RJA takes Hebrew immersion outdoors


It was a different kind of camping experience. This time the fifth grade students did all the work. They were the ones who created and built the flag pole to raise and lower their homemade flag. They were the ones tying the knots and swinging the mallets to create a hammock, a rope swing and their own games for an obstacle course. And they accomplished it by only conversing in Hebrew.

Welcome to Machaneh Ivrit, Saul Mirowitz Day School — Reform Jewish Academy’s (SMDS-RJA) first ever Hebrew Camp. The 11 students and four adults spoke Hebrew for two days at their overnight at Shaw Nature Reserve allowing the students to have a language immersion experience and a taste of Israeli camping.


“Learning doesn’t just take place in the classroom,” Becky Lerner, fifth grade Hebrew teacher and coordinator of Hebrew curriculum said. “Jewish learning doesn’t just take place in the synagogue.”

The idea of the camp was fleshed out with Head of School Cheryl Maayan, Lerner and the school’s Hebrew staff, Jackie Nygate and Yifat Shefts. The goals were to offer the students a chance to celebrate the Hebrew they had learned throughout their years at the school, to celebrate Israel and enjoy a sample of camping life in Israel.

“It was Yifat’s idea to take it to the next level and make it an Israeli Scout experience and not just be a Hebrew culminating activity,” Maayan said.

Everyone agreed the experience met their goals and then some.

“The students did activities like they would do in Israel,” Shefts said. “They created the obstacle course, cooked pita on the campfire — they did everything from scratch.”

Lerner helped prepare the students by giving them the additional vocabulary they would need to be able to work together at the camp. There were important words like toilet paper, words for different foods and verbs to help them with their various tasks. The students also learned how to make knots and how to tie things together: very important skills for the rope course they would be creating.

“I was really excited and surprised because we could actually understand each other,” fifth-grader Rebecca Bloom said. “It was really cool and we had never done it before.”

Several students were a little apprehensive about only speaking Hebrew. Joshua Kazdan didn’t think he’d be able to speak just in Hebrew and was happy to discover he knew more Hebrew than he thought he did.

“It was a little bit of trouble at first, otherwise it was pretty easy,” Joshua said. “We could also figure out some things from the other person’s body language.”

The teaching staff encouraged the students to speak Hebrew by using incentives like Hershey’s Kisses and stickers. They let the students know they were not concerned with things like grammar, sentence structure or even if a sentence made any sense.

“We didn’t correct the students,” Lerner said. “We told them we didn’t care about their mistakes; we were focused on their efforts to speak Hebrew with the staff and with each other.”

A group of girls were quite surprised and excited to discover some of the adults had never heard of the Jonas Brothers singing group.

“We translated one of their songs into Hebrew and sang it for them,” Rebecca said. “I don’t think we got it right though.”

Part of the success was the students comfort with each other since most of them have been in class together since kindergarten. However, Rebecca said the experience helped them learn to trust each other a bit more.

“We all worked together to accomplish something,” fifth-grader Gabrielle Smoller said. “It brought us closer together.”

The experience also offered the students more than just the opportunity to speak Hebrew to one another. Many of the students spoke about the spirituality they felt during the prayer service.

“It was different to be outside and be able to move around,” fifth-grader Mayer Mitchell said. “We could feel God’s presence and the Aleph in nature.”

Fifth-grader Gaelyn Hartranft agreed.

“I wish I could go out there every morning and meditate,” Gaelyn said. “There were beautiful views, lakes and prairies. I felt closer to God there.”

The students clearly appreciated the opportunity to take their Hebrew language lessons to the next level and are more determined than ever to keep the skills they’ve acquired.

“I have worked hard learning Hebrew since kindergarten and I don’t want to let it go,” Rebecca said.

The students also recognize the broader implications of knowing the language.

“Hebrew connects us to people in Israel,” Joshua said. “If you go there you can communicate and get around.”

Lerner and the staff were very pleased with the success of the camp. They were especially pleased with the team work and the closeness of the students.

“Everyone had a job to do and they did it,” Lerner said. “It was nice how everyone worked together to accomplish the large tasks and the small tasks: it built community and gibush — group cohesion.”

There were many typical camping moments the students recalled including baking potatoes and roasting hotdogs and telling stories around the campfire. There was the hammock they created that wasn’t quite “reliable.” The loud girls. The last lunch with falafel, pita and homemade hot sauce. And, oh yeah, they “learned a lot more Hebrew.”

“It completed our mission for these students as they graduate,” Shefts said. “It was a delicious taste; it was even better than I expected.”