How should Hebrew be used at summer camps?


Since 2012, Professor Sarah Bunin Benor has visited 27 Jewish summer camps, venturing well beyond her home base at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

She found none that are quite like OSRUI, the Reform Jewish movement’s Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc. OSRUI had an unusual Hebrew immersion program among Jewish summer camps, according to Benor. Other summer camps that Benor visited leaned more towards Hebrew infusion, not immersion. She visited no other camps in Wisconsin.

Professor Sarah Bunin Benor

Benor will discuss immersion, infusion and more at her talk on her work on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2 p.m. at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd. in Whitefish Bay. Sponsors of the event include The Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies of University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and the JCC.

Immersion is a limiting of conversation to Hebrew. Infusion is including Hebrew terms along the way, like in announcements or in “call and response,” according to Benor. Hebrew-English sentences are common: “Madrichim (counselors), please bring your chanichim (campers) to the teatron (theater) immediately after Birkat Hamazon (prayer after meals).” That’s infusion.

Benor and her colleagues, associate professors Jonathan Krasner of Brandeis University and Sharon Avni of the City University of New York – Borough of Manhattan Community College, are nearly done with a book under the working title, “Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps.”

“I think both immersion and infusion are important in that they have different goals and do different things,” Benor said.


At OSRUI, immersion is largely for 10th grade campers.

“They get rewards for using Hebrew all day,” Benor said. “If they’re planning to speak Hebrew, they have a sticker that says ‘I’m speaking only Hebrew’ and then if they’re caught speaking English the sticker is removed and then if they still have their sticker by dinner time, they get a point.”

Points can go towards special prizes like breakfast on the pontoon boat or throwing a pie in the face of a counselor, she said.

“The campers get really into it because it’s fun. It’s a game,” Benor said.

“One thing I found interesting was the ripple effect of the immersion program,” she said. The immersion program is a separate program but it’s still in the same environment as the rest of the campers, she added. Campers not in the program would try speaking Hebrew words to those with stickers and the endeavor seemed to have the whole camp thinking more about Hebrew.

OSRUI’s Hebrew immersion effort is called the Chalutzim – or pioneer – program. Younger campers are prepared for their eventual participation in the Chalutzim program with daily 45-60 minute instructional Hebrew lessons. The learning is not classroom-based but is meant to be experiential and fun – it’s summer camp. Benor said younger campers are encouraged to look forward to someday being part of the Chalutzim program.

“The program dates back to 1964,” said Director Solly Kane of OSRUI. He said it connects campers to Jewish tradition, texts and Israel. Counselors for Chalutzim must be fluent and their staff meetings are in Hebrew, he said.

“As far as we know we’re the only Hebrew immersion program at an American Jewish summer camp. There were others in the 1950s and 60s but they closed.”

He said the Chalutzim program is thriving: “We’ll have 75 kids in the coming summer.”

Benor’s talk

But Benor is not visiting Wisconsin for the purpose of discussing OSRUI in particular. Her visit is to discuss her work on language generally, particularly infusion.

She said infusion language efforts are not unique to Jews.

For example, among the Elem Pomo Indians tribe in California, most speaking has shifted to English, but through infusion they give their native language a presence. “They continue to have ceremonies with some of that language,” Benor said. “They sometimes frame their community events with greetings and closings into that language.”

The forthcoming book by Benor, Krasner and Avni is due to come out in 2019.

Benor, who earned her Ph.D. in linguistics in 2004, got started with the summer camp project when she was searching for something to study involving Jews in different denominations.

“I said, OK, a summer camp would be a good place to do that research,” she said. “So I started at a Ramah camp. At that camp I found it interesting not only how they’re using Hebrew but how they were talking about it.”

Twenty-six camps later, she’s learned a lot.


Speaker: Sarah Bunin Benor

What:  At most American Jewish summer camps, programs are conducted primarily in English, but the environment is infused with Hebrew signs, songs and cheers. This talk draws from Professor Sarah Bunin Benor’s book project focusing on Hebrew use at Jewish summer camps, based on her team’s more than 200 interviews and visits to 36 camps.

When: Sunday, Feb. 25, 2 p.m.

Where: Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd. in Whitefish Bay. 414-967-8200.