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.

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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)!”

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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!”

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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.”

Reflections on the 2017 Summer Shlichim Training Seminar

Guest blogger: Hannah Platt, Program Director, Camp Ramah in California

We do a lot of incredible things as Ramah camp people. We educate and inspire hundreds of campers, we train our staff to be future Jewish leaders, and we create communities where Judaism lives and breathes effortlessly. However, one of the more remarkable things we do as a Ramah movement is bring nearly 300 young Israelis to our camps each summer. I always knew that shlichim were a great part of camp, but until I first attended the Summer Shlichim Training Seminar in Israel, sponsored by the Jewish Agency, I didn’t realize just how impactful the mishlachat program is.

I feel lucky to say that this was my third time attending the Shlichim Training Seminar and that it was just as emotional and inspiring as it has been in previous years. Watching the shlichim get off the buses is not much different than watching our staff or campers arrive on the first day of camp. There are so many mixed emotions, the joy of starting something new, the excitement of meeting new friends, and the trepidation of embarking on a new journey with new people and in a new environment. The seminar is filled with sessions that teach shlichim about North American Jewish culture, what the Ramah movement is all about, and the layout, traditions and daily life of each camp. But some of the most powerful sessions are the ones where shlichim reflect on their Judaism and their feelings about their own Jewish identity. For many, it was their first time sharing these deeply personal thoughts.  It was fascinating and moving to listen to them speak about their own beliefs, about their personal connections to Israel, and about their fears of opening themselves up to a more — or sometimes less — religious environment. For many of the shlichim, Ramah is their first glance into Judaism outside of Israel. To watch their reactions while they explore this for the first time is truly special.

For me, what was perhaps most inspiring and thrilling was hearing the returning shlichim (“vatikim” or “veterans”) speak about the impact of Ramah on their lives and their reasons for coming back. I remember seeing the vatikim, as first-year shlichim, share their fears about coming to camp. Two years later, they have become spokespeople for Ramah and the mishlachat experience. They spoke of the families in our community who made them feel at home, of the chanichim who sought out opportunities to connect with them and who left a lasting impression on them, and of the support they received from our senior staff and from the tzevet as a whole. Watching their transformation and seeing them reflect on this journey was something that reinvigorated me and reminded me just how powerful a job we all have.

At the end of a beautiful Shabbat, I led havdalah with two of our Ramah directors. As I looked around the circle and saw the smiles and excitement of the new shlichim, the comfort and enthusiasm of the returning vatikim, and the friendly and encouraging faces of my Ramah colleagues, I couldn’t help but become emotional. Here we were, in Israel, on a beautiful kibbutz, surrounded by people who were feeling inspired, ending Shabbat and this week of training with a magnificent havdalah. The group beamed with the excitement of knowing that the summer is only two months away. This trip to Israel was the perfect reminder of why what we do is so important not just for our communities in North America, but for those in Israel and for all of us.

National Ramah Announces Grant from Nefesh B’Nefesh to Support Israel Engagement Programming for Ramah Alumni

January 12, 2017 / 14 Tevet 5777

The National Ramah Commission is delighted to announce a generous grant from Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) to Reshet Ramah, the alumni and community engagement initiative. Through a new Ramah-NBN partnership, Reshet Ramah will create programs to promote greater Israel engagement among young adults on college campuses and in communities across North America.

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Ramah alumni Daniel Warshawsky (Wisconsin) and Melissa Goldman (Nyack) made aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh in August 2016.

NBN and Camp Ramah share the common goal of nurturing a love for Israel among North American youth, often leading to long-term visits and for some, aliyah. Many Ramah alumni cite their camp experiences as the key motivating factor behind their love for Israel; in a recent alumni survey, 94% of Ramah alumni stated that they have a close connection with Israel.

According to NBN Executive Director Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, “We are very excited to develop and nurture a strong relationship and partnership with Reshet Ramah, to help create meaningful face-to-face events where young adults can explore in-depth issues relating to Israel and Israeli society.”

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New olim to Israel: Ramah alumnae Erica Mindel (Canada) and Ellie Geller (Berkshires) interviewed on Israeli television. Click here to view the interview.

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director, says: “NBN is a perfect partner for Ramah, given its mission of inspiring greater love for Israel. In every one of our camps, we speak Hebrew, hire Israeli staff, and dedicate many programming hours to Israel and Zionism, culminating in our teen summer experience, Ramah Israel Seminar.” Amy Skopp Cooper, National Associate Director, adds, “We will leverage Ramah’s experience in designing meaningful Israel programming in a camp environment to develop programs in other settings for Ramah alumni and friends.”

