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.
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