Don’t Like Hebrew School? Try Hebrew Camp (Article from the Jewish Week)

The Conservative movement’s Ramah camps debut
Daber, a program to step up summertime ivrit acquisition

Gabriela Geselowitz

Editorial Intern

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Not every summer camp has its own celebrities. But “Rami” and “Chani” a fictional boy and girl whose names derive from “Ramah” and “Machaneh” (Hebrew for camp) have become the new stars of Camp Ramah, the Conservative movement’s summer camp network.

But it’s not exactly a life of glamour for the “famous” characters, portrayed by Ramah counselors, who have the job of reinforcing the kids’ newly acquired Hebrew-language skills.

On a recent morning at Camp Ramah Nyack, a day camp in Rockland County, counselor Jordan Soffer dons a tall blue hat reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat” and T-shirt bearing the name Rami in Hebrew letters.

As he approaches a group of second graders, one calls out, “You’re not really Rami! You’re from another eidah [group]!” Without a mask or full suit, the disguise is easily blown. (Chani’s costume is like Rami’s, but with a messy brown wig.)

However, as Soffer sits down to talk with the boys, they warm up to him, and seem to follow his basic Hebrew sentences, even when they are hesitant to respond. The topic of Chanukah comes up, and when “Rami” asks why they enjoy the holiday, one boy exclaims “Matanah!” the Hebrew word for gift.

“Hebrew permeates camp culture,” Soffer later tells The Jewish Week. And among the campers, he says, “Rami is like Mickey Mouse.” 

From ‘Maccabiah’ to ‘tefillah,’ Hebrew words have always been a daily part of life at the Ramah camps. But now, with a five-year grant from the AVI CHAI Foundation (which is in spend-down mode and will cease operations in 2020), the North American camp network is seeking to upgrade its Hebrew education.

The Daber Program (Daber means “speak” in Hebrew), created with an AVI CHAI planning grant, $3 million over five years, trains 55 counselors, called Daber Fellows, in various methods of language acquisition and techniques for helping the kids pick up a little more Hebrew. The fellows have been placed in 11 Ramah camps throughout North America.

“We think that camps are particularly fertile grounds for using more Hebrew because it’s a closed environment,” says Joel Einleger, senior program officer for AVI CHAI. 

While summer camp is not a traditional setting for language study, proponents of Daber say it holds a great deal of potential. With a lot to cover in a short period of time, there is “limited success in two-to-three day Hebrew school,” explains Amy Skopp Cooper, director of Ramah Nyack.

At a program where kids are more interested in swimming and sports than studying, will new information get through to them?

Nyack counselor and Daber Fellow Ariella Kristal thinks so.

“You can feel Hebrew in the air,” she insists, after helping her campers through activities including Hebrew carnival and skits introducing a Hebrew word of the day. Once campers are given a word in Hebrew, they are encouraged to repeat it as often as possible.

Each Ramah site has its own Daber features, such as the weekly “Daber Golf Cart” at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. Children who approach the golf cart and speak in Hebrew for a full sentence are awarded a prize.

But all have Rami and Chani. The two appear as illustrations on posters around camp, with simple Hebrew phrases about camp activities appearing on their word bubbles in Hebrew letters. When counselors dress up as Rami and Chani, and play with the campers, the rule is: only Hebrew allowed.

At the end of the day, after the children leave just before 4 p.m., the counselors stay over at the camp and live there as if it were an overnight camp, with evening programming geared towards teens and college students. Once or twice a week depending on other camp events, the dining hall is filled with Hebrew tables, where counselors can seat themselves according to the level of Hebrew they are most comfortable with, and talk over dinner. In addition, there is the twice weekly optional but wildly popular “Ulpan,” where about 20 Israeli counselors pair up with 50 Americans and teach them anything from the aleph-bet to how to attend an Israeli job interview.

Daber is more of a challenge for day camps like Nyack than for overnight camps, however.

“The programming time at a resident camp… is a fuller schedule with more opportunities, [such as] bunk programs, evening activities, and mealtimes,” explains Cheryl Magen, project manager of the AVI CHAI grant, and Jewish Theological Seminary educational consultant to Ramah.

However, Magen says, “The feedback on a whole has just been wonderful. This program has really raised the level of consciousness of Hebrew as priority at Ramah.”

Some counselors complain, however, that the program has created a division between regular counselors, who do not have strong Hebrew, and the Daber fellows.

One Nyack counselor who wished to remain anonymous says that as a non-Hebrew speaker, after being given a vocabulary word, “just randomly one day” her supervisors “expect me to remember the word throughout the rest of the summer.”

Magen explains, “We didn’t expect that they [non-Fellows] were going to be in the program per se. The idea was to target the fellows … and have them work with their campers, and then try to move it forward.”

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