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JTS Reflections on Visits to Ramah

Each summer, leaders from The Jewish Theological Seminary visit Ramah camps. They study and learn with campers and staff, and have the opportunity to engage in informal conversations on such topics as their own personal Jewish journeys, the future of Conservative Judaism, and study opportunities at JTS.

Some of these JTS leaders have graciously taken the time to reflect on and write about their summer visits. We are delighted to be able to share their thoughts with you.

Dr. Arnold Eisen
Chancellor and President of the Faculties, Professor of Jewish Thought

The great sociological theorist Peter Berger passed away earlier this summer, just as thousands of Jewish kids were heading off to immersive camp experiences that build and sustain identity in ways that Berger’s ideas brilliantly help to explain. Visiting Camp Ramah New England right after reading the obituary for Berger in the Times, I could not help reflecting through the lens of his theory on the magic taking place before my eyes. At summer’s end—with the memories of several visits to camp still vivid in my mind, along with the disturbing images of Charlottesville and Hurricane Harvey that have left their mark on all of us—I offer these thoughts on what makes summer camps like Ramah essential to contemporary Jewish life—and what we need to do to ensure they remain successful.

Berger’s first key contribution to our thinking on this matter came in The Sacred Canopy (1967). Before the modern period, he explained, most people lived inside all-encompassing  frameworks of meaning constructed with the help of religion. Sacred orders of belief and observance worked to convince people that the organization of society, economy, politics, and daily life was built into the very nature of reality. For Jews (I extrapolate from Berger’s theory using the insights of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, longtime head of JTS’s Teachers Institute and a major inspiration for Camp Ramah), the sacred canopy was an all-inclusive order that set Jews apart from the surrounding society and culture, via commandments they believed had been ordained by the Creator of the universe.

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Dr. Eisen at Ramah New England.

Cantor Nancy Abramson
Director, H.L. Miller Cantorial School and Director, Women’s League Seminary Synagogue

Walking onto the campus of Ramah in the Berkshires this summer, I was struck by how welcoming it was. From the new administrative offices to the “how can we help you attitude” of the staff, I felt drawn into the avirah of camp. I sat in a Zimriyah meeting of the talented music staff, and knew they were creating a magical environment of Hebrew song for hundreds of campers. I observed a group of younger campers being led in a Jewkelele chug (yes, that’s Jewish ukelele), and couldn’t stop smiling. Kids were singing as they walked from activity to activity, and the entire camp buzzed with positive energy. It was a great visit.

Nancy Abramson at Berkshires Educators' Day

Cantor Nancy Abramson (4th from right) at Ramah Berkshires for Educators Day 2017

Rabbi Joel Alter
Director of Admissions, The JTS Rabbinical School and H. L. Miller Cantorial School

Even with only a few hours at camp this summer, I was impressed by the joy, intelligence, and camaraderie among the staff at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack. The unique structure of Nyack among the Ramah camps, in which the campers come and go each day but the staff stay overnight, makes afternoons and evenings special at Ramah Nyack. The staff, of course, have a welcome opportunity to reflect on their days and simply to relax. Relaxation for some meant dancing to Israeli music playing continuously across the migrash – the main lawn, and for others it meant making one champion toss of a frisbee after another.

Joel Alter at Ramah Nyack IMG_1936.JPG

Rabbi Joel Alter (2nd from right) at Ramah Nyack, 2017

But the staff were also conferring on program plans for the coming day or week, or preparing for the peulot erev – activity groups – that they would be conducting with and for one another later that evening. The combination of seriousness of purpose, easy and deep friendship, and opportunities for creativity and fun created a palpable energy that I felt in conversation, at dinner, and during my teaching session.

I should mention, too, that Nyack is home to Jews of different stripes: the Conservative movement framework sustains a pluralistic community, and staff members’ different backgrounds gave texture and depth to conversations touching on identity and programming. I headed home that July evening with renewed confidence in Ramah’s ability to nurture beautiful, meaningful, and joyful Jewish experience.

Marc Gary
Executive Vice Chancellor & Chief Operating Officer

As soon as I stepped foot on the beautiful campus of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, I knew that I was home. More than forty years ago, I served as a counselor at the camp. It was here that I learned to speak Hebrew, where I discovered what a truly inspirational Shabbat experience could be, and where friendships that have lasted a lifetime were formed.

Much has changed at Camp Ramah in the Poconos during the intervening four decades, and yet the uniquely impactful experience of a summer—or even a weekend—at the camp has remained undiminished. Under the dynamic leadership of JTS alumnus Rabbi Joel Seltzer, the camp has grown in both numbers and in the content of its programming. Joyous Jewish living is inhaled by every camper and staff member along with the clear mountain air.

M Gary Poconos 2017

Marc Gary (3rd from left) at Ramah Poconos, 2017

My Shabbat at camp allowed me to interact with campers, staff, and visitors in diverse ways. On Friday night I led a shiur for staff members and guests on moral decisionmaking guided by halachah. Shabbat morning was a special treat as I davened with several different edot, each imbued with a special Shabbat ruach. In the afternoon, I had the singular privilege to lead a discussion on Jewish leadership with 150 campers from both Camp Ramah in the Poconos and Ramah Darom. And as the sun was beginning to set, I led a final session for camp visitors (including board members) on the exciting new programs and initiatives at JTS.

