Teens to eat, drink, sleep Hebrew as Swig revives four-week camp

When Lesley Wynn eats breakfast this summer, she'll ask for chalav, instead of milk. When she goes swimming, she'll play in the mayim, instead of the water. And when she makes a request, she'll say b'vakasha, instead of please.

But the 13-year-old San Francisco girl won't be traveling in Israel. She will be immersed in a revival of the four-week Solel session at Camp Swig in Saratoga.

"I think it sounds really cool," Wynn said last week.

The teen will join up to 20 other teens in an experiment to see whether a Hebrew-immersion camp will float on the West Coast.

"It will be completely different from Hebrew school," said Debra Sagan, associate director of both Camp Swig and Camp Newman, which are under the auspices of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

There will be no lectures, books or classrooms. Instead, teens will learn Hebrew through everyday camp experiences such as playing sports, hiking, singing, creating art and even eating.

Solel, which is Hebrew for "path," originally started in the late 1960s. Wildly popular, it boomed for years, attracting hundreds of teens every summer and filling two sessions. Solel eventually ran out of steam, though, and shut down in 1984 due to low enrollment.

But Swig has decided to give Solel a new life as part of the Reform movement's new emphasis on teaching more Hebrew.

The session, which will last from June 28 to July 23, has attracted about a dozen teens so far.

About half of them, like Wynn, are from San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El. The rest are from Texas, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and other parts of California.

In the mornings, Solel campers will learn together. In the afternoons and evenings, they will mix with the rest of Swig's 150 teen campers.

The methods for teaching Hebrew will run the gamut.

Micah Citrin, Solel's director and a first-year rabbinic student currently living in Israel, wrote in an e-mail that teaching will be geared toward "informal education and having a good time learning.

Teens will play games such as Hebrew-style Pictionary, Jeopardy and Twister.

"We will use these games/activities to learn practical vocabulary that can be used around the camp," he wrote, "but also that can be used in Israel — how to use numbers, colors, express likes/dislikes, how to ask and answer simple day-to-day questions."

The campers will also learn via songs, dances, Israeli children's stories, videos, TV shows, scavenger hunts and Israeli ads for movies, restaurants and shopping.

"Of course, we will also learn current Israeli slang (important for showing the light side of any language), and how to use it in appropriate situations whether it be in the shuk [open-air market], at a party, or fighting to keep your place in line (all very pertinent for surviving in Israel)," wrote Citrin, who is a former Swig counselor.

The camp is also hoping to instill a love of Israel.

"We bring in Israel as much as we can," Sagan said.

An Israeli staff member, for example, will live in each cabin.

Sagan wants the teens to see Israel as "not just a country on TV with border problems." Learning about Israel, she added, "puts their Judaism in a larger backdrop, so they're not a lone American Jew, but are part of a larger Jewish people."

The camp is particularly focusing on building the Hebrew skills of post-b'nai mitzvah students, who can recite the prayers but don't know how to buy a falafel.

In part, the camp is preparing teens for post-confirmation trips to Israel, which usually happen after their sophomore year in high school.

"I know it's going to help a lot," said Wynn, who celebrated her bat mitzvah last August and will graduate from A.P. Giannini Middle School this spring. "All I know is biblical Hebrew."

Right now, only one other Reform camp in the country — Camp Olin-Sang Ruby in Wisconsin — offers a similar Hebrew-immersion session. But the Reform movement is interested in expanding such programs.

Solel's session costs $2,310 for teens from Reform congregations and $2,655 for other teens.

To help increase interest in Solel, however, the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis is offering $500 scholarships that can be matched by the teen's congregation.

The scholarships made all the difference for Wynn's family. Until her family heard about the scholarship, Wynn hadn't considered Solel.

But something else clinched it for Wynn.

"One of the main things is that a lot of my good friends are going."