National Ramah and Nefesh B’Nefesh, supported by the efforts of Rabbi Paul Freedman, Director, Israel Strategic Partnerships Cohort and Chair of the Masorti Committee on Aliyah and Klitah, will begin this new partnership during 2017 with the goal of broadening and deepening the relationship in coming years.

2017 National Ramah Winter Leadership Training Conference

Camp was a flurry of activity. Coach buses rumbled in. Benches scraped the ground as they were arranged and rearranged. Israeli dance music echoed into the Ojai mountains. A telling column of Bishul smoke was a beacon declaring, “Camp Ramah is in session.” Chanichim (campers) were the focus in every way but one; they weren’t actually there. Instead, Camp Ramah in California was teeming with staff members. Over 100 senior counselors, rashei edah, Tikvah staff and Service Corps Fellows gathered in Ojai, California to participate in the four-day Winter Training Leadership Training Conference, featuring several tracks for young Ramah leaders.

Incoming senior counselors spent the weekend as part of the Bert B. Weinstein Institute for Counselor Training. After a summer learning the ins and outs of counseling, the Institute provides participants with tools to mentor younger staff and continue their growth as Jewish leaders. Camp Ramah in New England madricha Zmira Stouber shared, “Weinstein has greatly impacted my confidence in being a successful madricha, as well as given me helpful resources and supportive networks that I can utilize for years to come.” Working in small groups, the Weinstein counselors engaged with Ramah directors and Jewish professionals on various topics including innovative programming, strong bunk dynamics and the science of being an effective camp counselor.

Veteran Ramah staff members participated in two other tracks, Vatikim (3rd and 4th year staff) and Rashei Edah (division heads). These more experienced staff members offered invaluable guidance and perspective to incoming senior counselors, while participating in advanced sessions focused on their own development, training and preparation for the coming summer. Sarah Binney, one of the Vatikim from Camp Ramah in California, felt that the Weinstein experience was both motivating and unifying. “I was able to see Ramah as a movement from a much broader perspective,” Sarah said, “which gave me confidence in the future of Ramah and young Conservative Jews.”

This focus on movement-wide staff development has been the driving motivation toward creating new tracks for the conference, including the Tikvah track which began at the 2011 Weinstein Institute. During the weekend, Tikvah staff shared best practices and built on common experiences to enhance each individual camp’s Tikvah training program.

The Service Corps Fellows, who provide Ramah programming at synagogues across North America, from Nashville to San Francisco, united to examine the first half of their Service Corps experience. On Friday afternoon, the group ventured into the Ojai mountains with Rabbi Joe Menashe. In the dry California brush, the Fellows brainstormed experiential outdoor programs to bring back to their communities. Later during the weekend, the cohort participated in an intensive storytelling workshop, led by actor and Ramah alum, Ezra Weisz.

For many, the highlight of the weekend was Friday evening. In the span of four hours, the Chadar Ochel at Camp Ramah in California experienced the full spectrum of sound. The night started with a symphonic explosion; 200 voices became an a capella philharmonic, with a veritable vocal orchestra. The full, majestic notes soon gave way to the percussive bustle of dinner. Silverware and dishes united with playful rhythms and intertwined with a thousand conversations…and then an intense silence. During the culminating panel session with Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary, a discussion on the future of Ramah and Conservative Judaism left the room in reflective quiet. Chancellor Eisen gave a rousing and hopeful address pointed to the Weinstein cohort, counselors who sought to engage in Jewish leadership as a model for Jewish continuity.  His message was clear: each small, interpersonal moment at Ramah can make a lasting difference in the larger community.

These four hours were a microcosm of the powerful variety of experiences at the Ramah Winter Leadership Training Conference. Inspirational davening, informal conversations at mealtimes that transcended age and home camp, and sessions led by experts in Jewish camping and the Jewish world. The conference’s success was amplified by the nearly one hundred layleaders from across the Ramah movement who joined the Weinstein cohort for the Kehillot Ramah Shabbaton.

Dr. Irene Moff, medical chair of Camp Ramah in Northern California (Ramah Galim), shared that the kabbalat shabbat service was, for her, the most inspiring experience of the weekend. “The passion and love for Judaism was palpable,” Irene said. “I came out of that service feeling like Conservative Judaism will be just fine. Hearing from Board members who are selflessly committed to the Ramah movement was inspiring. Listening to the mentorship from Chancellor Eisen and Rabbi Cohen to the young adults made me feel like I was a witness to the passing down of Jewish leadership from generation to generation.”

