Hebrew Coming Alive in Canadian Young Judaea Camps

Camp Shalom campers showing off their Ivrit bracelets

“Hakshivu, Hakshivu” rings out clear across the beautiful grass field next to the Beit Am and weaves its way past cabins as the sounds reverberate off the lake’s dark blue water. It is another announcement designed to inform and engage campers and staff at Camp Kadimah, the Canadian Young Judaea (CYJ) camp in Barss Corner, Nova Scotia, a call to action that has been calling out since the camp opened in 1943, five years before the establishment of the Jewish state. The next day during a visit to their peers at Camp Shalom in Gravenhurst, Ontario, this same phrase comes across the speakers spread through the camp, leading the campers and staff to look up from the meal or an activity to see if a particular call to action is directed their way.

Camp Shalom’s Amita Ivrit creates Hebrew labels for the lost and found

The use of Hebrew is found throughout the culture of both of these camps, whether in the naming of buildings, the various periods of the day, or on the beautiful flags decorating the ceiling of the “Hadar,” or dining hall, from the camp-wide Maccabia events from years past. However, these camps are hoping to further increase the use of Hebrew and a general enhancement of the intentionality of how Hebrew is used at camp as participants in Hebrew at the Center’s Amitei Ivrit program. Through the training of an Amit/a Ivrit¸ a Hebrew Fellow, along with the training of a senior camp professional to assist in implementing the Fellow’s work, a new approach to Hebrew engagement and infusion is enhancing the presence and use of Hebrew at these camps and bringing a more intentional approach to how Hebrew advances the camps’ educational and communal goals. Interactive language games, exposure to Hebrew and Israeli culture, the expansion of Hebrew language signs and songs throughout camp, and discussions about why Hebrew is important as the language of the Jewish people are the key methodologies underlying this initiative.

The Amita Ivrit at Camp Shalom discussing the Hebrew play with a group of campers

At Camp Kadimah, the Amita Ivrit also runs the Sababa program as a regular activity that each of the camp groups visit, an opportunity to engage with Hebrew as a part of connecting to Hebrew. Food, art, discussions, and games provide opportunities to integrate learning, language, and fun. Dr. Ilan Danjoux, the camp’s educational director and a professor of education, is hoping to work with the Amita and the camp leadership to add additional Hebrew place names to each location and new building at camp so that it creates a physical map of camp that links directly to the land of Israel.

Camp Kadimah campers in conversation with the Amita Ivrit about Israel and Hebrew

Becca Unterman-Somer, Associate Director of Camp Shalom, works closely with her Amita to offer informal opportunities for campers and staff to play with Hebrew, whether through an impromptu group of campers putting on a brief Hebrew play for the entire camp one morning or the labeling of various groupings of items in the lost and found with Hebrew titles. For movement camps with a long history of wanting to make certain Israel and Israeli culture comes alive, the Amitei Ivrit program is a perfect combination of approach, activities, and materials to make Jewish and Hebrew learning compelling and fun for all.

The Language of Protest – Accessing Insight Through the Hebrew Language

by Dr. Jeremy Benstein

Trying to follow the ups and downs of Israeli politics is hard enough at the best of times. And these are hardly the best of times. The rift in the nation is deep, pitting supporters of the democratically elected government and its projected legislation to redress perceived imbalances, against opponents who see that legislation as changing some very basic rules of the game thus making Israel a demonstrably less democratic society. My task here is not to adjudicate this dispute (though, like most Israelis, I do have strong opinions on the topic); readers who want explicit political punditry are directed to the news sources of their choice.

Rather, I would like to explore some particular Hebrew terms in the current political discourse that may shed some light on the nuances of recent developments. Of the many reasons for acquiring familiarity with Hebrew, one main one is to try to gain more insight into Israeli life and culture than is normally afforded by exclusively English-language media. For instance, the differences between the two sides are apparent from the get-go, i.e., the words each camp uses regarding what’s going on. The government claims it is promoting a רפורמה משפטית reformah mishpatit, “a legal reform” (from משפט mishpat, law). This indeed sounds innocent enough, and quite legal and on the up-and-up. But in the eyes of the millions who oppose the government plan, this is nothing less than a הפיכה משטרית hafichah mishtarit – משטר mishtar meaning “regime” and הפיכה haficha, meaning “coup”, from ה-פ-כ h-f-ch, reverse, or backwards (see here for more on that Hebrew root in politics and elsewhere).

Perhaps ironically, the two main words that are seen on t-shirts and signs, and heard at demonstrations and government press conferences, are actually not (originally) Hebrew at all: דמוקרטיה demokratiya and דיקטטורה diktatura, words which need no translation. One could claim that since the terms are non-Hebrew, the ideas themselves are foreign as well. However, the idea of the limited will of the majority with safeguards for the rights of the weak is well-established in Jewish tradition (see e.g. Ex 23:2). There is a (modern) Hebrew word for dictatorship (רודנות, rodanut, רודן, rodan, “dictator”, from the Biblical root ר-ד-ה, r-d-h, “rule over,” see e.g. Gen 1:28 and Lev 25:53), though it is less used in common parlance. And Eliezer Ben Yehudah himself proposed a new coinage to replace democracy, עַמּוֹנוּת amonut (from עם, ‘am, “people”), but it never made it out of the starting gate.

