection with Israel and Israelis. When these young people are immersed in Hebrew there is more going on than just the acquisition of a new language. They are no longer getting intimate with Israel through a veil.

Read the entire article on eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Apr. 20, 2021