I was proud to see so many JTS alumni and students leading and teaching at camp. As was the case forty years ago during my tenure as a counselor there, the bond between Ramah and JTS remains strong and apparent.

Camp Ramah in the Poconos represents the very best of our movement – its dynamic present and its unlimited potential for the future.

Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky
Associate Vice Chancellor and Associate Professor of Bible

I spent two remarkable weeks this summer learning with and from the chanichim (campers), madrichim (counselors), and tzevet (staff) of the glorious Camp Ramah in California in Ojai! It is a magical, inspiring, and loving place. On the last Shabbat of the first session, I sat and learned with a group from Adat Shalom (7th graders), on the grand hill that cuts through the heart of camp. I asked them what would be their favorite Ramah memory that they would carry home with them. Many mentioned the chocolate muffins served Shabbat mornings. Others talked about celebrating Shabbat with their friends Others mentioned the mud-hugs (to see it is to believe it!) given by the Machon campers (10th graders) when they return from a five-day hike covered in mud. After the kids shared their memories, they asked me what I would remember. It is hard to say. It may be sitting with my Tzophim girls (9th graders) and talking about prayer. It may be discussing with my Sollelim girls (8th graders) essential Jewish values, and why I personally value generosity of spirit.

A Kalmanofsky California 2017

Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky (3rd from left) at Ramah California

It may be learning Torah with the tzevet and thinking about what it means to create sacred space and how/if it is possible to gauge the impact they are having on their campers. It also may be the walks I took with counselors, and the talks I had with the amazing and gifted professional staff. I learned so much watching them work. It may be the beautiful havdalah I joined my last Shabbat at camp with the participants in Ezra, the camp’s vocational education program. And, of course, it may be those delicious chocolate muffins! I have many, many beautiful memories from Ramah Ojai. It was a gift to spend time there.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins
Dean, The Rabbinical School and the Division of Religious Leadership

Another summer, another open-mouthed sense of awe at the kids, counselors and leaders of the Ramah camps. I had the privilege this year to visit three locations—Ramah Galim (Northern California) toward the end of their staff week, Ramah Berkshires during the inaugural year of its director Ethan Linden, and Ramah in the Rockies, which retains a start-up vibe even as it becomes a mature organization, with staff who grew up as campers.

Some images from Galim—Rabbi Sarah Shulman spinning a wheel after each Aliyah of Torah to elicit diverse insights on the portion from her staff (rewarding winners with Ramah Galim swag). A JTS cantorial student/marine biologist who is equally at home identifying humpback whales and leading the camp in song. Havdalah on the beach, with the Pacific crashing over the songs and dances of a pumped-up staff. Eager anticipation of the arrival of campers the very next day—what a treat for them.

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires has benefited from a stable series of directors, and it looked great, with a sparkling new arts center. Still, camp is ultimately about people, not buildings, and Rabbi Ethan Linden brings deep and wise concern for the people in his care. He has ineffable enthusiasm—it is infectious and beautiful to behold. I am proud that CRB also launched a new partnership with JTS this summer called Nishma B’Ramah, led by Dr. Jason Rogoff. Four of our rabbinical students are spending the summer there, studying and teaching Torah, giving and receiving in the best Ramah tradition.

Finally, back to the Rockies, for my fourth visit. I can’t stay away from this place! In fact, they literally had no place for me to stay, so I pitched a tent up the slope and roughed it for three nights. It was well worth the creaky bones each morning. Rabbi Eliav and his team bring joy and positive energy to camp life. We ate tasty greens from their organic garden and healthful food from the kitchen staff. I always leave this camp feeling more physically fit and spiritually nourished. It helped to have four JTS rabbinical students as well as students from our other schools (and great prospectives too). I love spending time with our JTS students, past, present, and future, at Camp Ramah.

D Nevins Rockies 2017

Rabbi Daniel Nevins at Ramah in the Rockies

Whenever I feel demoralized about the state of the Jewish people and of our brand of traditional egalitarian Judaism, I think about the magical kingdom of Camp Ramah. Davening is sweeter, learning more profound, and community more engaging when we dedicate ourselves to being together in this way. Kol hakavod to all of the Ramah staff and campers of Kayitz 5777—bring your joy of Jewish living to your families and communities so that we may all start 5778 with strength and renewal.

Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz
Dean of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies

It’s always a treat to spend time at Ramah, but it was especially meaningful to visit Camp Ramah in Wisconsin—the first Ramah camp founded—this summer during Ramah’s 70th year. To mark this special anniversary, I had the opportunity to share with counselors, senior staff members, and older campers the foundational principles that inspired the creation of Ramah in 1947. We looked at texts from the 1940s which articulated Jewish leaders’ most pressing goals and hopes for the camp. The founders felt the burning need to identify future Jewish leaders, capture time in the summer for formal Jewish education, create a vibrant Hebrew speaking environment, expose campers to the beauties and joys of Jewish living, and cultivate wholesome Jewish personalities and caring human beings.

