I carry clear memories of my camp counsellors. David had a magical way of setting original stories to classical music. Each night at lights out, he would read a chapter, weaving his words with the movement of the music playing in the background. The cliffhanger at the end of the reading left us hounding him with questions throughout the next day.
Mike imbued us with Jewish curiosity. When he returned from a day off with a new poncho, he wondered aloud if he needed to put tzitzit on the four-cornered garment. The next night, after lights out, we went to the library and learned the Halachah with one of the camp educators.
Ofer, a shaliach, only spoke to us in Hebrew. It still isn’t clear to me if this was clever pedagogy or a demonstration of his poor English. At the start of the summer, we couldn’t understand him, but with enough repetition and charades, by the end of the summer, his mealtime requests in Hebrew for the milk or napkins to be passed down the dining hall table were clear, even to those with no prior Hebrew.
Notwithstanding their impact on my education and personal growth, like many counsellors, David, Mike, and Ofer likely wouldn’t call themselves educators.
Counsellors play countless roles. They’re group facilitators and social workers, sports specialists and swimming teachers, friends and confidants, nurses and in loco parentis. In the layers and layers of responsibility, and with a staff of seasonal workers largely comprising students pursuing careers in unrelated fields, the conscious role of educator is frequently buried.
The challenge of role identity is not isolated to camps. Across Hillels and youth movements, synagogues and travel programs, those who do educative work – connecting young people to Jewish activities, enacting experiences, and inculcating Jewish values – don’t take on the label of educator, often reserving that title for those who teach formal classes.
Instead, we have developed a litany of amorphous terms such as adviser and chaperone, youth worker and engagement professional.
But they do educate. The most important educative role they play is that of serving as a dugmah ishit, a personal example. They’re role models, teaching through act and word. The way they act and speak, the manner in which they treat others and the language they use, the consciousness with which they engage in Jewish life and living is eagerly observed and absorbed by their campers.
Without consciously considering these roles as educative roles, we belittle the impact they have on the life of youths.
It’s a lot to ask of an 18-year-old university student to spend the summer acting as an educator and role model for children barely younger than himself. But we must help the counsellor see his role as deeper than simply a recreationist.
David, Mike and Ofer were natural educators. Reflecting back on my experiences as a camper, their educational impact was likely a natural outcome of their personalities.
If, however, they were to have conceived of themselves as educators, shaping experiences and teaching through the acts of daily living, their potential could have been even more profound.