Camp/Retreat Model: Adventures in Jewish Education


University Synagogue, Irvine, CA


Model Summary:

Adventures in Jewish Education (AJE) is an experiential Religious School alternative for learners, Grades K-8, whose needs are not met by the traditional Religious School. AJE is held in a camp setting and weaves Jewish learning and Hebrew into an all-day, once a month, active outdoor experience. As learners play at camp, they learn the traditional values of Judaism and grow their Hebrew skills. Learners become familiar with prayers and their melodies, learn about and enhance their Jewish identity, and integrate all-important Jewish values into their lives. AJE runs from September to May, one Sunday a month from 9 am – 3 pm.

Each day includes a family service, Jewish learning experiences, campsite activities, lunch, Hebrew, music, and a closing song circle.

Learners include those who struggle to spend another day in a classroom because of learning challenges, those who are highly engaged in extra-curricular activities and are unable to commit to weekly sessions, and those whose families were previously unaffiliated and find AJE to be an attractive alternative that fits their lifestyle.

What Were You Trying to Achieve with this Model? What are the Learner Outcomes?

University Synagogue strives to meet the needs of the congregation. Their Director of Congregational Learning is highly committed to personalized learning and is determined to make something work. About 7-8 years ago, the Director of Congregational Learning and president of the congregation felt that the congregation and Religious School needed a boost. The president took this challenge to the board. There was some initial opposition, but the board, and then the congregation, got excited about developing something new to meet the needs of the congregants.

The Director of Congregational Learning was given about $1000 to research models of education and what might be best for their population. She focused on developing a model that would positively engage learners who couldn’t be in the classroom for another day and would also meet the needs of families who didn’t want their children to miss other extra-curricular activities. This led to the design and implementation of a one-day a month model.

AJE is designed to ensure that learners leave feeling positive. Some of the learners have come from other programs in which they were not successful. The central goals of AJE are to build Jewish identity and the Jewish community, and for learners to find their place in the Jewish community. The content is more limited, compared to the traditional model; AJE is more about community.

Key First Steps and Recruitment Plan:

Initially, the Director of Congregational Learning had to get buy-in; now the congregation is very proud of AJE. The Director of Congregational Learning takes care of educational programs for ages “6-106.” For example, in addition to the Religious School, the Director of Congregational Learning runs adult education and an early Alzheimer’s program. University Synagogue takes relationships very seriously; the community is the heart of who they are, and they believe that community can be built through education. They work to meet the needs of the congregants. While AJE was initially expensive, they got the needed support and this model is in alignment with their overall mission and vision. Note that as of September 2016, this model is not being offered. The Director of Congregational Learning is hoping that it will be offered again in 2017.

Relationship of Model to Congregational Learning System:

AJE is an alternative to the Traditional Religious School which meets weekly on Sundays, 9:00 am-noon, September – May, for Pre-K through 12th grade. University Synagogue also offers Hebrew Enrichment as an optional, additional Hebrew Program for Religious School students. Hebrew Enrichment is included in the tuition fees for those attending AJE. Hebrew Enrichment takes place Mondays, 5:00 pm – 6:00 pm, September – May. Learners can come for Hebrew on a Monday evening or they can participate in a 2-week summer boot camp.  Alternatively, they can have private tutoring at their own expense. There is some Hebrew on each day of AJE.


Who are the Learners?

The learners are in grades K-8. 7th and 8th graders, however, are discouraged from participating in AJE, and are encouraged to learn in the traditional model to develop relationships with their peers. In alignment with the congregations' goal of building community and helping learners find their place in the Jewish community, the educators believe it is important for 7th and 8th graders to be with peers during the Bar and Bat Mitzvah years. About 50 learners, about ¼ of the religious school population, attend AJE. (Note: There are other alternative programs to meet the needs of individual learners/families.)

Who are the Educators/Learning Facilitators?

AJE is staffed by experiential educators as well as support staff comprised of social workers, occupational therapists, educational therapists, developmental psychologists, and an inclusion specialist. When looking for teachers, they look for teachers with those kinds of backgrounds. They look for those who are interested in Jewish Education, who can speak Hebrew and are committed to pluralism. Initially, the Director of Congregational Learning reached out to congregants, and then later expanded to reach out to the larger community.

What is the Learning? How is it Designed?

The day is highly structured as outlined below:

  • Family Service: The day begins with a family service led by the rabbi and cantor in the park. Parents are encouraged to stay. About ⅔ of the parents stay for service.

  • Havayah (Havayah is Hebrew for “experience.”): 1 ½ hour of carefully planned havayah. This includes Jewish learning experiences that ensure positive outcomes for every learner. Teams of therapists and the Director of Congregational Learning meet to break down the learning and identify educational approaches that will help each child succeed.

    • There are generally three activities during Havayah. The experiences are planned based on modalities and intelligence. Groups rotate from one activity to the next, with each activity being about 20 minutes. There is no downtime; the learners are constantly engaged.

      When learning about Israel, for example, learners might: shop for, prepare and then eat Israeli foods; learn an Israeli dance; play with some of the tech apps developed in Israel; and meet people from the different groups – Haredi, Ethiopian, Russian, Palestinian, etc., hearing their stories and looking at photos of their families and where they live.

  • Campsite activity: 1 hour of active activity such as Zip-lining, swimming, or archery. This activity relates to Jewish learning. Examples include climbing the Tower of Babel on the high ropes or finding an orange tree and making orange juice while on a scavenger hunt looking for things that can be found in Israel.  