Here are a few more key terms to help parse the debate:

רוב – מיעוטRov, “majority” from the root ר-ב-ב, r-b-b, as in הרבה, harbeh, “many, a lot.” This is what the coalition (קואליציה, koalitziya) claims they have, since they do, after all, hold 64 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset (53%). However, protesters and members of the opposition (אופוזיציה, oppozitziya), by definition in the מיעוט, mi’ut, “minority” (from מ-ע-ט, m-‘-t, “few, a little”) point out that the proposed reforms were not central planks in the parties in the coalition (and the ruling Likud party, with only 32 seats is not a majority in its own coalition), and currently polls show a clear majority of  the Israeli public oppose the controversial legislation.

In brief, the main issue under discussion is a proposed change in the balance of power between the judiciary (הרשות השופטת, hareshut hashofetet, literally – “the judging authority”) and the executive/legislative branches (הרשות המבצעת והרשות המחוקקת, hamevatza’at vehamechokeket) , giving more power to the latter, and reducing the scope of judicial review (among many other things, including changing the selection process of judges, the question of legal oversight in government ministries, and more). Confronting these proposals have made these last six months quite a civics lesson for many Israelis, for it gets to the heart of what a democratic society is. In response to claims of government supporters that it is the protests themselves that are undemocratic (since the government was elected it has a right, and a duty, to govern as it sees fit – majority rule – the רוב, rov), the protesters emphasize that a democracy is the rule of the majority coupled with strong safeguards that protect the rights of the minority (מיעוט, mi’ut), to prevent the rule of the majority from becoming a dictatorship of the majority. The claim is that for Israel with no constitution or bill of rights (as in the US), or long tradition of a democratic culture (as in the UK), a strong and independent judiciary is the only thing standing in the way of an ideological government – whether right-wing or left-wing – from enacting legislation that might infringe on basic rights. The word for rights is זכויות, zechuyot, as in זכויות אזרח, zechuyot ezrach, “civil rights” and זכויות אדם, zechuyot adam, “human rights.” An interesting curiosity is that zechut also means “privilege” which is almost the opposite of a right, making it a contranym, a word that means a thing and its opposite, like “sanction” or “cleave.”

סבירות sevirut, “reasonableness.” This seemingly innocuous idea is the basis of the first piece of government legislation: preventing the courts from using “reasonableness” as a criterion for adjudicating issues like government policies or appointments. But what could be unreasonable, or objectionable about reasonableness?

First the word. If something is סביר savir, it is reasonable, makes sense. This root has many expressions in Hebrew, both ancient and modern:להסביר , lehasbir, “explain” (make understandable), הסברה, hasbara, Israeli governmental PR (“explanation” in the sense of “making the case for”), סבירות, svirut, “likelihood,” and also, traditionally, סברה, sevara, a (talmudic) claim or opinion, and סברי, savri, as in סברי מרנן, savri maranan, “with the gentlemen’s permission,” asked before making a public blessing over wine.

Traditionally, the Supreme court has used עילת הסבירות, ‘ilat hasvirut, the reasonability clause, to evaluate whether the government or its several ministries are being, well, reasonable. But given the less than precise definition of this term, the government’s claim is that the gut sense of reasonableness of a group of unelected officials, such as judges, should not take precedence over the sense of the democratically elected parliament. The opposition’s response is that this is what checks and balances (איזונים ובלמים, izunim ublamim) between the branches is all about, and the greater the majority, the greater the temptation to wield power in all sorts of fundamentally self-serving ways, if there is no one to stop them. Which would be, in a word, unreasonable.

There is of course much more that can be said and explored, both linguistically and politically. I will conclude with a section of Israel’s מגילת העצמאות, megillat ha’atzma-ut, Declaration of Independence. The Hebrew word for independence, עצמאות, ‘atzma-ut, from a root ע-צ-מ, ‘-tz’m, meaning “strength” and also “self” was coined by Eliezer Ben Yehudah’s son, Itamar Ben Avi. The fact that the word עצם, ‘etzem, also means “bone,” alludes to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones (Ch. 37) as a prophecy of revival and return. Like the flag, the Declaration is used by the protesters to express their values. But also like the flag – can’t we all identify with what is written here?

מתוך מגילת העצמאות – מדינת ישראל…תשקוד על פיתוח הארץ לטובת כל תושביה; תהא מושתתה על יסודות החירות, הצדק והשלום לאור חזונם של נביאי ישראל; תקיים שויון זכויו​ת חברתי ומדיני גמור לכל אזרחיה בלי הבדל דת, גזע ומין; תבטיח חופש דת, מצפון, לשון, חינוך ותרבות...

From the Declaration of Independence  – THE STATE OF ISRAEL … will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture….

