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“We Need More Ramah”: An Interview with Professor Steven M. Cohen

steven-m-cohen-214x300-1431729929Prof. Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University. He is a co-author of “Camp Works: The Long-term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp,” published by the Foundation for Jewish Camp in 2011. He recently sat down with Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director, to discuss the challenges facing our community.

Mitch Cohen (MC): In recent interviews and articles you have articulated the need for more Jewish summer camps as one of the best responses to the major demographic challenges to future Jewish identity. Why?

Steve Cohen (SC): Three reasons. First of all, all our studies show that the most important age for identity development is adolescence. Teens 13-16 years of age are starting to make life decisions and are becoming the person and the Jew they will be throughout their lives. Jewish camps have an incredibly powerful impact on teens, with effects that endure into adulthood.

Second, identity development occurs in two critical ways: (a) through enduring social and emotional attachments which link people together and form deep, long term friendships, and (b) through the building of intellectual and cultural capacity by way of the acquisition of Judaic knowledge and skills. Camps are great at both.

And third, certain camps, obviously including Ramah, inspire the type of Judaism which is most challenged in today’s world — the vital religious center, that is, the Jewishly engaged outside of Orthodoxy. Those who are less Jewishly engaged and just marginally Jewish or symbolically Jewish — we may call them Jews-by-feeling — will not be recruited by our programs, much to all our regret. Those who are generally more engaged, that is, the Orthodox community, are generally retaining identity at pretty high levels. It is the center of the Jewish identity spectrum, especially those affiliated with Conservative Judaism, which can be seriously influenced by Ramah’s rich and inspiring approach to Jewish life. Ramah builds friendships and community and gives its campers real Jewish skills, knowledge and emotional attachment. Said simply, camps work, and Ramah works best! (Well, so do a few other highly educational camps, but I’ll save my praise for them for when they interview me, as you have.)

MC: Can you expand on why you think Ramah, and other camps with an intensive Jewish and Zionist program, are particularly important?

SC: Ramah and such camps are among the best ways to assure that our young Jews meet and marry other Jews, especially now that intermarriage is being undertaken so widely. Because of their Ramah friendships, they marry fellow campers, or they participate in strong Jewish social networks that make romantic referrals.

Many educationally intensive Jewish camps, those with a strong Jewish mission, accomplish similar goals. Specifically, Ramah bestows Jewish cultural capacity and the ability to function as educated Jews in the real world. It also satisfies the need for meaning that so many of our young people want and need, and connects them to a strong Jewish community for years beyond their time at camp — often for a lifetime.

MC: Based on your findings, what advice would you give to the leaders of Ramah?

SC: Build more camps! And not just any camps, of course, but camps with an educational mission and purpose. Impact more people! Ramah is one of the most important programs for strengthening the Jewish future. Period. We have an emergency in Jewish demographics and Ramah needs to build more camps and influence more children, teens and young adults. This is our “climate change moment” — we need to take the warning signs seriously and act now before it is too late. We need more Ramah!


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1 Comment

  1. Judie Berger

     /  December 10, 2015

    Let’s see, my two oldest started at Berkshires in 1973, the oldest is the substitute Cantor in his s hul, the second is the Exec. director in another shut, the numb three is orthodox and the number fr, who ended the run in1985′ chants in his synagogue. camp Ramah was a major force in our lives and continues to be the best center o f Jewish Identity that I know f.


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