On the art room floor inside Brooklyn’s Hannah Senesh Community Day School a group of 5-year-olds are squatting around an enormous canvas, collectively coloring in the outline of a house, grass, sky and flowers with broad brushstrokes of tempera paint.
While they work, a teacher points to their thick paintbrushes and quizzes the children about what colors they are using: “What color is the sky? Blue. Yes, blue. The sky is blue. And what about the grass? Green. Right, green.”
Were the conversation happening in English, it would be ridiculously repetitive and overly easy for youngsters who are about to start kindergarten.
But the teacher — like all the staff members this week and next at this Brownstone Brooklyn school — is talking to them rak b’ivrit.
Here in New York’s (and possibly the diaspora’s) only Hebrew-immersion day camp, all the activities — from music to drama to playing in the sprinklers — occur in Hebrew.
During the school year at Senesh, as at most Jewish day schools, Hebrew is, for the most part, an academic subject, and even the Hebrew teachers mix English into their lessons. But at this day camp the counselors, most of them Senesh faculty members, stick to Hebrew — and lots of body language, pictures and pointing.
“We didn’t know what would happen, how the kids would manage,” said Shira Becher, a second- and third-grade Hebrew teacher and the camp’s director, referring to the immersion approach. “But we quickly saw it was very doable. They have art, music, drama and movement in Hebrew. They’re living life in Hebrew.”
Launched in collaboration with Hebrew at the Center, a nonprofit focused on improving Hebrew instruction in North America, the camp, which opened last Monday and has 50 children in grades k-4, is an outgrowth of Senesh’s efforts to strengthen its Hebrew curriculum, at a time when more and more parents of all backgrounds are seeking foreign-language exposure for their young children. The camp also comes amid an emerging Jewish communal consensus that camp and experiential education in general can be equally, if not more, effective than the traditional classroom model.
While no other Jewish camps are fully immersion, many are getting serious about incorporating Hebrew instruction — in more substantive ways than simply calling the dining hall a “cheder ohel” or referring to counselors as “madrichim.”
Starting next week, Congregation Beth Elohim and the Kings Bay Y at Windsor Terrace — a few stops away from Senesh on the F train — will pilot a seven-week “dual-language Hebrew summer camp,” one that combines English and Hebrew activities, and which is staffed entirely by native-Hebrew speakers. That camp, also for grades k-4, is an outgrowth of the Park Slope Reform temple’s Israelis In Brooklyn program and the Kings Bay Y’s less-than-one-year-old pop-up JCC in Windsor Terrace, a neighborhood with a growing Jewish population. More than 60 children are registered, most of them from homes in which at least one parent is Israeli.
Meanwhile, the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah network two years ago began implementing its “Daber Program,” which trains Hebrew-proficient counselors to integrate Hebrew instruction into the day.
“We think that camps are particularly fertile grounds for using more Hebrew because it’s a closed environment,” Joel Einleger, senior program officer for Avi Chai, told The Jewish Week when the Ramah program, which it funded, launched.
While this summer’s Hebrew camp at Senesh is two weeks only and limited to Senesh students, school leaders hope next year to open it up to the wider Jewish community, possibly adding more sessions and grades.
Opening the camp to non-Senesh students would dovetail with another goal of the school: to become a quasi-JCC for Jewish Brownstone Brooklyn on evenings and weekends. A community supplemental high school program is in the planning stages, and the school already hosts Wednesday-night adult classes, bringing in teachers from Manhattan’s Mechon Hadar and the Renewal congregation Romemu. A series of family holiday workshops and a Sunday-morning drop-in play space for toddlers and their parents have attracted hundreds of people.
The Hebrew camp has been more popular than anticipated — no doubt aided by the fact that it was scheduled for two weeks when few other child-care and camp options are available. (While private schools and day schools finish in mid-June, most New York day camps don’t begin until the city’s public schools are on summer vacation.)
“We intended to have 20 kids for the pilot, but then 50 kids registered the first day — and it was already the end of March,” said Nicole Nash, the head of school.
Noting that she hopes the camp can eventually serve as a model for other Hebrew-immersion camps, Nash said Senesh and Hebrew at the Center officials are carefully evaluating and documenting the pilot and plan to develop a guide outlining the training and procedures necessary.
School officials see this year’s pilot as an opportunity to learn not only about running an immersion day camp, but also how to improve year-round Hebrew teaching.
“One of the main goals of this was professional development for our staff,” said Becher, the camp director and teacher. “We’re looking at how we take what we learn from this experience into the classroom. We’re getting a chance to see how to bring Hebrew in, but also how to integrate it with other activities.”
Already, she said, the school is considering running all its music classes, and possibly other activities, in Hebrew during the year.
So far, parents seem pleased with the new camp.
“It’s been really great,” said Samantha Davidson Green, whose sons are going into kindergarten and second grade at Senesh. “My older son was reluctant at first, but now he thinks it’s awesome. It’s at school, but it’s fun — they get to run in the sprinklers and do art. The Hebrew learning happens very organically.”
The camp was actually Davidson Green’s suggestion: she brought the idea to Senesh two years ago after her children experienced the Spanish-immersion day camp at the International School of Brooklyn.
She and another parent, Cindy Greenberg (who also helped establish the Kings Bay Y/Beth Elohim camp), did some preliminary research, and “through casual conversation with other parents, I knew there was huge interest in this,” she said.
Marcy Wang, whose son Alexander is going into third grade at Senesh, said he “is really enjoying” the camp so far.
“It’s all the things he loves about school — art, music, drama — and no academics,” she said. “There’s no pressure, he’s not sitting behind a desk trying to learn something. And my husband said when he came to get him yesterday, there’s Alexander chatting away in Hebrew!”
Language immersion is nothing new for Alexander; since Wang’s husband is Swedish, and the family “spends a lot of time” in Sweden, Alexander is already bilingual.
Wang said she is pleased to see her son, through both the day school and camp, get a stronger Hebrew and Jewish foundation than she had.
“The way I learned Hebrew was typical of a Jewish girl growing up on Long Island at that time: everything evaporates the second you get bat mitzvahed.”
Davidson Green noted that the camp is inspiring her — and other parents — to brush up their Hebrew skills.
“It’s had a ripple effect,” she said. “I’m listening to Hebrew on my iPod.”