Jewish Summer Camp with Computers, Oh My!

For about the last ten years, I’ve been searching for a way to combine what has become my two careers, software engineering and Jewish education. I had an idea for a Jewish tech company called “JHacker,” got involved behind the scenes for a while with the Open Siddur Project, and even applied for a job at Sefaria. Eventually, I returned to being a full-time synagogue professional via returning to school and getting ordained as a cantor. But finding a meaningful way to combine all my interests professionally still eluded me.

Until this summer.

Last spring, I e-mailed Jayme Dale Mallindine, the director of URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy. She got back to me instantly and enthusiastically—I would learn she has that talent of the best camp directors and clergy (that I still aspire to) of making every single person feel important. After a handful of e-mails and a couple Zoom calls with the other camp directors (Rabbi Dan and Michael), I was hired as the Programming and Coding instructor, to spend my summer teaching Python to Jewish kids. It wouldn’t the first time I spent my summer working at Jewish camp, just my first time in almost thirty years.

I went into the summer feeling hopelessly unprepared. It can be a challenge to keep kids interested, and I’d have each group of kids for almost three hours a day. While I had coding skills myself, I’d never taught Python, and I’d never taught a project-based class. Would I have enough activities to keep them engaged? Would the computers work? Would they finish their projects? Would they have fun and want to come learn with me again next summer?

The answer to all those questions was: yes! We had more than enough to do during class and every kid was able to finish a project showing something they learned. I built some great relationships with the kids, and they were mostly engaged in working on their projects. The first session was exhausting (I even managed to sprain my ankle teaching coding, which is a feat… or a feet!?). Being with kids who wanted to spend their summer in a dark room with computers… well, it’s not the stereotypical summer camp activity, but for those of us for whom that sounds fun, it sure was fun to get to do that together. Even better, I got to meet a few campers and counselors who were also interested in both software engineering and Jewish music. It was great to find I’m not the only one who will geek out about writing code to organize materials for a prayer service!

A lot of credit goes to the overall structure and culture of Sci-Tech, where everyone feels accepted and supported, and supports each other and the camp, providing a fun mix of STEM and “traditional” Jewish summer camp activities. And for that, I need to thank the directors and all the other staff before and beside me. Regarding the mix of STEM and camp activities, I even got dunked in a dunk tank one afternoon!

As a middle school kid, I’d learned computer programming at summer camp, too (SummerPlace and YPI). In a lot of ways, being at Sci-Tech reminded me of those early formative summers. Now, I get to pay forward what the instructors at those camps did for me. At Sci-Tech we sometimes talk about “coming home” to camp, even if you haven’t been there before. I found my place, at least for the summer, and there’s no greater reward as a Jewish educator than knowing I helped some kids find their place, too.

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