Camp Ramah Up Close and Personal

Posted on Aug 30, 2018

I never went to overnight camp as a kid, for reasons that, looking back, I find mysterious. I remember my parents wanting to send me to Ramah Poconos, the natural destination for a Conservative Jew in Philadelphia, and me refusing, summer after summer. I also remember that once I had begun attending the Hebrew High School program at Gratz College, and had joined USY, my circle of friends included a lot of people who had been to Ramah and loved it—at which point I berated my parents for not forcing me to go even if I hadn’t wanted to. Thankfully, I get to visit several Ramah camps every summer as chancellor of JTS and see, close up, the 2018 version of what I missed back in the sixties. Better late than never.

Poconos was the last of the four Ramah camps I visited this summer—the others being Ramah Galim (Northern California, now in its third year of operation); Ramah Ojai (one of the largest camps in the Ramah network); and Ramah Sports Academy, Ramah’s newest overnight camp, which opened this summer on the campus of Fairfield University in Connecticut. I start this report with Ramah Poconos because of two experiences that are among the summer’s highlights.

Chancellor Eisen was at Camp Ramah in Northern California this summer, where he met with campers in the oldest age group. 

The first was a half-court basketball game featuring Amitzim (campers with disabilities) and their counselors. The ball was moving around the court quickly. Amitzim campers were catching it, making passes, and taking shots. The skills required for this activity were many. The joy on the campers’ faces when they caught the ball or passed it successfully was a marvel to behold.  When one of them made a basket, there was cause for celebration all around. I was overwhelmed. “This is brilliant,” I said to Rabbi Mitch Cohen, the director of National Ramah, who accompanies me on my camp visits. “If this was all Ramah accomplished this summer, dayenu.”

But of course there is much more—for example, the presence of 300 young Israeli shlihim at Ramah’s ten overnight camps and four day camps across North America. Mitch and I sat with the 31 Israelis on staff at Poconos this summer; listened as they told their stories, one by one, about why they had decided to come (or return) to Ramah; and were impressed as usual by the idealism, diversity, and thoughtfulness of the group. They were perplexed and concerned—as we are—about what seems to be a growing divide between Israeli and North American Jews; we urged them to do whatever they could—in conversation with campers and staff during the summer, and upon their return to Israel afterward—to bridge the divide. “Just be the people you are, and share your outlook and experience honestly,” I said to them. “We need you. The Jewish people cannot allow the gaps between us to grow wider.” 

The question of what campers and staff will take away from their summers at Ramah, and how the immediacy and breadth of Jewish living at camp can be integrated into routines in which Judaism is often marginal and serious Jews are few and far between, came up repeatedly in conversation. I remember the all-camp Kabbalat Shabbat service at Ojai, and a Ma’ariv-havdalah service with the oldest edah, at which the speakers stressed precisely that theme. Campers who were not uniformly attentive for the rest of the service suddenly fell silent when one of their peers addressed them—with incredible maturity and poise—on this topic. Tears flowed freely at the havdalah ceremony, the last one before the end of camp, with its sentence of return to life outside Ramah. Again and again I was asked why adult Jewish life cannot be more like Ramah, by which people generally mean (I always ask) more spiritual, joyful, emotional; more a source of community and meaning. They know that one is only 15 years old once, that by definition real life is not camp, and that even camp is not uniformly wonderful (though it comes close). But still: they have a point, which I affirm. Ramah has a lot to teach us about how the experience of Judaism could be dramatically improved for many thousands of American Jews.

Students and alumni of JTS, including Rabbi Eliav Bock (RS ’09, DS ’09), the camp’s founder and executive director, and Cantor Nancy Abramson, director of the H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music, at Ramah in the Rockies.

I came away from my day at Ramah Galim with two impressions etched in memory. One: even a rented facility that looks much more like the boarding school it is than the summer camp it is not can give kids the experience of camp if the staff works hard at providing that experience. I saw a school cafeteria, a dormitory, an auditorium, and a huge campus, only part of which is dedicated to Ramah. The kids saw a camp, particularly if they were there for the second or third time. The key is the relationships formed, the love transmitted, the excitement of bringing swimming and drama into a Jewish framework—and bringing the making of tallitot into what is otherwise a Christian boarding school. The second memory: Ramah campers learning to boogie-board in the Pacific on a private beach that seems to stretch for miles. Bicycles on the sand. Barbecue at the shore. Tefillot by the waves. It does not get much better than this.

There was much debate, before this summer, about whether Ramah should open a sports camp, whether such a camp could succeed in performing Ramah’s educational mission or would have to sacrifice that mission in order to attract campers seriously interested in sports. The experience offered the 172 campers who took part in the inaugural sessions at Fairfield, many of whom have already announced their intention of returning next year, seems to indicate that those doubts were unfounded. My own belief is that Jewish identity in North America is hyphenated. The Jewish side of the hyphen takes many forms and develops along many different paths. You want to catch kids (or adults) where they are in life, and give them an experience of a Judaism more grounded and all-embracing than what they had known previously. Ramah Sports Academy does that, all the while teaching Jewish values explicitly on the ballfield, in the cafeteria, and in the relationships nurtured in the bunks with counselors and other campers. It is inspiring to watch this happen, again and again, at camp after camp.

I got a further, and totally unexpected, reward for my visits to Ramah this summer: near the end of my day at Poconos, I met for the first time the daughter of my beloved doctoral supervisor at Hebrew University, R.J. Zwi Werblowsky. Nava Isseroff, an accomplished athlete, has returned to camp summer after summer to supervise the swimming program. We exchanged stories about her father; both of us were in tears by the end—a Ramah connection, an Israel-Diaspora bond, that I shall always treasure.