Learning about Learning

Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University

Category: Center News (page 1 of 15)

From Pete Seeger to Ben Platt: Hebrew Music at Jewish Summer Camps

by Jonathan B. Krasner

Long before Ben Platt was a Broadway sensation in Dear Evan Hansen, he was wowing audiences in Hebrew language productions at Camp Ramah California. Platt recalled playing Sky Masterson in a Hebrew language production of Guys & Dolls and even sang a few lines of “Luck be a Lady Tonight” (“Hey lady, tni li mazal”) in a November 2016 episode of Late Night with Seth Myers. Ramah was a formative experience for Platt, who credits it with keeping him engaged with Judaism. His memories of the Hebrew show tunes he performed help keep the connection solid all these years later.

One of the takeaways of Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps, the recently-published book that I coauthored with Sarah Bunin Benor and Sharon Avni, is the critical role that music plays in creating a Hebrew atmosphere at many Jewish summer camps. Often, multiple Hebrew music genres comprise a camp’s soundscape, with one form or another coming to the fore, depending on the context.

Hebrew singing has been heard in some form at Jewish summer camps since their inception at the turn of the twentieth century. Many of the early camps, particularly the philanthropically-funded “fresh air camps,” were charged with Americanizing the children of immigrants, while other privately operated camps attracted a middle-class and wealthy clientele.

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Hebrew Infusion and the Camp Experience for Parents

by Sarah Bunin Benor
Second in a series

Mosaic reading adar ohel and dining room

courtesy URJ Jacobs camp

This week in a non-pandemic year, I would be driving up to the mountains to visit my middle daughter at Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa, dropping off my oldest at the bus for Ramah in California, and hugging my youngest as she goes through airport security to fly to Ramah in the Rockies. What I find myself missing most this year is not the clean, quiet house (although that is never far from my mind), but scouring for Hebrew words in the parent blog posts and photos from my children’s camps.

For the past eight years, my colleagues Jonathan Krasner and Sharon Avni and I have studied how Jewish summer camps use Hebrew. Our book Hebrew Infusion presents historical and contemporary analysis of what we found through camp visits, interviews, surveys, archival research, and outward-facing materials like websites and parent updates. Camp leaders infuse Hebrew words, signs, songs, and fun activities into the camp experience to create a rich local tradition and foster campers’ connections to Hebrew, Israel, Judaism, and the Jewish people.

We found sentences laced with Hebrew words – mostly nouns – in dozens of camps. At Solomon Schechter, an independent camp near Seattle, we heard, “Madrichim, madrichot [male and female counselors], you can pick up dessert for your tzrif [bunk].” At Hilltop, a Reform camp in California, a staff member announced, “We’re going to the teatron [theater] for Shabbat shiur [lesson].” We call this register “Camp Hebraized English.”

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Hebrew Ba’Bayit

by Sharon Avni

First in a series about the new book Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps, the product of the Mandel Center’s Hebrew at Camp project.

Kids at camp posing under a sign in Hebrew

Courtesy Ramah Day Camp in Nyack

For all of the six years that Sarah Benor, Jonathan Krasner, and I spent researching and writing about the use of written and spoken varieties of Hebrew at American Jewish overnight camps, we never imagined that as our book Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps was coming off the printing press we would be facing a situation in which most of these camps were making the painful decision to close for the summer of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though we had some inkling around Passover that camp leadership was grappling with the implications of the virus’s severity, there was still a glimmer of hope that if anyone could figure out a creative way to keep camps open and safe, it would be Jewish overnight camp directors, who seem to have superpowers that enable them to do what often seems like the impossible: keep hundreds of campers and staff members engaged, entertained, well fed, and happy, while dealing with the logistics of staffing, grounds keeping, and security issues. But the joy of finally receiving copies of the book was tempered by the reality that camping was not going to happen this summer. As a camp alumna and a parent of two children who have attended Young Judaea camps for years, I, along with my family, was devastated by the news we received in May. The annual ritual of pulling out the enormous duffle bags from the basement closet, beginning to label clothing and packing up their belongings was quickly replaced with feelings of sadness and disbelief.

One of the central findings of our book is that Jewish overnight camps have a “secret sauce”—and that Hebrew is one of the key ingredients in creating each camp’s distinctive Jewish flavor. Continue reading

Cultivating New Colleagues

By Robin Kahn

The 2019-2020 undergraduate fellows. A group of eleven college students. I need to hire another teacher.This is my August refrain. My colleagues around the country share it because there is a shortage of Jewish educators in the US. Year after year, I have lamented the dearth of qualified religious school teachers. So when I was asked late last August to  direct the Mandel Center’s Undergraduate Fellows program, I jumped at the opportunity to foster the professional growth of young adult Jewish educators.

A group of undergraduate fellows reviewing Passover materials.And so my journey with a group of Brandeis undergraduates began. Each fellow had committed to teaching in a local  supplementary school in 2020-2021, which was a commitment to waking early on Sunday mornings, preparing lessons in their free time, and arranging their course schedules to allow for mid-week teaching. 

The fellows and I met 12 times over the year, over dinner, to explore teaching and learning in a supplemental Jewish educational setting. We covered such topics as  the Hawkins Triangle, multiple intelligences, social, emotional, and spiritual learning, teaching Israel, talking about God, studying Jewish texts with young children, child development, and choosing materials.

From the very beginning I was inspired by the fellows’ passion for engaging their students in Jewish life. I was confident that over the year, they would become more thoughtful and better Jewish educators. I also knew this experience would be an opportunity for me to learn. Continue reading

Frequent Low-Stakes Assessments Enhance Learning in Hasidic Schools

by Moshe Krakowski

The benefits of frequent low-stakes assessments are well recognized in education research. Though high-stakes assessments have value, smaller, more frequent assessments have some important and unique benefits: they are formative, not just summative, and they provide real-time feedback to the teacher. Furthermore, they promote student learning by giving students many opportunities to retrieve information from memory.

In the course of my current Mandel Center-sponsored research project, Hasidic Learning,  I have observed an assessment technique that takes the benefits of frequent low-stakes assessment and adds to it the benefits of cognitive clinical interviews. The clinical interview is a technique used by researchers to investigate what students understand about a given topic. It is typically semi-structured; that is, it has some anchor questions that are used in all interviews, but no fixed formula throughout. Unlike a standard psychology intervention that follows a set script, the clinical interview allows the researcher flexibility to pursue questions or problems that may arise as the interview unfolds. This lack of rigid structure is a powerful tool in the researcher’s arsenal, allowing him or her to get into the nitty-gritty of student knowledge.

In Hasidic schools (and indeed in most Haredi schools), assessment often takes place using something called an oral farher. Continue reading

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