Learning a language: Immersion camp promotes connection to Hebrew and Israeli culture

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
The experimental new Tayasim Hebrew camp in Palo Alto may be the first on the West Coast to offer immersion-based learning.

The Oshman Family Jewish Community Center’s Tayasim camp may be the first Hebrew-immersion camp on the West Coast, according to the center’s camps director Dave Rosenfeld.

He said the camp, which debuted in the summer of 2017, blends immersive language teaching with the relaxed atmosphere of camp instead of a typical classroom experience. Even the camp’s name, which translates to "pilots" in Hebrew, hints at its experimental origins.

The camp is conducted entirely in Hebrew to give campers an immersive experience.

"The idea is to make it challenging without making it frustrating," Rosenfeld said. "The staff know at the beginning that they are going to take it really slow, use the basics and repeat themselves over and over. The teachers are there to assess the level of help that each individual child needs, but the camp is tailored to ramp up, so at the beginning the children are going to go very slow, and get more complex with the language and the activities as the weeks go on."

Tayasim is a four-week camp, in contrast to most other Oshman camps that last only two weeks. Rosenfeld said the duration fosters complete language immersion and enables the campers to reach a higher level of Hebrew.

Rosenfeld added that while many of the campers have been exposed to Hebrew at some level, most are not fluent when they enter the camp.

"It’s definitely a learning process between (the staff) and the kids," he said, "and that’s a large part of the relationship building, that they have to key in very close on each other and pay a lot of attention."

The camp is still in its developmental stages; next summer will be its third year. Rosenfeld said Oshman officials plan to expand the camp by one grade level every year, allowing the oldest campers to come back and grow with the camp.

As Tayasim expands, Rosenfeld hopes to be able to divide groups based on level of Hebrew to allow more individualized teaching plans.

"As the ages grow, we can make the camp itself more specific," Rosenfeld said. "Instead of having a K to first (grades) combination, we could have enough kids to have a K only, we could provide programming that is more developmentally appropriate to that particular age group. We can also start to offer separate programs based on the level of Hebrew speaking that the children are at. There could be a beginner’s track and a more advanced track, and teachers could instruct at that level. I think the program could also become more complex. We could do more off-site trips, we could do overnights."

Fun summer at camp

Tayasim is based on a model established by an initiative called Kayitz Kef, which promotes a rise in Hebrew immersion and Jewish culture integration in camps throughout the country by offering resources to organizations interested in hosting such camps. "Kayitz Kef" translates to "fun summer" in Hebrew. Rosenfeld said the organization offered a lot of guidance in the creation of the camp.

"The camp director and I had been speaking about wanting to do a camp of this sort for several years. We thought it would be a cool way of fostering the connection to Israel, the connection to the Hebrew language, all around us," he said. "We really just wanted to find a way to tie it into camp but didn’t really know how to go about doing that. Neither of us had any experience with Hebrew, or with immersion-type programming."

Kayitz Kef provided the Oshman staff with a variety of resources and even flew them to Toronto to observe its model of a successful immersion camp and talk to staff. Rosenfeld said he found the experience inspiring.

To maintain the authenticity of the programming, Tayasim hires a mixture of both local speakers and camp counselors from Israel to teach at the camp.

"We’ve actually had our project leader fly to Israel and meet the folks who were potentially going to work for us and ended up working for us," Rosenfeld said.

Camp staff attend both traditional J-Camp training and special training provided by Kayitz Kef to prepare them for the camp.

In addition to the language and cultural immersion aspects of the camp, Tayasim offers a traditional camp experience.

"Just like at all the rest of our camps, (campers) play games, do arts and crafts, do some swimming," Rosenfeld said. "They get to meet with the specialists for J-Camps: we have an art specialist, a sport specialist; these instructors teach in English as they don’t speak Hebrew."

The first two years of the camp have been successful. Rosenfeld said the parent feedback has been "phenomenal."

As the camp continues to grow in coming years, he hopes that Tayasim will inspire the creation of additional Hebrew-immersion camps in the area.

"Now that they will see that there is a model for success, and see that there is a great network of resources and of other camps doing it, they would probably be more likely to give it a try," Rosenfeld said.

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