 

Announcing Ramah Sports Academy

NRC receives $1.4 million grant as part of the Specialty Camp Incubator of the Foundation for Jewish Camp

September 27, 2016 / 24 Elul 5776

We are very pleased to announce that the National Ramah Commission has just received a $1.4 million grant to help us launch Ramah Sports Academy, our newest overnight camp, scheduled to open in summer 2018 in the Northeast.

This generous grant was awarded as part of the Specialty Camp Incubator of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), with funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation and The AVI CHAI Foundation.

The goal of creating Ramah Sports Academy (RSA) is to significantly increase the number of families who choose Ramah. Working cooperatively with the leadership of the current Ramah overnight camps in the region, RSA leaders will create a high-level, sports-intensive program to attract many new families who want both an intensive sports camp as well as the traditional Jewish experience of Ramah.

In the coming weeks, NRC will hire a director, seek an appropriate rental site, and begin the process of developing the camp program.

This new grant affords us the resources to begin our next overnight camp initiative, as part of our overall mandate to “grow Ramah,” which will provide many more children with the benefits of a Ramah experience.

We are grateful to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and AVI CHAI for their ongoing generosity to Ramah, and for their continued investment in Jewish camping.

The Power Of Ramah

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Darrien Sherman, Co-Group Leader, Camp Ramah in Canada

After spending two weeks in the Carpathian Mountains at Camp Ramah Yachad in the Ukraine, I realized and appreciated the true power and beauty of Ramah. As our bus pulled in front of the camp, we were immediately welcomed by the Ukrainian staff with handshakes, hugs, and big smiles. We were the first American delegation to work at Ramah Yachad in the 24 years of its existence. We arrived Friday night before Shabbos and started to pray Kabbalat Shabbat together. Despite being on the other side of the world, the power of prayer united us together, as we began singing the same Kabbalat Shabbat tunes. We were surprised to hear that the Ukrainian staff’s Ramah trajectory was astonishingly similar to many of us Americans. A majority of the Ukrainian staff grew up at Camp Ramah Yachad as campers, graduated as madrichim (counselors), and continue to return as staff members summer after summer. The counselors led normal lives as doctors, lawyers, accountants and students during the year. When asked why they return to camp each year, the staff simply replied that this is more than a summer camp, this is their family.

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Sitting in a crowded chadar ochel surrounded by chants and cheers around the room, it was as if we were transported into a typical Ramah chadar ochel. A handful of the Ramah Yachad campers live in tough economic conditions, and many arrive at camp after a 15-hour train ride. For many of these campers, this was their only opportunity to receive Jewish education during the year. The discussion topics and the level of Jewish content integrated into each activity reminded me of the peulot I experienced at Ramah as both a camper and staff member.

This sense of family was perfectly demonstrated in the Ukrainian wedding that took place at camp. The groom, a camper and current staff member at Ramah Yachad since the age of 6 wanted his wedding ceremony to be held at camp in front of his family and friends. It was extraordinary to hear the wedding being translated in three languages — English, Russian, and Hebrew. Gila Katz, the Director of Ramah Yachad, said this wedding was the 10th marriage from camp. As we engaged in song and dance around the newlywed couple, I was blown away by the similarities of Ramah Yachad and our own Ramah camps. I realized that the magic of Ramah camps is universal and not limited to my own Ramah camping experience.

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As the camp came to a close and we were getting onto the bus, the campers started to chant, “U.S.A., U.S.A.” The campers began hugging and kissing our cheeks, writing phone numbers on our arms, and squeezing in one last picture. As the bus pulled away from camp, the campers and staff stood waving us goodbye. It was a heartfelt moment seeing both sides teary eyed and blowing air kisses out of the bus windows. A beautiful partnership was created. We realized the impact they had made on us as well as the impact we made on them.

This experience has made me even more proud of my Ramah roots. We are so privileged to be part of a larger network that provides us with plentiful opportunities to practice our Judaism, meet others from different backgrounds with similar interests, and to create enduring memories that will last a lifetime. So, savor your Ramah gear, wear it proudly, and you never know who you might meet in the world who have seen the power of the Ramah experience.

Darrien Sherman is a native Detroiter and has been working in the Ramah Detroit Davidson Fellowship program for the past three years as a Detroit Fellow and Project Coordinator. Darrien has spent many summers at Camp Ramah in Canada as a camper and most recently as a Rosh Edah for the two oldest age groups during the summers of 2014 and 2015. This past summer, Darrien staffed the Ramah Ukraine Teen Leadership Experience where she co-led a group of 11 Ramah camper graduates to work at a Camp Ramah Yachad, a Jewish summer camp in the Ukraine. 

