By Steve Kerbel

With the cooperation of the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the National Ramah Commission,  Center for Israel Education, conducted a three-day Israel learning retreat in May 2018 for 35 overnight and day camp staffers, most of them either in college or recent college graduates.

The program emphasized what always guides us in our work promoting Israel education: content, context, substance and nuance matter. Experiential learning is important but it must be grounded in the nuts and bolts of Israel’s story.  We recognized the important Israel education that the participating camps are already engaging in during the seminar, often delivered by summer shlichim (emissaries from Israel).  Our focus was on helping camp staff ramp up the content of these engagements, enhancing that which already exists, and building their own knowledge base. 

Participants represented 12 U.S. summer camps that either were unaffiliated or were part of the URJYoung Judaea and Ramah camping movements. The three-day workshop focused on enhancing one of the most successful Jewish education models — summer camp — with historical, fact-based content and state-of-the-art, informal education methods.

A beneficial result from working with these students is that they not only will use the information gleaned from our time with them, but also will return to campuses where their information base can be used in asserting Israel’s story.

Camps were invited to send cohorts of up to five staff members, including a member of the senior leadership team. Core funding for the retreat, held at Ramah Darom, came from a New York-based foundation that supports facilitating Israel identity in Jewish environments.

Content included the origins of Jewish identity, peoplehood, Zionism, state making and contemporary issues. We devoted time to implementing the content for camp experiential engagement. Each camp cohort spent time figuring out how its unique camp setting could infuse Israel into interactive, experiential educational programming.

It is about giving the campers, through their staffers, important content about Israel that reaches far beyond front-page headlines and news bites. It is about building historical foundations that provide innovative ideas for engaging campers.

We did not shy away from questioning tough issues. Recounting her experience at the retreat, Elana Pollack, the program director of Camp Judaea in Hendersonville, N.C., found the time a delightful interlude to what she normally does.

“As a full-time camp program director and part-time religious school teacher, I spend most of my time in camp leading and setting up the discussions rather than participating in them,” she said. “The seminar challenged me to think and respond in ways that I hadn’t in several years about topics that did not actually require my solution — oh, how refreshing as the summer camp season is upon me! After allowing myself to sit on the student side of the classroom, learning from the CIE staff and the impressive, young participants, I now feel more properly positioned to encourage these exercises and conversations in camp.”

CIE President Ken Stein said: “Some participants wrote feverishly, jotting down ideas from peers. Others challenged their own perceptions of Israel’s story, and still others figured out, through brisk exchanges, how to apply content to their camp’s settings. As a teacher, watching each of them belong to Israel’s story in their unique ways generated similar outcomes to what educators, teens and clergy have experienced in previous Israel learning sessions with us. Common to all of them is understanding content in context. By asking poignant questions, most realized that it is possible to concretize their attachments to Israel and still be critical where appropriate. It is all about substance and nuance.”

If you’re interested in having your camp staff participate in this Israel enrichment program next summer or want to learn more about CIE’s Israel engagement work, contact  me at, or visit

Steven Kerbel serves as a project director for the Center for Israel Education, is the Principal of Steven Kerbel Educational Consulting in Rockville, Maryland and is president of the Jewish Educators Assembly.

Cross-posted from the Center for Israel Education Blog.