Counselors, staff members, and older campers were animated by hearing the distinctive mission articulated by the founders, the sense of urgency in their words as they assumed the weighty responsibility—in the wake of the Holocaust—to ensure the flourishing of a robust Jewish life in America. I felt equally energized by the passion and dedication of today’s Ramahniks! We considered how and why Ramah has changed over the decades and in what ways it furthers the founders’ vision. What role does and should Hebrew play in camp today? Should Ramah expand its tent to include all who want to attend, or ought it to retain standards of study, observance and Hebrew in order to flourish in the future as it has in the past. Passionate conversations ensued even as the outstanding camp program continued: beautiful zemirot sung with fervor and joy; life-long friendships deepening; campers stretching themselves to master new skills; and instances of kindness, empathy, and chesed touching individuals throughout the community.

S Schwartz Wisconsin 2017

Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz (top, center) at Ramah Wisconsin

Ramah Wisconsin staff—from the inspired leadership of director Jacob Cytryn to the newest junior counselor—is driven to enrich the lives of campers in 2017 through the same vehicles used by the founders. But as I watched the Tikvah campers perform a sketch that had been developed and rehearsed in partnership with Machon campers, I was also reminded of the ways in which the current Ramah vision has flourished beyond what could ever have been imagined. I could only smile with deep satisfaction knowing that the visionaries of the 1940s would be gratified to witness dedicated staff hard at work advancing Ramah’s mission in the same beautiful (though physically, much enhanced) space some 70 years later.

Dr. Jason Rogoff
Academic Director of Israel Programs/Assistant Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics

I had an amazingly unique experience this summer at Ramah in the Berkshires. It was the first summer of the “Nishma b’Ramah” program. The Nishma summer study program at JTS expanded to include a group of four rabbinical student fellows studying at Ramah Berkshires. Together, we spent the mornings studying the chapter of Talmud which focuses on the cities of refuge. In the afternoons, each joined one of the specialty staff at camp sharing some of the skills that they have with our campers. It was an incredibly rewarding program integrating Torah study and debate into the fun camp setting.

Dr. Jason Rogoff (7th from left) at Ramah Darom

In addition to participating in the flagship year of “Nishma b’Ramah,” I was fortunate to visit Ramah Darom and experience for the first time a Ramah Camp in session that was not my Ramah Berkshires home.

My visit was without a doubt worthy of a shehekhiyanu sticker! I witnessed their commitment to being a dynamic center for Jewish living and learning through tefillot with Gesher in the morning, planning a peulat erev with tzevet for garinim campers and a late night limmud session with tzevet members. During Tzevet limmud we studied a short selection from the Babylonian Talmud which describes God’s daily routine. The Tzevet engaged in insightful discussions about what the rabbinic description can teach us about our own lives. The facilities alone make you want to stay forever. Add in Torah, and I understand why so many people come to Darom’s year-round programming.

Dr. Ben Sommer
Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages

This summer, in addition to teaching staff again at Ramah Nyack, I visited Darom for the first time and had the privilege of teaching staff there as well. Seeing yet another vibrant community of young Jewish adults who were enthusiastic, hard-working, and most of all joyous in their embrace of Judaism and in their work with Jewish kids was a highlight of my year. Whenever I teach Torah at a Ramah camp, I feel confident about the future of American Judaism.

Taking Nothing For Granted

All my life, I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to explore my Jewish identity, such as attending Camp Ramah in Canada, being a Sha’ar counselor at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack,  participating in Noam (the Conservative youth movement in Israel), learning at the TALI and Meitarim schools in Israel,  and going to shul with my family on Shabbat and holidays. At all of these places I was exposed to great Jewish education.  I learned t’fillot, Jewish songs and dances, and Jewish values.

For most of the kids here at camp Ramah Yachad, these 10 days are their only opportunity to take in all of those exceptional Jewish educational experiences. This is the only place where they are able to learn t’fillot, fun dances to Israeli songs, Hebrew, Jewish traditions and more. This is also their only connection to Israel. Sometimes, at our camps in North America we take the things we do for granted. We complain about having to dance on the migrash (field) when it’s really hot, don’t feel like getting up early for t’fillah or get bored if we sit for too long in a peula (activity). Here, I’ve noticed that after every activity we lead, the campers come up to us afterward, give us a hug and say thank you. They wait for this experience all year and they’re so grateful for it.

In all my years at camp, this has by far been the most meaningful. At any camp we can make an impact on someone, but because this is such a rare opportunity for these kids to be exposed to Jewish education, any small thing we do feels like so much more.

From having this experience, I hope that I can better appreciate everything I have and never take any of it for granted.

Eliana Schwartz, 17 is from Ra’anana, Israel. She was a camper at Camp Ramah in Canada and worked as a counselor for one summer at Ramah Nyack. A recent high school graduate, she will participate next year in a pre-Israeli army  program at Midreshet Ein Prat.

Witnessing the Rebirth of Judaism in Ukraine

Judaism means different things to different people. It is practiced in countless ways among many types of people. While Camp Ramah Yachad is not directly affiliated with the Ramah Camping movement, I did expect the religious aspects of the camp to be similar to those at Ramah California, the Ramah camp that I come from. During tefillot on the first day, I was surprised by how different the Yachad prayers were from Ramah California’s daily Shacharit.