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A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

All photographs are courtesy of Vladimir Vork.

It’s Not Over, It’s Just The End

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Nathan Pitock, Camp Ramah in the Poconos

Last summer at Ramah in the Poconos, my edah had a catchphrase to deal with the sadness of ending our final year as campers: זה לא נגמר; זה רק הסוף – it’s not over; it’s just the end. After spending the past week at Ramah Yachad, this phrase has again been on my mind. The camp’s 10-day session was drawing to an end, but there’s much more to take away from the experience than immediately evident.

On Monday night, many campers were visibly upset as it hit them that camp is almost over. They were dreading leaving their friends who live all over Ukraine. It marked the end of camp, but the beginning of lasting friendships. Phone numbers were scribbled on arms in pen, as campers promised to keep in touch. Their friendships aren’t over; it’s just the end of living with their friends until next year.

Today was our last day at camp. We had our last peulot, exchanged gifts, and ate our last potatoes. We packed and prepared for our goodbyes. Dinner came, dinner went, and we shared a short video expressing our gratitude to the camp. Seemingly out of nowhere it was time to leave. The day, for the most part, had been a regular day, but instead of heading to our evening activity, we were driving to the Budapest airport. Campers ran back and forth hugging us all goodbye and once we boarded, they waved at the bus until we drove away.

Coming into this experience, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that we would spend about a week and a half at a Jewish camp called Ramah Yachad in the Carpathian Mountains. Leaving the camp, I have valuable memories and experiences.  I had to learn to communicate and bond with campers; I had to learn to work with other madrichim; I had to learn to balance being a counselor and a friend to my campers. All the while, I had to deal with the language barrier of working with children who knew little to no English. For me, it’s the end of this experience, but just the beginning of learning to work with campers and peers in the coming years.

More importantly, though, it marks the end of the first year of a lasting Ramah partnership. The relationship between Yachad and the American Ramah camps will grow and strengthen. The American schlichim will know better what to expect. The Ukrainian madrichim will know how to work better with the Americans to give the campers and even better camp experience.

Rather than thinking of this day as just the end to deal with the sadness of leaving, I see it as only the end because of the bright future of this program, working to help the camp grow and thrive as more campers come and meet more friends, and the American group works more with the Ukrainian staff to make a week that is unforgettable for everyone. The partnership between the American Ramah camps and Ramah Yachad isn’t over; it’s just the end of this session.

I’ve made close friends during this experience. I’ve learned valuable lessons about being in unfamiliar and strange positions. I’ve learned valuable lessons about being a madrich. I’ve made memories I will never forget. For me, without a doubt, this experience isn’t over; it’s just the end.

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A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

Ya, Ya, Ya!

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Samuel Margolis, Camp Ramah in the Berkshires

Ramah Yachad is like Bigfoot–you need to see it to believe it. I was told that it was a just another Jewish summer camp, but it is so much more. No one could have prepared me for the vitality of the campers and their love of shira and rikud, the mesmerizing scenery, the welcoming Ukrainian, Israeli, and American staff, the creative peulot, and just how much I would love it here.

My day started off like usual, with a bright and early 6:30 a.m. wake up for my morning workout with Sergei, the security guard. At 7:45, I climbed four flights of stairs to wake up my campers for tefillot, which included a lot of campers begging for five more minutes in bed.

After that we had Maccabiah. The campers circulated among nine stations, including dance, jump rope, chess, and a variety of team-building exercises. At the chess station, campers had to figure out how to get “checkmate” in only one move and win the game. Throughout the afternoon sport perek, I played volleyball with my campers, which was very entertaining. However I needed to train myself to stop saying “me, me, me” when I was going for the ball, and to start saying “ya, ya, ya,” the Russian translation.

During the evening peulat, the campers simulated making aliyah to Israel. They had to run around camp gathering different signatures on their passports, all while avoiding the security forces who were looking to arrest illegal immigrants. My staff was in charge of the “visa” station, and we could only give visas to campers who had all of the necessary signatures. The campers then had to ask for their visas in English to mimic the difficulty of the language barrier. As an additional obstacle, some of the campers were questioned about whether they were actually spies. Once they got their visas and thought that they would be allowed into Israel, they then found out that they needed to collect money in order to buy their plane ticket. The campers had a fun time during this activity, and we enjoyed running the visa station. We then participated in one of Ramah Yachad’s exciting dance parties, celebrating all of the campers “making aliyah.”

