At the annual Shalom Park Freedom School fundraiser this year, the program began with a short video outlining just how far behind a kid in a low-income setting can end up by 3rd grade when not given the same opportunities afforded middle-and-upper class kids.
But wait – isn’t summer for running through sprinklers and eating popsicles? Aren’t kids excited to make it to the last day of the school year? How on earth can a literacy gap increase over a summer?
The video explains that the interactions kids have throughout their summers help them maintain, and even move ahead in reading levels – even when they spend zero hours inside a classroom. Summer camp, vacations with friends and family, and other experiences we generally only have time for in the summer keep them thinking, reading, writing, interacting with people and words and new ideas.
And without opportunities to engage with new ideas and words, a whole swath of our students actually regress in their reading levels over the summer.
Freedom School offers kids opportunities to keep exercising their brains over the summer, and to do so in meaningful, creative – and yes, educational – ways.
What I love about this concept of helping ensure that as many kids as possible are given attention and energy to help them use their brains during the summer is that it is deeply Jewish.
Of course Freedom School is a perfect example of tikun olam, our imperative to work together to help make the world a better place than when we entered it. Freedom School also fulfills the mitzvah, the commandment ‘vshinantam l’vanecha – to teach our children’, and we know full well that it is our collective role as a people to support and teach ALL of our children, not just the ones who may share our DNA.
But Freedom School is also a reminder of a Jewish tenet that applies to us all. Judaism is a religion of action, of doing. We are taught that a blessing may only be said if the one who blesses follows their blessing with action – hamotzi lechem min haaretz leads to that first bite of challah; laasok b’divrei torah propels us into Torah study; borei p’ri hagafen first, sip of wine or grape juice second. From this we learn that words are not enough, that to live in this world means to engage with the world, to see and hear, of course, but also to touch and taste and feel all of the experiences life has to offer.
That is why this past April, Temple Beth El’s Religious School took our 4th-6th graders to Camp Thunderbird for a retreat. The work our religious school teachers do in the classroom is imperative – learning the stories of our matriarchs and patriarchs, practicing the aleph-bet, studying Jewish values – these things lay the foundation for a lifetime of Jewish living and learning. The retreat took that foundation and helped learning come even more alive – our kids took those biblical stories and acted them out, they sounded out the words “lo alecha hamlacha ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah” in Hebrew, and then talked about what it means, as Jews, to be guided by this idea that “you do not have to finish the work, but you do not get to do nothing.” And we played kickball and drew pictures and played Jenga – and these interactions too offered moments of Torah.
Right now, perhaps as you are reading this very article, kids across Shalom Park are spending weeks of fun and learning at Camp Mindy, and traveling to Jewish summer camps all over the south and east coast. And while these camps do not intentionally aim to improve reading literacy over their campers’ summer experience, they do build Jewish literacy. Camp offers us the opportunity to live in an immersed Jewish setting, to look at zip lining and hiking and “Super Sloppy” and goat-tending through a Jewish lens, surrounded by Jewish friends. At camp, we take Judaism outside of the walls of the classroom (and, dare I say, the synagogue!) and into the world.
And I have a little secret – you don’t have to be a kid, or go to camp, to experience this magic. Summer invites us to step outside, to engage with each other – BBQ in the backyard with friends, grab a beverage at one of Charlotte’s Instagram-worthy outdoor spots, wander a greenway. The longer days and increased light give us a few more hours to try and live a little more, not just to hear and see, but to touch, taste and feel all there is to offer.
Find your inner kid, let them out into the sun, and get a little messy. For all this too, is Torah