At the very least, words like חירות, cherut, “freedom,” צדק, tzedek, “justice,” שלום, shalom, “peace,” שויון, shivyon, “equality,” and חופש, chofesh, (more) “freedom,” are good words to add to our vocabulary.


Dr. Jeremy Benstein is a senior consultant at HATC and author of Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World, (Behrman, 2019).

Amitei Ivrit Fellows infuse Hebrew at In The City Camp in Atlanta, GA

Yael Shapira, of Jerusalem, and Amita Ivrit through HATC at In The City Camps in Atlanta, GA.

Anyone who has been blessed with a Jewish summer camp experience knows that there is no better place to have joyful Jewish identity seared into one’s soul than at camp. For the next few issues of the HATC Newsletter, we’ll be taking a break from Member School Highlights of formal Hebrew instruction and turn our attention to Amitei Ivrit and informal Hebrew learning at Jewish summer camps.  

Amitei Ivrit is Hebrew at the Center’s signature program to infuse Hebrew into the culture of Jewish Summer Camps in North America and Europe. By designating and training one or more members of the staff as the official Hebrew Fellow (Amit Ivrit for masculine singular, Amita Ivrit for feminine singular, and Amitei Ivrit for plural) and utilizing the games, user guide, and materials designed by HATC for this purpose, Jewish summer camp staff can intentionally and consistently infuse Hebrew terminology and phraseology into the culture. 

The HATC leadership team recently had the pleasure of visiting “In The City Camp” in Atlanta, Georgia, where the Director, Eileen Price, has devoted significant effort and corralled tangible and financial resources to amplify the Jewish identity by infusing Zionism and Hebrew language into the lives of over 700 campers and 150 staff members per season. “For 75% of the campers, In The City Camp IS their primary Jewish experience,” Eileen shared. “I believe that the future of Jewish connectivity in America IS Jewish camping.” 

HATC Leadership team with front row from left: Shahar Newman, 23, of Jerusalem; Eileen Price, Founder and CEO; Danya Maloon, Director of Camp Care;

With the support of the staff’s senior leadership, the designated and trained Amitei Ivrit enlist the efforts of the other Israeli Shlichim and American staff members to utilize Hebrew throughout the day. There are 9 Israeli shlichim at camp this summer, some brought to camp in partnership with the Jewish Agency, such as Yael Shapira and Noa Kobo, and some who are already embedded as educators in the local community. Last year’s Amita, Ofri Katzap, will be joining them in July, bringing her extensive experience implementing the HATC Hebrew materials and resources. Other Israelis find their way to In The City Camps by word-of-mouth. Price mines her connections to find Israelis with American citizenship who can come to work in the summer without the need for a special visa. By example, Shahar Newman, 23, is working at In The City Camp before beginning her studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem this fall. Shahar was born and grew up in Los Angeles, until at age 11 she moved to Jerusalem, completed her army service, and spent this past year travelling through South America.  

Price points out that it cannot just be on the Israelis to infuse Hebrew, Judaism, and Zionism. “It’s just not fair,” Price notes, “so we need more counselors and staff members who are day school graduates and who have done a gap year in Israel, who know Hebrew and Israeli culture and are also natives of the American mindset.” This year Price successfully recruited 5 post-gap-year students to the staff and is figuring out how to best leverage them to meet her goals for Hebrew infusion in support of Zionist and Jewish identity building. It is also by design that the Site Director, Sydney Harlow, spent 3 seasons of the year on staff at Georgia Tech Hillel and that the camp photographer, Abbie Frankel, is on the staff of Emory University Hillel. “The Jewish community has to wrap itself around each other more, so that everybody utilizes the available services.” 

Signage now features Hebrew (and transliterated) terminology.

This is the third summer that In The City has participated in Amitei Ivrit program, and the increased Hebrew infusion through all five senses is palpable throughout the camp. Hebrew vocabulary is supported by signage that was once all in English and is now in Hebrew and transliteration to be inclusive of those who need to navigate the camp facility but do not (yet!) know how to read Hebrew. Music blasting in the counselor break room that was once American hits is now Israeli/Hebrew hits, and Chef Howard, overseeing Bishul (cooking class) peppers his explanations with a heavy hand of Hebrew. Some Hebrew vocabulary is taught with camp-wide intention, while other vocabulary is organically infused through free-choice activities, in which campers are most personally invested. “The Hebrew language materials from Hebrew at the Center are great and very accessible,” says Eileen Price, “but you must pick the right Israelis and Hebrew-literate Americans to implement Amitei Ivrit. For those who are not natural-born teachers, it is a godsend to have the designated Amitei Ivrit to gently guide the rest of the staff.”  

Everywhere one looks at In The City Camp, campers are happy and engaged, but perhaps the biggest impact of Amitei Ivrit at In The City Camp has been on the young adult staff. This is true at the best Jewish summer camps that make life-changing impressions on the lives of 18–20-year-olds. No one is more in tune with this responsibility and opportunity than its director, Eileen Price.