Throughout the trip I have been working hard to learn Russian to communicate with campers and staff. I now know how to ask for хлеб (bread), соль (salt), перец (pepper), чай (tea), and картошка (potato), which we have at every meal.

Since my last blog post, I become even more enamored with the machaneh, campers, and staff. Ramah Yachad is a truly unique place, and as we near the end of our trip, I know I will always cherish and remember my time here.

A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

Breaking Barriers

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Sara Heckelman, Camp Ramah in New England

Appreciation is sometimes hard to come by. Sometimes you give and give and never get. But at Camp Ramah Yachad, I never come close to feeling a lack of appreciation.

This week, after Havdallah, the members of Rikud chug performed a dance that my fellow American Ramanik, Annabelle, and I choreographed. We stood on the side of the small Bamah watching our campers smile and dance.

After their performance, they called Annabelle and I up to the stage. When we first heard our names, we didn’t think much of it. This was not only due to the fact that they were speaking Russian, but also because we did not expect to be recognized as choreographers of the dance. After much confusion and nudging, we realized they wanted us to come up on to the stage. We reluctantly stepped up in front of the crowd, confused as to why we were there, and everyone began cheering and clapping. They then proceeded to chant “Kol Hakavod, Kol Hakavod” in their special Ramah Yachad way. The chant, except for the beginning which is in Hebrew, is said in Russian. Although Annabelle and I did not understand the individual words being said, we did understand that we were being thanked–that our efforts and energy were being recognized.

Going into this unique experience, one of my greatest fears was the issue the language barrier would pose in my ability to communicate with campers. Dance, however, has filled this communication gap and has allowed me to build a connection with Jews from across the world, without having to speak a word. Although spoken language is crucial in the development of relationships, there are so many other ways to communicate just as effectively. Spoken language is geographically determined, but emotional and artistic expression is universal. Smiling is universal. Dancing is universal, and it is through dance that I feel I have made a difference here at Camp Ramah Yachad.

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A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

To Be A Jew Is…

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Annabelle Baer, Camp Ramah Darom

One week ago, as our trip was just beginning, we had an unpleasant encounter while davening in Budapest. We walked to a small courtyard in the Jewish quarter, occupied by Hasidic Jews, to pray. After a few slightly reassuring nods from men sitting in the courtyard, we began to pray together, for the first time as a group. Ten minutes into our Shacharit service, a man wearing a Kippah appeared from the other side of the courtyard. Without warning, he began yelling at the group in Hebrew saying “Get out right now! I am calling the police! Go to your reform synogogue down the street! Get out!” We were all shocked by this unexpected act of hatred, and silently walked out of the Jewish quarter so that we would not cause any more controversy. As we finished Shacharit outside the courtyard, I noticed our madrichim watching the street to make sure we were safe from any further confrontations. This was the first time I realized that not only are there major problems between Jews and other communities, but also between Jews and fellow Jews.

I left Budapest and entered Ukraine with a slightly bitter idea of what the Jewish people outside of America are like. However, the warm welcome I got from the madrichim and chanichim at Ramah Yachad completely wiped any bad taste from my mouth. During the morning activity with my eleven- and twelve-year-old chanichim, we participated in a program in which we had to choose three different papers that said “To be a Jew is…”. Many chanichim chose the paper that said to be a Jew is to love Israel, to be a Jew is to keep Kosher, or to be a Jew is to follow the Torah. However, I chose one that I was shocked that not a single chanich chose. I took a paper that said “To be a Jew is to love other Jews.” My experience a week before drove me to choose that answer but it suprised me to think that despite the difficult history of the Jewish people in Ukraine, none of the Ukranian chanichim prioritized loving other Jews. I explained my thought process to the group (which was then translated into Russian) and while all of the chanichim agreed, it still shocked me that not a single chanich chose that paper.

Looking back on my experiences while teaching the chanichim Shabbat songs, I now realize why I was the only person who said that to be a Jew is to love other Jews. For many of the kids at Ramah Yachad, camp is their main or sole Jewish experience throughout the year. Since the atmosphere at camp is so incredible, the children do not realize that there are certain Jews who are not as accepting as those at Ramah Yachad. When they come to camp, everyone welcomes them with open arms, whether they practice Judaism at home or have never opened a Siddur before. While our group unfortunately encountered an uncomfortable experience with another Jew in Budapest, my time at Ramah Yachad has proven to me the importance of loving and supporting other Jews.

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A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

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