Sitting under the shade of a tree in an otherwise open field, six campers watch as Ella Tesler pulls clothing out of two large bags.
“Mah zeh?” she asks, using the Hebrew phrase for “What is this?” If nobody responds, she will say it again. “Mah zeh?”
Eventually the campers, who are ages 5 and 6, respond in Hebrew. “It’s a green shirt,” one says. Tesler applauds and puts each article of clothing on a strip of yellow caution tape tied between two trees. She is setting up for a game they will play later.
The activity takes time and patience, but the children don’t grow frustrated. They know Tesler will not speak English, and that she wants an answer in Hebrew.
These children are the 13 campers enrolled in the Sha’ar Hebrew Immersion program at Ramah Day Camp of Greater Washington, D.C., in Germantown.
The program strives to teach campers Hebrew by making it an integral part of their six weeks at the Conservative movement-sponsored camp.
“The intention was to create as immersive an environment as possible,” says Rabbi Rami Schwartzer, the camp’s director. “That doesn’t mean [campers] won’t hear any English in camp … but we’ve tried to surround them in the Hebrew bubble the whole day.”
The immersion program runs as part of the regular day camp program, with two distinctions. Its campers are pulled out for 30 minutes every day for Hebrew-only activities, such as the one Tesler is doing. And the children are always accompanied by counselors that Schwartzer calls the camp’s “emissaries for Hebrew” because they speak only Hebrew to campers and camp staffers.
Hebrew is still an integral part of the regular program. Ramah Day Camp uses Hebrew with all campers for announcements, music and simple instructions.
The Hebrew immersion program, for which there is an additional charge, is in its pilot year at the Germantown-based camp. But the concept has seen success elsewhere.
The Sha’ar program began five years ago at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, N.Y., and has grown to include 90 campers there.
The immersion program is a part of the Kayitz Kef program from the Foundation for Jewish Camp and Areivim, a philanthropic group that supports formal and experiential Jewish, Hebrew and Israel education. The goal is to incorporate Hebrew language learning into camp life.
In a nearby cabin, Itsik Sayag, another counselor who speaks only Hebrew at camp, helps the campers start conversations by having them act out scenes or share something about themselves.
“I have eyes that are blue,” one camper tells the group in Hebrew.
His friend offers a correction, also in Hebrew: “I have blue eyes.”
Sayag and Tesler are Israeli schlichim at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda and Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg, respectively.
“It’s taking a lot of energy from both of us [staff and campers],” Tesler says of speaking only Hebrew. But “what is great with kids [is that] they accept a situation much easier than adults. If I’m coming to the kids and speaking in Hebrew, [they] will not question it.”
Back under the tree in the open field, there are a dozen articles of clothing hanging from the tape. Tesler calls out a piece of clothing in Hebrew, and the campers race to be the first one to touch it. Then they join their friends on buses heading for the pool.
Tesler says she is excited to see the campers understanding and forming sentences rather than just using individual words. But beyond the language learning, the other important goal of the program is “to have fun. It is camp,” she says. n