Why Our Camps Are Named Ramah

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the moving haftarah from Jeremiah 31:14, with the following words: “Kol b’Ramah nishma—A voice is heard in Ramah.” Could this be the origin of the name “Camp Ramah,” founded in Conover, Wisconsin, in 1947? I have yet to find a document that discusses the reasons why our founders chose this name; many speculate that this haftarah provides the answer. While we might reject this reference given its context—Rachel weeping for her exiled children, refusing to be comforted—the following verses add consolation and hope: “There is hope for the future, said the Lord, and your children shall return to their borders—v’shavu vanim ligvulam.”

What better hope for the future of the Jewish community than Camp Ramah? Immediately after the Shoah, with everyone so full of sorrow, our founders created a camp that grew into a series of camps. Now, with almost 10,000 participants each summer and well over 150,000 alumni, these camps have become a movement that provides our youth with the joy of living Jewishly 24-7 and a positive reason to strongly identify as Jews.

Biblical literature refers to Ramah in at least three other contexts, any of which might provide the basis for the naming of our camping movement.

Ramah is a common Hebrew word for “level,” sometimes referring to a hilly or mountainous region, but often used to mean a high level, as in “excellence.” In many places in our tefillah and in the Bible, “ram” (a form of Ramah) means exalted. Psalms 99, verse 2, which we recite everyFriday evening in Kabbalat Shabbat, states: “The Lord is great in Zion; He is exalted above all humanity.” Ramah therefore signifies an exalted place, a higher level. When we go to Ramah we are going to a place of sanctity, which hopefully brings out the best in us as Jews and as human beings.

Ramah is also a specific place, home to several Biblical figures, including the prophet Samuel. In I Samuel 15:34, we learn that “Samuel went home to Ramah,” after dethroning King Saul and followed God’s instructions by killing Agag, King of Amalek.

Camp Ramah attempts to create a home-like environment for thousands of young people who crave the comfort and warmth of camp year-round.

Kerem Leaders at The Freaking Frog

Last weekend, Ramah alums gather at a conference in Vegas to celebrate the meaning of “b’yad ramah”

“Ramah is my second home,” is a sentiment we so often hear from campers and staff, who return year after year to familiar friends and places, sensitive leaders, and caring role models.

Finally, in Exodus 14:8, the Torah states that the children of Israel left Egyptian bondage “b’yad Ramah.” Translations vary widely on the meaning of this phrase, but most understand “yad Ramah” to signify hands held high and heads held high. The image is of a people filled with pride, not defeat and dejection.

What better way to characterize the Ramah experience than one of Jewish pride? Children, teens, and young adults come to Camp Ramah from so many different communities, and return to those communities feeling stronger as Jews, prouder of their people and their heritage. It is no coincidence that such a high proportion of Jewish leaders emerge from Camp Ramah; increased Jewish pride is a substantial factor.

Ramah is certainly not the only outstanding youth experience in the Jewish community, and I would argue that these four possible sources for the name “Ramah” are applicable to all. Our children, teens, and young adults need experiences and role models that inspire them and bring them to “Ramah”—a higher level. They need to take great pride in their Jewish heritage, to live a life filled with Jewish practices and ethics “b’yad Ramah,” with their heads held high. In times of struggle or sadness, we all need the hope provided by Jeremiah who describes Rachel’s “voice in the wilderness” of Ramah. Her weeping was soon followed by joy and gladness, with “our children returning to their borders.” And finally, our Jewish institutions and experiences should provide our youth with feelings of being “home,” or at least in a second home, with great warmth and comfort.

At every Ramah camp this summer, I asked the oldest edah which meaning they liked the most. Overwhelmingly, their top choice was Ramah as their “second home.” After that, their next favorite was “Jewish pride.”

Perhaps someday soon we’ll find an archived document that will describe the actual decision to name the first Ramah camp. In the absence of a definitive answer, I am pleased to study our sources and claim affinity to a camping movement that instills Jewish pride, provides hope for the future, brings out the best and most exalted in all of us, and creates a place where we can truly feel at home.

From all of us in the leadership of Ramah, we wish you a year filled with health and happiness, and with a feeling of exaltation and pride.

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1 Comment

  1. In 1946 in the founding days of Camp Ramah, the camp was known
    as Camp Kinneret. Probably because of beautiful Lake Buckatabon.
    Then 11 years old my mother told me that the camp name was changed.
    It was going to be Camp Ramah. I remember this day in January as if it were yesterday. The reason for the change was there was another camp named Kinneret.

    Chaviva Bassett Jacobson
    Ramah 1947 to 1954 Wisconsin
    Ramah 1955 Connecticut

    Reply

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