That is the question that we hear every year from a few people - isn't color war something done in camp? Isn't school for learning, not playing? And, of course, we never had this when I went to school, so it is not necessary and is a waste of time and resources.
I will admit that at one time early in my career, I was not fully on board with the idea of taking three days away from learning for a series of games and artistic presentations. And, since I did not have color war when I went to school, it went against my own pre-conceived notion of what was appropriate for school and what was not.
However, as I have become more seasoned as an educator, and as I have been intensely involved in the preparations for color war for several years, I have become pretty well convinced that this is not only a good use of time and resources, but that, in fact, this is fully consistent with what a school exists to do.
Let's look into this. Why do people send their children to school, and why do they send them specifically to a Yeshiva day school? There are many possible answers. If it is because they are legally obligated to send them to school, then obviously they are wasting their money paying for Yeshiva. If it is so that their children can learn both Torah as well as general studies in a Jewish environment, then I can understand why color war sounds like a waste of time. After all, despite all of our efforts to put some degree of content into color war (theme material, Tanach-based scavenger hunts, trivia competitions, and so on and so on), the fact is that most kids do not learn all that much during the days of color war, and thus formal learning does effectively grind to a halt during this time.
However, I would suggest that there is an additional layer of education that people want for their children when they send them to a Yeshiva day school. Obviously they want them to know how to read Hebrew and to learn Chumash. But more than that, they want them to come out of the school with a positive feeling, not only about themselves but about Judaism as well. This is a major challenge facing educators, and it is one that I will write more about in a different post. But it is a challenge that explains what is important about color war.
The answer is more than simply "If the kids are having fun in a Jewish context, then they will enjoy being Jewish." Frankly, I do not think that that is true. Kids are fairly savvy, and they are able to distinguish between Judaism being enjoyable and appealing to them and fun that happens to take place in a Jewish environment. To the extent that the former is true, the kids are likely to develop positive opinions of Judaism and Jewish practice; to the extent that the latter is true, they will likely develop meaningful friendships with their classmates, without necessarily developing deep feelings about Judaism per se.
[Obviously, there are many issues that influence a child's outlook and approach to Judaism, and the school is not the only one. I am working with the conceit that the school does play a significant role for many of its students. Of course, the particular home and community situations are crucial as well.]
Back to color war. In a well-designed and well-run color war (and I like to believe that we do it well in my school), children who do not necessarily shine in the classroom are given multiple opportunities to display their talents and take part in something that appeals to them. Our color wars have multiple opportunities for children with artistic talent, musical talent, technological talent, athletic talent, and even for those with academic talent. Students are placed into new groupings which cross grade lines, class lines, and hometown lines, and therefore have to develop or make use of social skills that often go ignored. While some activities are focused on an individual performance, most require some degree of teamwork, and the general sense of team spirit and camraderie that is the sine qua non of color war tends to be infectious (that's why we have one silent lunch each time - team spirit can get very loud).
And all of this is done in a decidedly Jewish context and spirit. The theme material may not be relevant during a 3 point shooting contest, but the various presentations are all based on the Torah/Jewish-based material. As such, every student has the opportunity to sing, paint, act, present, or cheer about Zionism or Jewish heroism or Jewish courage or whatever the theme is. And while the presentations may take place on the final day of color war, the preparation takes place over all of the days, and tends to involve every single child. Such moments leave a deep and lasting impression on children.
So that is color war - a chance for students to shine in ways that they do not normally shine in school; an opportunity to break down social barriers and form a community; and a moment in time when students put true passion and excitement into talking about (and cheering about) something decidedly Jewish. And so to answer the question posed by the headline of this post: "Color War in School - Why?" I would say simply "Why not"?