Vision at the Heart



Many of us, if we are fortunate, have at some point in our lives been part of an unforgettable educational experience - a school, a summer program, an outstanding teacher - that has touched our souls or perhaps even changed our lives. We look back on such moments with gratitude and awe, and with the hope that others - our friends, our colleagues, and especially our children- will be exposed to similar experiences that offer inspiration and purpose.

What does it take to create these kinds of experiences?


These are the opening words of Professor Seymour Fox's book (written in collaboration with William Novak), Vision at the Heart. Fox, a first-class academic researcher and Jewish education entrepreneur (the Hebrew University’s School of Education is named after him) addresses, on both the theoretical and practical level, the challenge with which his book opens: how to create inspirational and educational experiences for children.


Despite the question’s modern flavor, it lies at the heart of traditional Jewish education. For example, the Seder night celebrated on Passover is built entirely around this motif of shaping the identity of the younger generation through the creation of formative experiences. Jewish educators were always occupied with the quest to establish a Jewish identity through significant childhood experiences suited to the changing conditions of reality. One of the educational projects that Fox and his partners established was the Conservative movement’s famous Ramah summer camp. In North America, Jewish summer camps have long been associated with non-formal Jewish education. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish children and youth spend lazy, happy days at a range of more than 150 Jewish summer camps around the country. Most camps offer a program full of social, educational, physical, and spiritual growth, over the course of which campers also create lifelong friendships.


But more than anything else, many Jewish summer camps give children a sense of belonging to a great tribe - the Jewish People. Far from home and family, the children discover new realms of meaning and undergo significant spiritual experiences, including celebrating communal Shabbat meals, singing Hebrew songs, reciting the traditional prayers, and participating in ceremonies. These informal educational experiences have tremendous power in shaping Jewish identity.


We asked Melton Centre’s students to share their experiences as children in Jewish summer camps. This is the response that we received from our student Sydney Brenner:


It had only taken about 4 minutes into the presentation on URJ Eisner Summer Camp to be utterly sold on a sleep-away experience. I was already flaunting the flyer in my parents’ faces on the car ride home from Hebrew School. Cumulatively, I spent nine summers at Eisner Camp—five as a camper and four as staff—and it proved to be one of the most defining institutions of my Jewish identity. It was at camp that I grew in my spirituality, my independence and even in my profession. Camp awakened my connection to shabbat, the warm glow of a havdalah candle amidst the low strumming of an acoustic guitar. It fostered problem solving skills as I learned to navigate a dirt trail in Massachusetts. It was camp that sparked an early passion for Jewish education as I observed my campers in deep discussions on biblical stories or kabbalah. As we strolled down the grassy hill in our white clothes each Friday night, I continually felt rooted in a community, a family—something I hadn’t experienced in my predominantly non-Jewish hometown. Eisner provided the foundational leadership skills and the values that I carry today. Presently, my camp memories fuel the holy work that I do with the Melton Center Jewish Education MA program and I feel confident to contribute to the ever-changing world of informal Jewish education.

The Melton Centre’s M.A program offers a complete course on informal Jewish education, given by Dr. Johnny Ariel, where students learn inter alia about the influence of Jewish summer camps on Jewish identity.


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