At first, I was angry that I wasn’t able to pray like I usually do. However, I realized that I was witnessing how Judaism translates across the globe. Even though their style of prayer is different from mine, it doesn’t make it any less meaningful than Ramah California’s Shacharit. I was witnessing the rebirth of Judaism in a country that was under Communist rule for 70 years. Instead of being angry, I started to appreciate our new Ukrainian friends’ approach to the prayers. From this specific experience, I learned that both creating your own way of prayer and accepting other people’s Jewish practices are important.

On the first Shabbat of the session, a representative from Machon Schechter in Jerusalem joined us. Instead of conducting a Torah service with three parshiot (portions), they decided to have eight parshiot. Before the service started, the rabbi at camp asked who had never seen a Torah in person before. More than half the kids raised their hands. Because there are only three or four Torah scrolls in all of Ukraine, it is rare for a child to have seen one. The fact that Judaism was banned in the Soviet Union, still has repercussions on today’s Jewish youth.

As the Conservative movement in Ukraine grows, the local Jews will gain traditions similar to the ones we have at Ramah California. Today’s Jewish youth in Ukraine will continue to learn about Judaism and their passion for our religion will only grow from here on.

Jonah Sacks, 17, is from Portland, Oregon, where he is a rising senior at Lincoln High School. Jonah has attended Camp Ramah in California for seven years and participated in Ramah Poland and Israel Seminar this summer.

$18 Million Raised by Ramah Camping Movement

New Investments from Donors and Foundations in 2016-17 Support Camps, Israel Programs, and Movement-Wide Initiatives

The Ramah Camping Movement continues to thrive, serving more than 11,200 campers and staff members this summer, the largest number ever in our 70-year history. We are fortunate to benefit from a growing list of generous individual donors, both small and large, as well as philanthropic foundations, to support the important work we do. These contributions strengthen our camps in numerous ways, help make Ramah financially accessible to more families, extend Ramah programming into life-long and year-round initiatives, and grow more overnight and day camps to serve even more Jewish youth.

The National Ramah Commission of The Jewish Theological Seminary raised a record $4.5 million in new foundation grants and donor pledges in the last twelve months, and individual Ramah camps and Israel programs (see below) have raised more than $13.5 million for scholarships, endowments, capital development, and program innovation. We are extremely grateful for this generosity, an investment in the future leaders of our Jewish communities.

Ramah Sports Academy – The National Ramah Commission received a $1.4 million grant to help us launch the Ramah Sports Academy (RSA), our newest overnight camp, opening in summer 2018 at Fairfield University in southwestern Connecticut. This generous grant was awarded as part of the Specialty Camp Incubator of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, with funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation and The AVI CHAI Foundation. (Click here to request more information about RSA.)

National Affordability Initiative – Due to the generosity of several anonymous donors, NRC continues to provide each Ramah overnight camp with financial assistance to support campers from families with serious financial struggle. NRC has also raised funds to provide financial assistance for teens to travel to Poland through Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY) and Ramah Israel Seminar, and for the creation of a new outdoor adventure track on Ramah Israel Seminar.

  • Ramah camps partner with many of their regional Conservative synagogues that support Ramah camping through generous allocations of scholarship assistance to their member families. These funds, along with the significant amounts raised through camp lay leadership fundraising efforts, help many of our campers attend Ramah.

Disabilities Programs/Tikvah

  • With 101 riders, hikers, and volunteers participating, the May 2017 Ramah Israel Bike Ride and Hiking Trip raised approximately $475,000 for Ramah programs for campers with disabilities. Since 2011, these biennial trips have raised over $1,500,000 from more than 10,000 donors. Corporate and family sponsors help underwrite the costs of this program so that almost all of the individual donations can support our Tikvah programs.
  • The Genesis Prize Foundation and Jewish Funders Network have awarded a matching grant to the National Ramah Commission. In honor of 2016 Genesis Prize Laureate Itzhak Perlman, the Breaking Barriers Matching Grant Initiative promotes inclusion of those with disabilities in Jewish life. The grant will support operations for the National Ramah Tikvah Network.
  • The Leo Oppenheimer & Flora Oppenheimer Haas Foundation has provided the National Ramah Commission with a generous grant enabling Ramah to expand the capacity of the National Ramah Tikvah Network.
  • National Ramah received a generous grant to expand TikvahNet, a project of Reshet Ramah, which networks staff and camper alumni from all our Tikvah programs.

Gesher Ramah – The AVI CHAI Foundation awarded the National Ramah Commission a generous grant to deepen the connection between Ramah camps and Conservative congregations. This new initiative partners Ramah staff with clergy members, Jewish educators, youth leaders, and parent ambassadors at local synagogues. These teams will develop family and youth programming designed to build a stronger Ramah culture in their congregations and to increase the number of synagogue families sending their children to Ramah camps.

2016 Ramah Alumni Survey – Conducted by Professor Steven M. Cohen with generous support from Eileen and Jerry Lieberman, this comprehensive survey powerfully demonstrates that Ramah alumni have deep long-term engagement in Jewish life and a meaningful network of lifelong Jewish friends.

Selected Ongoing National Ramah Initiatives Supported by Major Foundation Grants

Ramah Service Corps – This past year, there were 36 part-time Ramah Service Corps Fellows, young adult Ramah staff leaders who bring the magic of camp into congregational and community life year-round across North America. Outstanding role models for our Jewish youth, the Fellows also serve as camp recruiters and are encouraged to consider careers in Jewish leadership.

