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JTS Chancellor Eisen Inspires Ramah Campers and Staff; Instills Conservative Jewish Pride

by Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director

I was privileged to travel with JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen to Conover, Wisconsin, this past Shabbat, where he served as scholar in residence, speaking with many groups of staff as well as Nivonim, the oldest campers. In a packed staff lounge (“the Kopin”) Friday night, Chancellor Eisen made a powerful case for why he is a proud Conservative Jew, and why the teachings and theology of Conservative Judaism are authentic and dynamic for so many modern Jews (whether or not they actively affiliate). He gave some very specific advice regarding improving our communities in synagogues, on campus, and in our camps and schools. As he often states, “Ramah is perhaps the best incubator for passionate, modern traditional Judaism. We need more and more of our young people attending existing camps and we need to seek ways to build new ones.”

After the talk, and throughout the weekend, staff members engaged the Chancellor with questions and comments, sharing their successes and frustrations with organized Jewish life. “I wish more people could hear him speak,” one 19-year-old counselor told me. “He inspired me in a unique way and I can’t wait to get back to campus and try to make things better.”

Ramah Wisconsin Leaders

(L-R) Board President Arnie Harris, JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen, Camp Director Jacob Cytryn, National Ramah Director Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, CEO Rabbi David Soloff, and Board President Elect Jon Sherman

Also in attendance at this and other sessions were Ramah Wisconsin lay leaders and community rabbis. As Rabbi David Soloff, CEO, said, “Chancellor Eisen has a unique gift in teaching and inspiring. We absolutely need to have him and other JTS scholars spend more time at our camps, which will in turn attract more young leaders to attend JTS and pursue careers in Jewish leadership.” Camp Director Jacob Cytryn added that having Chancellor Eisen at camp is a special privilege. “Our counselors from North America and Israel really enjoy serious intellectual stimulation. We so appreciate that Chancellor Eisen makes Ramah a priority, and took the time to travel here and offer so much of himself.”

Atzmayim Vocational Program

Chancellor Eisen greets Grady and Ari, members of the Ramah Wisconsin Atzmayim vocational program, as they begin their work day at Eagle River Roasters.

Chancellor Eisen was particularly inspired by the camp’s Tikvah program for teens and young adults with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders and similar disabilities. Ralph Schwartz, Tikvah Director, invited the Chancellor to a Friday night oneg with Tikvah, full of song, dance, and joy.

In a talk Thursday night with the camp’s mishlachat, Chancellor Eisen heard from many camp staff how Ramah inspires them to lead deeper Jewish lives back in Israel. “We should make an even greater effort to follow up with our Israeli alumni,” he told me, “as we have strong connections with thousands of young Israelis who have learned about American Judaism – and particularly Conservative/Masorti Judaism – often for the first time. They become inspired during their time at Ramah with new possibilities for Jewish life. We should lead the effort, through Reshet Ramah, to ensure deeper connections between Israel and North America.”

Shacharit with Nivonim

On Sunday, Chancellor Eisen joined Rabbi David Soloff and Rosh Edah Jeremy Fineberg for Shacharit with adat HaNivonim, the oldest campers.

On Shabbat morning, camp president Arnie Harris and director Jacob Cytryn hosted a special breakfast for the Chancellor to speak with and hear from adult guests and senior camp educators. As Arnie Harris said, “We always ask the Chancellor to help Ramah. Here we are open to listening and learning how all of us can help JTS.” It was clear to all that the scholarship and learning that takes place at JTS creates leaders not only for the Conservative Movement but also for an amazingly wide array of American Jewish organizations. “JTS needs to thrive,” Chancellor Eisen stated, “so that our communities can continue to have leaders who have real Jewish knowledge, are steeped in traditional Jewish observance, and are trained to make the changes required to keep our community and our tradition vital.”

Everyone at camp who learned with Chancellor Eisen came away inspired. We look forward to his ongoing visits to our camps and to the continuing strengthening of the ties between Ramah and JTS. As Chancellor Eisen put it, “We are really one institution and we need to strengthen each other to thrive.”

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