For those unfamiliar with Camp Massad of Manitoba, it might seem surprising that the camp's executive director, a graduate of Garden City Collegiate and the University of Winnipeg, would be invited to a New York City meeting with Jewish philanthropists to discuss Hebrew language use in the Diaspora.
But those who are familiar with Massad will understand why 32-year-old Danial Sprintz was invited to attend this high-level meeting. Camp Massad, after all, is the only Hebrew-immersion residential summer camp in all of North America. The fact Massad is located just outside Winnipeg, with its Jewish population of about 16,000 and only a handful of native Hebrew speakers among them, makes this achievement even more remarkable.
"Hebrew is the foundation on which Camp Massad was built," explains Sprintz.
"Massad has become a centre of Hebrew camping excellence."
The Hebrew language, for centuries the language of Torah and tefillah (prayer), began enjoying a resurgence in the late 19th century, evolving into the lingua franca of Jewish pioneers to pre-state Israel. Modern Hebrew, as well as modern Arabic, were official languages under the British Mandate for Palestine and remained so when the State of Israel was declared in 1948.
Winnipegger Soody Kleiman was one of several idealistic members of the Labour Zionist youth group Habonim who flocked to Israel in the years following that declaration of statehood. It was while he was in Israel that Kleiman got the idea of starting a Hebrew-speaking camp in Manitoba.
When Massad opened its gates for the first time in 1953, with Kleiman as head counsellor, most of its campers were students from the Winnipeg Hebrew School. In the years since, thousands of children from a variety of schools, cities and backgrounds have learned Hebrew at Massad while going about their regular camp activities.
"When I went to high school I successfully completed the foreign language exams with my knowledge of Hebrew that I learned and practised at Camp Massad," Sprintz says.
Massad gives campers and staff such a solid grounding in Hebrew that many Massadniks discover they are able to work, study and live in Israel.
Stuart Carroll, an associate professor of elementary and early-childhood education at The College of New Jersey, discovered that in 1987 when, after working at Massad for several summers, he moved to Israel from Winnipeg to teach English as a second language.
"At Camp Massad I learned to love the patterns of Hebrew, the sounds of Hebrew and the music of Hebrew. And when I first arrived in Israel, I felt a familiarity with the country because of my ability to communicate with people in their language," he recalls.
"Nowadays, people believe that it is possible to gain understanding of and connection with other cultures by reading about them, eating their food, and celebrating their holidays, without making the enormous effort to learn their language," adds Carroll, who also has taught in Egypt, Thailand and Spain.
"Camp Massad has always been ahead of its time in seeing the importance of language as a carrier of culture."
By incorporating Hebrew into every song, sport, play and announcement at Massad, the camp encourages this connection to Jewish culture, as well as a connection to Jewish history, faith and to Israel.
These connections will be very much in evidence when Carroll and dozens of other former campers and counsellors return to Massad in August for an alumni reunion -- the only camp reunion in North America in which catching up with old friends and remembering the good old days will be conducted in the Hebrew language.