Reshet Ramah

  • With ongoing generous financial support from the Maimonides Fund and The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Reshet Ramah alumni initiative continues to grow and develop in new ways. To date, there have been over 9,000 registrants for Reshet Ramah events. These events are often in partnership with our camps’ alumni outreach efforts, and include holiday celebrations, travel and retreats, and university campus Jewish engagement programs.
  • A generous grant from Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) supports a new Ramah-NBN partnership, through which Reshet Ramah creates programs to promote greater Israel engagement among young adults on college campuses and in communities across North America.
  • The National Ramah Commission received a generous grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation to support Reshet Ramah Learning Hubs. This initiative actively engages young adults in ongoing Jewish learning organized by their peers.

Open Door Initiative – With generous funding from the Zell Family Foundation and The AVI CHAI Foundation, National Ramah is working with a number of our day and overnight camps to reach out to unaffiliated families for whom the Ramah experience serves as a gateway to greater involvement in the Jewish community.

Fundraising Updates from Ramah Camps

Camp Ramah in Wisconsin raised over $2 million towards its endowment, capital projects, and camper scholarships. A new Nivonim campus opened for the 2017 season. Pledges for the Givah Campaign now exceed $5 million, with nearly 2,000 gifts from generous individuals and foundations. During this fiscal year, these gifts included a $100,000 grant from the Zell Family Foundation, a $75,000 grant from The Crown Family, and a $100,000 grant from a national foundation.

Ramah in the Rockies received capital campaign gifts of $250,000 towards building a new arts pavilion from the Goldrich Family Foundation, $80,000 towards kitchen updates from an anonymous donor, $200,000 towards winterizing the camp’s water system, and $20,000 from an anonymous foundation and The Oreg Foundation to construct a three-season greenhouse. Ramah in the Rockies also received over $80,000 in camper tuition scholarships and over $200,000 in new pledges towards opening the BaMidbar Wilderness therapy program, which opens in January 2018. In addition, the camp restructured its debt with the help of a foundation. This resulted in over $125,000 of annual debt relief and Ramah in the Rockies taking title to its ranch.

Camp Ramah in the Poconos raised over $800,000, including gifts from the 2016 Annual Chai Campaign totaling $470,000 for scholarship, programming, and capital improvements. Over 1,600 individual gifts were made in the past year. Endowments grew with contributions of over $60,000, both for named endowments and unrestricted funds. In addition, $80,000 was donated to the camp’s Tikvah programs for campers with disabilities, and camper families donated $12,500 to the camp’s Staff Appreciation Fund.

Ramah Day Camp in Nyack raised $415,000, which included $144,000 for camper scholarships and $275,000 for capital projects. Construction was completed this spring on a new $2 million kitchen, and a lead gift from John Ruskay and family supported the construction of an amphitheater and outdoor kitchen.

Camp Ramah in Northern California (Ramah Galim), in just its second year of operation, is growing in many ways, including the number of donors investing in the future of the camp. Over the last 12 months, Ramah Galim raised over $23,000 in scholarship funding and $550,000 in unrestricted funds to help with camp operations. This year, a lead gift of $250,000 came from the Laura and Gary Lauder Family Venture Philanthropy Fund. Combined with the generous support received from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, and Sonoma Counties; SF Humanities Inc.; The AVI CHAI Foundation; The Morton and Amy Friedkin Supporting Foundation; and individual donors, Ramah Galim was able to meet and exceed its 2017 goals.

Camp Ramah in New England raised $150,000 to complete its $6.25 million capital campaign. The final project in the camp’s first-ever comprehensive capital campaign is a new 23,000- square foot chadar ochel, which was officially dedicated on July 23 with over 500 people in attendance. This modern and winterized facility replaces an aging and much smaller facility. Members of CRNE’s Tikvah Vocational Education Program are learning food service skills in the new facility. Earlier in the campaign, Camp Ramah opened three other new facilities: the Bet Am Gadol, K’far Nivonim, and the misrad/omanut building.

Camp Ramah Darom raised $1.6 million in the past 12 months to support Camp Yofi, the annual fund, endowment, and the VISION 2020 Campaign, which to date has raised $3.2 million of its $5 million goal. Recent additions to camp include an outdoor cooking facility, five new cottages to be used for senior staff and retreat guests, and a new boardwalk from the main campus to the welcome center. Thanks to a recent generous grant, Ramah Darom updated the interior and exterior of the Marcus Building, which provides accommodations for senior staff and retreat guests.

Camp Ramah in Canada raised $1.1 million toward Phase II of its Renew the Vision Capital Campaign. The Ab and Phyllis Flatt and Harold and Carole Wolfe families generously pledged an additional $500,000 as part of a 2:1 match to help inspire participation in Phase II. Phase I, which was completed in time for kayitz 2017, included a new infirmary and a new Beit Am Agam. The annual Chaverim Campaign raised $300,000 to support camper scholarships.

Camp Ramah in California raised more than $4.1 million. The annual campaign raised $1.5 million to support camp’s greatest needs and for scholarships. The merged New Machon/Property Capital Campaign raised $2.7 million in the last 12 months and $4.4 million over the last three years. Capital proceeds were used to purchase adjacent land to expand the camp’s wilderness programming. Generous gifts were received to name the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Machon Shetach and the Rachel & Lee Rosen Mercaz Manhigut (Center for Leadership). In addition, five families at least doubled their initial capital contribution of $100,000.

