Accessibility links

A Veteran Teacher Creates America's Only Hebrew Immersion Day Camp

Summer camps for kids in the United States specialize in everything from aerobics to Zen. But only one day-camp in the whole country offers a Hebrew immersion program. It is run by an Israeli immigrant, Dorit Schwartz, who is featured in this edition of New American Voices.

Dorit Schwartz is a long-time teacher, who, as a candidate for a Master's degree in Education and Human Development at George Washington University, posed the provocative hypothesis that learning a language can be exciting and fun for children. "I was looking for an idea for a thesis," Dorit Schwartz recalls. "And since I'm a teacher, all the years I was a teacher I felt very frustrated about the way teaching was done -- it's very structured, children have to do things in a certain time, in a certain way, they have to prepare homework. And I wanted to have fun with kids, and to let them know that Hebrew is a fun thing. So I decided to write about Hebrew immersion and to prove my theory in a summer camp."

The result was Sabra Hebrew Day Camp, now in its second year. Kids from kindergarten through sixth grade can register to attend for one to six weeks. Counselors lead all the various camp activities -- including sports, art, computers, drama, yoga, karate, cooking, dancing, and a very popular water slide -- in Hebrew. The children are not forced to answer in Hebrew, but they are surrounded by the language all day, and seem to absorb it almost by osmosis.

Dorit Schwartz based her Master's thesis on the wealth of documentation she collected at the conclusion of last year's camp sessions. She believes that her interest in how languages are taught stems from her own experience as a girl studying in a private French school in Israel. "The way the language was taught was really… I can't speak French," she says. "I know how to spell on a very high level, I know the structure of the language, I know grammar - but I can't speak it, and it's really, really frustrating!"

Dorit Schwartz's background is both European and Oriental. Her father's family, originally Lebanese, had lived in the land that is now Israel for four generations. Her mother, a Hungarian Jew, survived the Holocaust in Europe. Dorit says that in one way, her growing-up years were not easy for her. "It was always very intimidating," she says. "I mean, you always felt the danger, you always felt that maybe it's your last day. It sounds weird, but you have a lot of tension. I mean, I grew up thinking about the outside world, what's happening, how long you're going to survive. Seeing the number on my mom's arm, understanding that someone wanted to kill her just because she was Jewish, made me feel very intimidated, and I was worried the whole time."

Dorit was 20 and completing her military service when the Yom Kippur war broke out in October, 1973. As soon as the war ended, she married her childhood sweetheart. "And since it was after Yom Kippur [War], I had a child immediately. A lot of people had these war children," she said, remembering. "Because you just feel that that's the end. And I knew my husband since I was 13, he was a paratrooper and he had a high rank in the army, and I didn't hear from him during the war for a long time, and I was worried he was gone. Just the point of having something that would symbolize our relationship was very worrying for me."

Not long afterward, the Schwartzes immigrated to England, where they spent thirteen years before immigrating again, this time to the United States. Dorit Schwartz says that while she missed Israel every day she lived in England, coming to America was like coming home. "I think that Americans are very accepting," she says. "They don't judge, they don't look down at foreigners. I mean, in England it's like different classes, and you always have to prove yourself, and they look down at you and your pronunciation is definitely in your way. And here I just felt good. Everyone said that my pronunciation is 'cute', no one asked me where I'm from, and it was just such a good and warm feeling. And the opportunities were lying all around, and suddenly you could fulfill your dreams."

Thanks to her many years of experience as a Hebrew teacher, Dorit Schwartz quickly found a job at the Jewish Day School in Washington, D.C. Her specialty was teaching children who had no previous knowledge of Hebrew. She says she greatly enjoyed both the kids and her work, but nevertheless, at the end of this school year she decided to retire.

"One day I woke up, at the end of this year, and I thought to myself - yes, one thing that is in America, and in England, and in Israel, is that teachers are not appreciated. And when I calculated the time -- I'm not speaking about the money, you don't go into education if you're after money -- but I calculated the time that I invest in teaching. From early morning till the middle of the night you're correcting papers, preparing lesson plans, speaking to parents. I could run a country in this time! I was on a roller-coaster. I don't feel that I had time to find myself and to think clearly about who I am, what do I want. There's just such a world of opportunities that I really want to see if I can make a difference. I want to make a difference!"

Mrs. Schwartz plans to continue to run her summer Hebrew immersion camps. In addition, she may continue her academic studies, she may write a book. She wants to spend more time with her friends and particularly with her mother. Mostly, Dorit Schwartz says, she wants to live each day as if it were her last.