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In Hebrew immersion day camps, summer fun augmented with learning

Campers present their names in Hebrew at the Sha'ar Program (Sha'ar Program/Amy Skopp Cooper)

Campers presenting their names in Hebrew at the Sha’ar program piloted at Camp Ramah in Nyack, N.Y. (Camp Ramah in Nyack)

NEW YORK (JTA) — It used to be that parents who wanted to expose their children to conversational Hebrew over the summer had to travel to Israel. Now a growing number of American Jewish day camps are offering Hebrew-immersion programs, where kids do the standard day camp activities — swimming, arts and crafts, music, zip-lining and field trips — but “hakol b’ivrit.”

The rise of Hebrew day camps comes on the heels of an expanding Hebrew charter school movement in the United States. Approximately 3,000 children, not all of them Jewish, are now enrolled in the tuition-free schools, which focus on Hebrew learning and Israeli culture.

The growth of Hebrew-language programs comes amid growing American interest in exposing children to foreign languages at earlier ages. Over the past decade, dual-language programs in the United States have grown tenfold, with an estimated 2,000 now operating. More than 300 dual-language schools serve students in New York State alone, Jose Ruiz-Escalante, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education, told the Harvard Education Letter.

At the new day camps, the idea is to make Hebrew-learning enjoyable, a contrast to the traditional classroom approach of students seated at desks being drilled in the aleph-bet.

“We see Hebrew as a builder of Jewish community,” said Yehudit Feinstein-Mentesh, whose HaGimnasia Hebrew day camp is launching in Brooklyn this summer.

HaGimnasia hopes to cater to two distinct groups of young children: those whose parents are native Hebrew speakers — members of Brooklyn’s large Israeli expatriate community — and American Jews who want their children to attain Hebrew fluency. Run through Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform congregation in the Park Slope neighborhood, the camp focuses on Israeli culture and conversational Hebrew.

The seven-week camp will offer two tracks: total language immersion and a dual-language model for Hebrew beginners that incorporates Hebrew and English. Counselors will be a mix of summer transplants from Israel provided by the Jewish Agency and local expat Israeli teachers who teach Hebrew year-round.

“We are interested in bringing families that come from Israel and speak Hebrew at home together with Jewish-American families who are far from that,” Feinstein-Mentesh told JTA. “We want to bring these kids together to enrich and support each other in that process. We want to create a feeling of one people.”

Israeli-American families also form a large part of the constituency of Bereisheet, a camp that opened last year under the auspices of Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.

An extension of the Y’s Israeliness programs, which offer pre-K Hebrew immersion and after-school programs to educate children in Hebrew and Israeli culture, Bereisheet is a summer-long camp located in suburban New York’s Rockland County.

The all-in-Hebrew camp combines Israeli cultural activities such as sing-alongs and pita baking with classic American day camp activities. Designed for children in grades K-5, Bereisheet has attracted a mix of Israeli Americans and American Jews, though proficiency in Hebrew is required.

“It’s the closest you can get to a summer in Israel,” Rebecca Singer, director of the Israeliness program, told JTA, “but in an organized, American summer camp experience.”

Other Hebrew immersion day camps are designed for American Jewish children who may not have a robust Hebrew background.

Last year, the Areivim Hebrew at Camp program piloted at Camp Ramah in Nyack, N.Y., a day camp about 30 miles from Manhattan. Twenty children entering kindergarten participated in the summer-long program offering Ramah’s usual activities, but in Hebrew. This year, the program will expand to a second group of children at Ramah and will be introduced at JCC day camps in Cherry Hill, N.J., suburban Detroit and Toronto.

“Hebrew immersion camps are a powerful way for Americans to feel empowered in Hebrew language and Israeli culture,” Rabbi David Gedzelman, executive vice president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, told JTA. The Steinhardt Foundation is a primary funder of the Hebrew Charter School Center and a member of the Areivim Philanthropic Group, a funder, along with the Avi Chai Foundation, of Areivim Hebrew at Camp.

“Hebrew creates a real connector for people to Jewish civilization in general,” Gedzelman said.

In addition to a foothold in modern Israeli culture, he said comfort with Hebrew provides a foundation for young Jews to become comfortable with Jewish texts.

“I believe, and there is research to prove it, that a foundation of oral proficiency in a language leads to written proficiency much more effectively than vice versa,” Gedzelman said. “If people are fully able to speak a language, they are much more fully able to understand and appreciate that language in all respects.”

For Amy Fechter, who taught in Jewish day schools for more than 10 years and now runs Strategic Hebrew, a Manhattan program she founded that offers Hebrew-immersion experiences for children and adults, a desire to feel connected to traditional Jewish texts inspired her journey into Hebrew education.

“The goal [of Hebrew education] is connecting with Judaism,” Fechter told JTA. “I had a moment somewhere in high school when I realized that I can understand the text of the Hebrew prayers and the Torah, if I look at the words.

“The prayers are beautiful on a melodic level, but being able to read and understand their meaning for yourself gives you another level of connection. It makes the language come alive, and the religion come alive, when you have that capability for yourself.”

Fechter said that for some of her students, being exposed to Hebrew all day for five consecutive days allowed them to make huge strides. One teen, who had been too shy to speak up in Hebrew class before participating in Strategic Hebrew’s Leaders Fellowship program, felt confident enough when he returned to school that he convinced his teachers to move him up a level.

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