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires completed the final phase of its $1.8 million Art Opens Doors (AOD) Capital Campaign. The first phase included a new welcome center and camp office, and the final phase, completed in June, focused on building a state-of-the-art fine arts center. The AOD campaign received large gifts from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and an anonymous foundation, as well as gifts from more than 300 individual donors. During this year, the camp raised approximately $800,000 for camper scholarships, capital improvements, programming innovations, and staff professional development. In December 2016, the camp raised $214,000 at its annual dinner in honor of outgoing camp director Rabbi Paul Resnick.

A Game-Changing Experience

“Down by the banks of the Hanky Panky
Where the bullfrogs jump from bank to bank say a B.U.L.L
Bull frog jump no more 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10”

As I started playing this hand-clapping game with my campers at Ramah Yachad one afternoon during free time I had flashbacks to when I was a nine-year-old camper. I remembered playing it at Ramah Darom with camp friends and counselors I looked up to. I remember being very excited when I was one of the few kids left in the game, about to win. I could see that exact same excitement in my campers’ eyes as we played the game here and three girls remained—about to win.

Despite being thousands of miles from home, I began to see the similarities between my camp experience and that of these young Jewish Ukrainians. The kids were beaming with joy as we played different games. Each time different kids won. As we played the games, I started to enjoy them more and more as I saw that the impact they made on the campers was similar to the impact they had on me as a camper.

Through this experience, I am transforming from a camper to a counselor. I am no longer a carefree camper. I am starting to have more responsibility and am being seen as an adult. I am tasked with taking initiative, and I am in charge of leading fun games and teaching the campers about certain aspects of Judaism. Most importantly, parents trust me to supervise their kids and keep them safe. Despite these changes I still feel the same excitement when playing Bullfrog. Only now, I feel the excitement more deeply.

Danit Silberman, 17, is from Mobile, Alabama and is a rising senior at the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina. She has attended Camp Ramah Darom for eight years and participated in Ramah Israel Seminar.

Shabbat’s Warm Embrace

Friday evening has always been the most magical experience for me at Camp Ramah in New England. The whole camp convenes in a beautiful grove surrounded by towering trees, and everyone greets each other dressed in their celebratory clothing. The evening begins with performances of songs and dances by the different age groups and is followed by Shabbat blessings, tefillah, and other camp traditions. As my Nivonim summer (my last as a camper) came to an end, I never thought I’d ever encounter such special Shabbat traditions anywhere else.

Nevertheless, when I arrived at Camp Ramah Yachad last week, I had hopeful expectations for the upcoming Shabbat. Friday evening, all the campers and staff gathered in courtyard with a 360-degree view of the picturesque Carpathian Mountains. To my surprise, I encountered the familiar experience of each age group, or edah, getting up on stage and performing songs and dances for Shabbat. Then the campers helped their counselors light candles, and the whole camp recited the bracha to bring in Shabbat just as the sun began to set. It felt like home.

In that moment, I felt arms embracing me in a warm hug, and I looked down to find my camper smiling up and saying “Shabbat Shalom” in her perfect, yet heavily Russian-accented Hebrew. Pleasantly surprised, I looked around, and saw everyone embracing and wishing one another a “Shabbat Shalom.” I received hug after hug from my campers, followed by hugs from my co-counselors, and then hugs from other people— some whom I knew, and many whom I didn’t. It didn’t matter who you were, the whole community embraced one another in preparation for Shabbat. Finally, I hugged my American Ramah friends. All in all, we spent 15 minutes greeting one another as we welcomed Shabbat.

This struck me as such a strong example of community and love—ideas very familiar to me from my own camp experiences, but now displayed in a new setting. I felt truly welcome. The language barrier disappeared and I found my place in this community that felt so foreign to me only a few days ago. To my delight, the combination of old and new Shabbat traditions created an exceptional experience that built bridges between communities across the world.

Liat Shapiro, 17, is a rising senior at Meitarim High School in Ra’anana, Israel. She has spent five summers at Camp Ramah in New England and loves to read, work out, and volunteer with children.

First Day With The Campers: A Song And Dance

Today was the first day the campers were here. While most of the day was spent meeting all the children and making sure everyone was settled in, a lot of preparation was done for the opening ceremony taking place that night.

One of the age groups that I am a counselor for is children 10-11 years old, and they needed a song and dance that would be presented to the entire camp. They needed our help thinking of a song and dance, and while normally this would be a task I would not be confident in fulfilling, I (along with two friends) took on the challenge without a second thought. After about ten minutes of discussion with the kids, we came up with a routine and spent the next hour teaching it to them.

Seeing the children do the dance perfectly in front of the entire camp that night made all of the hard work worth it. First, I was moved to see how happy the kids were to be at the camp and to be the center of attention. I understood how much this place means to them, and how the concept of camp and community can bring people together and strengthen Jewish bonds. Second, seeing the kids perfectly perform something I had taught them gave me confidence in myself as a leader and teacher, and also showed me the impact that I can have on others.


It is difficult being a counselor at a camp where I speak a different language than the campers, but today’s dance proved that with effort, the language obstacle could be overcome and meaningful things achieved.

