(January 15, 2015 / JNS)
As the director of Camp Moshava, a religious Zionist camp in the Bnei Akiva network, I take great pride in the camper transformations that I witness every summer. The sheepish boys and girls who arrive at the beginning of the summer blossom into confident young men and women over the course of just a few short weeks.
Without question, the boost in self-esteem is due to a wide array of fun summertime experiences laced with important life skills. But it’s the way we teach them about Torah and Israel—the core components of their Jewish identities—that really makes the difference.
Our campers attend some of the country’s top Jewish educational institutions. They have all studied Torah for years, are quite familiar with Israeli history and culture, and relate to Israel as our Jewish homeland and the center of global Jewish life. It is precisely for this reason that that our job as informal educators is so difficult.
Every summer, it is our challenge to introduce new elements of “old” concepts and themes to students who already have an excellent foundational understanding of Judaism and Zionism. Time and time again, we discover that the solution is experiential education.
For example, instead of simply delving into the rabbinic commentaries when presenting the story of the Jews crossing the Jordan River, we simulate the event itself. We mimic what it was like for Joshua to lead the entire Jewish nation across the river and to take those exciting first steps into Israel. In that moment, the story that our campers have heard so many times before takes on an entirely different meaning, prompting a newfound appreciation for the challenges that Joshua faced, and his achievements.
When teaching about the importance of a united Jerusalem, our campers are immersed in activities that stimulate all of their senses. They trek through the sites of the capital, making their way from the Old City to the bustling city center. They relive the wars and the struggles of the Israel Defense Forces in recapturing the holy sites of Jerusalem. They hear the sounds of Jews praying at the Kotel, feel the water of the Gihon Spring from the City of David, see the majestic expanse of the Bridge of Strings at the entrance to modern-day Jerusalem, and smell the delicious aroma of freshly baked bread from the Machane Yehuda market. Through these non-traditional methods, our campers gain a deeper understanding of our national connection to and reliance on Jerusalem, and access thoughts and feelings that could not have been awakened in any other way.
As a Jewish educator, I recognize the importance of informal education in connecting Jewish youth to their history and heritage. Instead of grappling with dry facts, campers connect to experiences that help them retain the information in their hearts and minds. Informal education helps students make an important leap—from knowing that an event took place, to understanding how the event unfolded and how those who experienced it felt in that moment.
I also recognize that even the most effective teaching techniques and Jewish identity-building tools can all but vanish if not funded properly. In Jewish education, it is not just the technique and the talent that matter. The financial backing is equally as important, sometimes even more so.
It is for this reason that I support the Religious Zionist Slate (www.VoteTorah.org), a party in the upcoming elections for the World Zionist Congress whose core values include a strong emphasis on Torah and Zionist education. With more than $1 billion dollars in funding for Jewish educational programming up for grabs, it is essential that we support the only party that will ensure continued support for religious youth programs like Bnei Akiva and the growth and continuity of religious Zionist education in our schools, Jewish community centers, and summer camps.
It is thrilling to watch Jewish history and contemporary Israeli issues come alive for Jewish children, and it is inspiring to witness their transformations into prouder and more committed members of the Jewish community. This is the power of informal Jewish education. This is the transformation that occurs at summer camp.
But we must come to terms with the reality that the kinds of Jewish educational techniques that truly make a difference are not self-sustaining. We owe it to our children and ourselves to make sure that informal Jewish education always receives the funding it warrants and deserves. After all, the future of religious Zionism and Torah Judaism may very well depend on it.
Alan Silverman has served as the director of Camp Moshava for 30 years. He previously served as the associate principal of general studies for the elementary and middle schools of S.A.R. Academy in Riverdale, NY, and the director of education, development and training for Bnei Akiva of the U.S. & Canada. He lives with his wife and five children in Gush Etzion.