Immersed in Hebrew
Friends at Camp Shomria show off the fresh vegetables they picked in the camp’s garden. The produce was used to make a salad for one of the meals. (photo from Camp Shomria)
It is said that there is no better way to learn something than by immersing yourself in it. And for kids who want to learn Hebrew in Canada, camp is one of the best and most accessible ways of doing that. But, while there are many Jewish camps in Canada that promote Hebrew language, Camp Massad in Manitoba is the only camp where all the activities and programming are carried out in Hebrew.
“They are not allowed to speak English outside the cabin,” said Danial Sprintz, the camp’s executive director. “Inside the cabin, they speak in whatever languages they want to. But, if they are outside, they are not allowed to speak in English to each other. The kids are all trying to speak Hebrew. So, when everybody’s doing it, you fall in line. Our camp is run completely in Hebrew and there isn’t any other camp that is doing that.
“Not all the kids that come to the camp can speak Hebrew when they arrive. About 50% of the kids don’t go to Hebrew day school, so they are learning Hebrew at camp. We don’t sit them down in a classroom, but we teach them the essentials they need to ask the basic questions. We teach Hebrew through song.”
With repetition, and everyone being together for three meals a day and programming, the kids start picking up the ability to communicate with each other as they go.
Most of the staff has grown up going to the camp and, each year, there are also a number of staff who come in from Israel.
The camp also prides itself on being 100% inclusive. No matter what a child’s situation – if they are autistic, use a wheelchair or are developmentally delayed, or if they are completely secular or ultra-Orthodox in Jewish observance – Sprintz said the camp is dedicated to finding a way to make the experience work for all campers.
Sprintz was executive director of Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria for a number of years, when he and his wife were going to school in British Columbia, before returning to Winnipeg and taking on his role at Camp Massad.
“When I arrived in Victoria, the rabbi was on sabbatical in Israel,” said Sprintz. “I approached the board about helping them with the programming while he was away, and then just stayed on after.”
This experience helped Sprintz develop ways of introducing the children at Camp Massad to Judaism. “We make it fun,” he said. “And we make it something the kids look forward to, as we make the tunes and the process of it all fun. We have tefillin club in the morning for kids who want to try something out, and for kids who need to. But, when it comes down to it, we provide all the religious and traditional cultural components that kids would need to come to camp, to a certain point – we don’t want to separate boys and girls, as we want everybody to be together.”
Camp Massad encourages the children to write their own songs and to put on plays for others in the camp – all in Hebrew.
Winnipeg’s Aviva Tabac has been sending her two daughters, Chaya, 15, and Sara, 13, to Camp Massad for the last three years.
“I didn’t go to camp growing up,” said Tabac. “My parents took us on a summer vacation each year, and the rest of the time was spent at the beach with family and friends. Since I didn’t grow up going to summer camp, I felt it would be a good idea for the girls to try it. Just from my immediate circle of friends who all went to Massad, there’s a special bond they have with one another that carries over into adulthood. All my friends still talk about their fond Massad days and I wanted to give the girls the chance to experience that for themselves.”
Both Chaya and Sara attend public school, so they do not get a lot of other opportunities to speak Hebrew. Tabac said, “When my girls return from camp, they continue to speak in Hebrew, sing Hebrew songs and reminisce. They hang onto their Massad memories and feelings for as long as they can.
“The Hebrew is a big component,” she continued, “but, more so, the celebration of Shabbat, day-to-day celebration of Jewish culture and being proud of being Jewish. The lov[ing], understanding and caring staff and councilors [are] amazing. My girls feel at home when they’re at Massad. They come back rejuvenated, independent and confident. I know that, when they’re there, I have nothing to worry about because they’re in good hands.”
Meanwhile, Lilach Golan moved with her family to Vancouver last fall. She has been sending her four daughters to Camp Shomria in Ontario for years, and plans to continue doing so. She does it with the hope of them picking up some of the values that she grew up with on kibbutz in Israel, including Hebrew.
“For us, the Hebrew language and culture were extremely important and it was very difficult to speak in Hebrew at home all the time … because, when children live in English, they want to speak English and want to be part of the culture around them,” said Golan.
While Camp Shomria operates in English, Hebrew is everywhere at the camp, and the different areas in the camp have Hebrew names, like the chof (beach), cheder ochel (dining room) and moadon tarbut (culture club). Hebrew is also spoken during many of the activities, which include singing and dancing, and at different presentations.
“They do have a lot of Israelis and people who speak Hebrew,” said Golan. “And that’s a big push for the Hebrew – kids love to talk Hebrew with them and the Israelis come every summer. And the songs they sing, there is a lot of language happening there.”
Sharon, 14, is Golan’s youngest daughter. For her, the best part of camp is getting to spend time with her kvutza (group).
“We use Hebrew terminology in contexts where they make sense to me and I can use them meaningfully,” said Sharon. “I also remember better what they mean when I’m not at camp anymore because I can remember the context in which we used them. Hebrew constructs a lot of what and how we do things at Camp Shomria and it’s that culture, atmosphere and values that make me want to come back.
“Even if the Hebrew we use at camp is not new to me,” she said, “it adds so much value to the camp environment and my experience of it. It helps me develop the connection to the three pillars of Hashomer Hatzair [The Young Guard, the Zionist-socialist youth movement] and the core values we share.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.