Jason Woronoff, 17, is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was a camper at Camp Ramah in the Poconos for eight years and participated in Ramah Israel Seminar this summer. He is entering his senior year at the Upper Dublin High School, where he plays lacrosse.

Ramah Yachad: Familiar Yet Different

An hour before arriving at Ramah Yachad, my mind became engaged in an intense debate. I pondered, reversing my position every few seconds, if this was actually camp. The dirt road on which we drove seemed familiar enough, but the surrounding Ukrainian signage and obvious poverty of the land made it obvious to me that this was not my safe haven in the Poconos. As the coach van we rode in slowed to a permanent stop in the parking lot of a giant green hotel complex (I soon discovered this was in fact Ramah Yachad), I was open minded, but the struggle continued. I had yet to determine whether or not the experience I was about to walk into was camp by my definition, or something else entirely.

IMG_7197We agreed to leave the van singing and dancing. As we did this, luggage in hand, Yachad’s Ukrainian staff began to follow our lead, free of any inhibition. This reaction was an immediate check in the “this is camp” box. The welcoming community (that was surprisingly fluent in English) exceeded my expectations entirely and I, along with the six other American teenagers with me, felt warm and fuzzy going to bed that night.

Staff week began the next morning, and the atmosphere instantly shifted from celebratory to focused. Everything we did was centered on making sure the campers arriving Wednesday night would have the best 10-day summer camp experience that Yachad could offer. Between American hadracha and whole-camp meetings sprinkled with intense amounts of unfamiliar Russian, I began to once again wonder if Yachad was camp. In the back of my mind I felt that something was missing. The activities we engaged in outside of traditional work were reminiscent of my time at Poconos (we had an amazing hike in the Carpathian mountains), but all the prep for campers seemed remote to me in ways I couldn’t articulate.

IMG_7137Things changed when the first bus of campers pulled up. That group of 15 or so Ukrainian children that stepped onto the brick road that night immediately lifted the spirits of everyone on campus. The campers’ arrival instilled in everyone a sense of purpose. At once, we were all reminded of the amazing experiences we were about to have as a community of campers and staff. All at once, I was thoroughly convinced that this was camp like any other, and that up until that point we had just been missing our key ingredient: the campers.


Sam Caplan is a rising senior at Upper Dublin High School in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. He attended Camp Ramah in the Poconos for seven summers as a camper and participated in Ramah Israel Seminar 2017. Sam enjoys spending time with friends, reading, and volunteering in his local community.

What Was Once the Largest Synagogue in the World

Camp Ramah and Ramah Israel Seminar teens participating in the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience are blogging from Camp Ramah Yachad Ukraine over the next two weeks. The first blog post in the series reflects on the group’s short visit to Budapest, Hungary en route to the camp at the Natalya Guest House in the village of Volovets, about 30 kilometers from Munkatch in the Carpathian Region of Western Ukraine. 130 children from all over Ukraine are attending Yachad, which is run by The Schechter Institutes and celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer.

Fighting to keep my eyes open under the blazing sun of Budapest, I grabbed my bag from the security conveyer belt and walked into the grand Dohány Street Synagogue. Enamored but the beauty of the colorful chapel, I instantly woke up. Although the synagogue was mostly empty, I pictured it full of the happy, energetic Jews (who I imagined to be much like my family), who once occupied the Jewish quarter of the city and filled the neighborhood with their unique traditions.

As our tour of the synagogue began, the non-Jewish guide began speaking of the Jewish people as if they were completely extinct. Though I didn’t personally feel so attached to the Hungarian Jewish community, the concept of virtually an entire Jewish community disappearing in such a small amount time was a frightening thought. (There were around 825,000 Jews in Hungary before WWII, and today there are estimated to be only 50,000—but still the largest Jewish population in any of the Central-Eastern European countries.)

Earlier, before I even walked inside the doors of the synagogue, I received a text from a friend named Paz (a Mexican Jew from my boarding school), who happened to also be in Budapest. Paz messaged me she was right outside the synagogue! I walked quickly outside to meet her. We talked about our summers and hugged goodbye through the fence surrounding the synagogue.

Sometime later on the tour, the guide said that this was once the largest synagogue in the world, and that it was now second in size only to one in New York. I thought about this, and also about my encounter with Paz, and I realized that the large Jewish community in Hungary didn’t dwindle in vain. In its place emerged new, vibrant Jewish communities around the world, like mine in New York and Paz’s in Mexico City.

Eli Allison, 16, has spent nine summers at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. He is from New York, attends the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, NC, and loves ultimate frisbee and tennis.

Our Inspirational 2017 National Ramah Spring Leadership Training Conference

Gideon WeissGuest blogger: Gideon Weiss, National Ramah year-round staff member and veteran rosh edah at Ramah Berkshires

Although the calendar still said “May,” and the weather was quite brisk, for more than 50 Ramah tzevet, it was the unofficial start of summer and a new camping season. At the annual four-day National Ramah Spring Leadership Training Conference (“Winer”) last month, incoming rashei edah (division heads), Tikvah (special needs) staff, and Daber Fellows (Hebrew facilitators and ambassadors), came together at Ramah New England to train with Ramah professional staff, plan for the summer, and do a little rikud as well.