  • Lunch - unstructured (children bring their own lunch) and sit at a table of their own choosing.

  • Hebrew – 1-hour session. 20 minutes are sedentary during which learners are generally reading. AJE focuses on prayer-based Hebrew. Each month children learn a particular relevant prayer. The Hebrew hour also includes Hebrew through Movement. (The educator noted that these learners often know more Hebrew than many in the traditional class.) The Hebrew hour also includes music led by the inclusion specialist who happens to have a beautiful voice. During the music, learners may use natural items, such as stones, for percussion. The learners then put sounds to music and learn to chant the prayer to music. Some of the learners read in Hebrew, others read using transliteration.

  • Campsite activity

  • Closing/song circle

Where Does the Learning Happen?

 AJE is held at the Irvine Ranch Outdoor Educational Center which is about 12 miles from University Synagogue.

When Does the Learning Happen?

Sundays 9 am – 3 pm, once a month

Stories of Impact:

Story 1: AJE was designed to meet the needs of current congregational families with children with learning challenges, as well as those whose extra-curricular obligations conflicted with the schedule of the traditional Religious School. Unexpectedly, another group of children has been drawn to AJE, and ultimately into the University Synagogue community. What happened was that by establishing AJE, University Synagogue created a comfortable entry place into the community. AJE drew unaffiliated families who were interested in Jewish education without the large time commitment. These previously unaffiliated families have become comfortable and involved in the community and most of the children who began in AJE transition in 1-2 years into the traditional model. University Synagogue has found that AJE has been helpful in maintaining the congregational membership.

Story 2: The Director of Congregational Learning shared the following letter received from the parent of a child who suffers from high anxiety when in a classroom. (Note: Names have been changed.)

Dear Sue,

I must share with you the difference Adventures in Jewish Education (AJE) is making in our son’s life and the way he is seeing himself.

When I picked him up this past Sunday, he was smiling from ear to ear. I thought it was because he just had a good time at camp - but it was more than that. David excitedly told me he got to the top of the climbing wall, something he said he never thought he could do. His two counselors followed up with high fives and how proud they were of his accomplishments on the wall and in his Hebrew class.

On our ride home, 12-year-old David said, “With all I achieved today, I feel I can do anything!” He went on to say how great he felt and that he was ready to take on life and could be more independent. This camp experience is giving our child more than we ever imagined. He loves every aspect of the program. I enjoy starting the morning off with him at the family service with Rabbi Rachlis. It’s a wonderful way to be together and then he’s off on his adventure.

I can’t thank you enough for this well-constructed program, giving our son so much joy while imparting Judaism into his day. I believe he just might thank you even more!




Role of governance and Clergy:

The clergy run the family service at the start of the day. The clergy take AJE very seriously and are very aware that it is a strong entry point for many families.


  • AJE, which has approximately 50 learners, runs at break even.
  • Tuition is $1150; Staff is $14,280; and use of the Camp is about $12,600. Supplies and materials are about $3,500. Note that while parents have paid a flat tuition fee, the camp charges University Synagogue each month based on the number of children attending that month.
  • There is a scholarship fund for AJE. The local Federation, Jewish Federation and Family Services of Orange County, has a subsidy and AJE has not had to turn any family away for financial reasons.

Hiring Needs:

AJE is staffed by social workers, occupational therapists, educational therapists, developmental psychologists, and an inclusion specialist. There is one teacher or specialist for every seven learners. When looking for teachers, the Director of Congregational Learning looks for those with these specialty backgrounds. It takes a minimum of 8-10 hours to plan a camp day. Planning is done by a leadership team consisting of the experiential teacher, inclusion specialist, Hebrew specialist, and the Director of Congregational Learning.

Professional Learning:

There is ongoing Professional Learning. Staff studies both in house, as specialists are brought in, and at conferences.

Challenges and Trouble-Shooting:

Occasionally there have been children who are somewhat defiant. This kind of problem is more common at the beginning of the year when the staff doesn’t know the children well yet. AJE is on top of finding the right resources to help the child or there could be negative energy that spreads. AJE is also aware of how the environment, or other factors, may set the children off. In their location, for example, if there are hot winds, AJE knows that they need to change what was planned and bring the children indoors.



University Synagogue has data on how AJE impacts children and families that indicates that AJE helps families become part of the community. The data includes narratives as well as surveys. Three to four times a year, the staff ask parents to meet for breakfast, to get feedback. The Director of Congregational Learning takes this feedback constructively. She recognizes that she, and the staff, need this feedback and data to keep enhancing the model and moving forward.


AJE sends a video to families each month. Every child is in video and is engaged; parents see their child engaged. The Director of Congregational Learning sends an email at the beginning of the week before camp telling what will be happening so that parents can prepare their child for the day. The email will include items the child should bring (e.g. sunscreen); it clearly describes the theme and activities of the day. The email also includes the program manager’s cell number as a contact.


Reflection is ongoing and is constantly being used to design and redesign AJE.

How Do You Describe Your Congregation?

University Synagogue is a Reconstructionist congregation with 600 families. Staff includes a rabbi, cantor, director of congregational learning, and a pre-school director.



  • After School and Beyond
  • Congregational Learning
  • Early Childhood
  • Educator Training
  • Teen Engagement