Winer Group Photo 2017 web

For incoming rashei edah, the Louis and Shoshana Winer Institute for Rosh Edah Training is an intense boot camp as preparation for the numerous responsibilities of being a division head. The Winer track schools its participants in topics ranging from the abstract (ideas of leadership) to more granular details (the right words to use during a performance review), along with everything in between. As Jillian Mergruen, a first-year rosh edah at Ramah Nyack, explained, “Winer was an unbelievably eye-opening and inspiring experience. I learned so much in a few short days and I cannot wait to apply what I learned this kayitz (summer)!”

Winer 2017 Video Thumbnail

Video: Highlights from Winer 2017

Winer was led this year by National Associate Director Amy Skopp Cooper, who joined with a cadre of directors and other year-round professionals to run sessions on team building, discipline, programming, staff supervision, and organization. Returning rashei edah, or “vatikim” (veterans), also enjoy the opportunity to teach and mentor; they lead round-robin sessions and sit on a panel that offers insider advice to the new class. As one rosh edah vatik, Noam Kornsgold of Ramah Berkshires, put it, “Winer allowed me to review my past summer as a rosh edah, move forward and beyond that point, and teach and learn from the next cohort of rashei edah.”

For new rashei edah, training culminated with “RamahTalks,” TEDTalk-style presentations about their Ramah journeys (highlight video below). For Bradley Goldman, a first-year rosh edah at Ramah Nyack, Winer was a “transformative experience where I was able to ask pertinent questions openly and honestly. I was met with amazing support, well-experienced mentors, and resources that will serve me this kayitz and beyond.” New England rosh edah Claire Mendelson added, “Winer was extremely helpful in my development as a Ramah leader. I was glad to get to meet other people in my position from other camps. I really felt the power of Ramah as a movement!”


Video: RamahTalks at Winer 2017

Our rashei edah joined together with our Tikvah staff to participate in a training on sexual abuse prevention and reporting from Rahel Bayer, a Ramah alum and senior consultant for T&M Protection Resources. Other key sessions included a discussion on how to better integrate mishlachat (Israeli emissaries) into staff life; organizational strategies; ways to serve as a tefillah educator; a conversation on camper behavioral management and reducing social and sexual pressures at camp, led by National Ramah Director Rabbi Mitchell Cohen.

Rashei edah continually expressed their appreciation at being able to explore these topics together prior to the summer. “Before Winer, the idea of my being a rosh edah was overwhelming and daunting, but now I have some footing and feel more confident in my ability to succeed this summer,” explained Maddie Gelfand, a rosh edah from Ramah New England. ”At Winer I was able to learn so much from senior staff at different Ramah camps and feel like I understand and therefore can embody more of the mission of the Ramah Camping Movement.” Saul Shaaltiel from Ramah Poconos added, “Attending Winer was extremely informative and has helped prepare me for the summer ahead as a rosh edah. I learned how to build a strong tzevet and be the rosh edah I want to be.”

The National Ramah Tikvah Network training included Tikvah counselors from Ramah camps across North America. Led by Orlee Krass, Tikvah Director at Ramah Poconos, the cohort learned new strategies for effective discipline and conflict management, discussed how to better tailor programming for Tikvah edot, and had the opportunity to engage with parents of Tikvah participants. The group also worked with Howard Blas, National Ramah Tikvah Network Director, and spent time with the camp directors to discuss specific camp needs. “This year at Winer I had the opportunity to converse with tzevet from other camps about their Tikvah programs,” said Isabelle Williams, a Tikvah counselor from Ramah Darom. “Hearing about their programs opened my eyes to the potential future of Darom’s program, as well as many ideas I can implement this summer.”

Long-time National Ramah Program Director Alana Tilman, the incoming assistant director of Ramah Galim in Northern California, organized the conference and led the Daber Fellows training along with Guy Shahar, who directs Sha’ar, Ramah Nyack’s pioneering Hebrew immersion program. Daber Fellows discussed how to better integrate Hebrew into the fabric of camp and how to make Hebrew learning more accessible and fun. To that end, the Fellows learned how to create programming that revolves around each camp’s meah milim (one hundred essential words). The group discussed the importance of Hebrew to the Ramah mission, learned to tailor the teaching of Hebrew to different learning styles, and even enjoyed a lesson on Hebrew slang! Joey Rudoler, a Daber Fellow from Ramah Poconos, said, “Attending the Spring Leadership Institute helped me get in the mindset of camp; the Daber Fellows training helped me get in the mindset of an intentional Hebrew speaker. I now have an arsenal of peulot, games, and other tools in order to bring more Hebrew to camp in a fun way!”

Together, despite the cold weather, the group enjoyed a walk to grab ice cream at Rondeau’s (a Ramah New England tradition!); a peulat erev that turned the emotions of camp into performance art; and of course, several rounds of dancing to our favorite Israeli music.  Throughout the entire week, the magic of a Ramah experience was felt even as participants worked hard to prepare for the summer. Most importantly, the conference created a community of leaders, and marked the beginning of Kayitz 2017.  As one participant proudly shared, “It’s amazing to me that Ramah values us as professionals. Ramah has already sent me to two different leadership training conferences and has invested in helping me to become the best tzevet member I can be. I love that Ramah’s commitment to helping me develop as a person didn’t end when my camper experience concluded, but continues as I remain part of the Ramah community.”

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