10 Reasons Why This Is a Historic Development for Ramah
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Director
June 24, 2016 / 18 Sivan 5776
The camp season has arrived, and Ramah camps are either underway or about to begin another incredible summer of growth and fun. Over 11,000 campers and staff members, the most in our 70-year history, will participate. This year is truly historic, with the opening of Camp Ramah in Northern California, “Ramah Galim” (“Ramah of the Waves”), in Monterey Bay, south of San Francisco. I traveled there this past Sunday for the concluding days of staff training and the opening of the camp season, and watched as the counselors greeted all of the eighty eager first-session campers and began to create a new “second home” for them at this magnificent camp facility.
The opening of Camp Ramah in Northern California is historic for the following ten reasons (and more!):
1. The San Francisco Bay Area– For at least a decade, Ramah leaders and donors have been trying to open an overnight Ramah camp in this region, which is now the third largest American Jewish community after New York and Los Angeles. So many people have spent hours of their time and donated significant funds to see this project come to fruition. I remember attending early planning meetings in Ojai and San Francisco over a decade ago, and watching the passion of people who continued to pursue their dream. On Tuesday, this dream became reality.
2. Camp Ramah in Ojai, California– Ramah camps are mostly autonomous, joined together as the Ramah Camping Movement with agreed-upon standards and tremendous mutual cooperation. Each camp serves a region of North America, and Ramah in Ojai, serving the entire West, has been thriving, operating at capacity enrollment. Recognizing that only a small percentage of the West Coast Jewish community was attending Ramah, and that our ultimate mission is to touch as many lives as possible, Ojai leaders began to think beyond their own camp, to the needs of the community and the larger goals of Ramah. Camp Ramah in California poured funding, professional staff time, and tremendous amounts of lay leadership attention on the goal of seeing a new camp open in their region. Two years ago, Ramah Ojai leaders and the Bay Area local board of directors turned to National Ramah to partner with them to help create this camp. Their foresight and vision has been impressive, and the two camps continue to work collaboratively.
3. Camp on a Rental Facility– All other Ramah overnight camps operate on phenomenal campsites owned by the camp or The Jewish Theological Seminary. We now have a camp operating on a rental site, a high school boarding school mostly unused during the summer months. While there are certainly some disadvantages to not having total control over the environment, the partnership between Ramah Galim and the Monterey Bay Academy (MBA) is excellent, presenting a potential new model for further Ramah growth in order to reach thousands more families, children and teens. This concept was inspired by the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s new specialty camp incubator program, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation. While Ramah Galim is not an FJC Incubator camp (funding was raised by the local Ramah board of directors with some director training support from the FJC and The AVI CHAI Foundation), this model is proving successful.
4. Specialty Camp– Ramah Galim is now our second specialty camp, offering three specialty tracks in Adventure Sports, Performing Arts, and Ocean Exploration. The school is situated on the Pacific Ocean, with a magnificent private beach and extensive facilities, including an indoor gym, heated pool, new theater, sports fields, and organic farms. On the school’s property there are extensive strawberry fields, a horseback riding facility, and other fascinating sites. On Wednesday, the first full day of camp, the campers were already engaged in their specialty tracks, learning about surfing, marine biology, hiking and biking, planting, creating theater art, and more. As one parent commented, “We want Ramah for the Jewish nurturing, but the specialty program sealed the deal for my child!”
5. Success Yields Success: Building on the Model of Ramah in the Rockies– When the FJC awarded National Ramah funding for our first specialty camp, Ramah Outdoor Adventure in the Colorado Rockies, which opened in 2010, director Rabbi Eliav Bock and his board pioneered the idea of maintaining all essential Ramah traditions (Hebrew language, daily tefillah, Judaic learning, Shabbat observance, centrality of Israel and Israeli shlichim) while concentrating the bulk of each program day in one area. This model has been amazingly successful, broadening the market for new Ramah families looking for specific skills and activities. Like the Rockies, Ramah Galim has attracted a few families with ties to other Ramah camps, but the overwhelming majority are new families who enrolled because of the three specialties offered.
6. A Leader Is Born– Who realized, back in 2010 during that inaugural summer of Ramah in the Rockies, that one of Rabbi Eliav Bock’s key staff leaders, Sarah Shulman, would go on to become the director of the next Ramah specialty camp, Ramah Galim? Sarah, who became Rabbi Shulman after graduating from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies this May, has been an incredible leader and creator of Ramah Galim, and now joins a fantastic Ramah-wide directorate of talented and inspiring directors at all our camps. (Also historic: In 2011, Sarah married Nate Bankirer, a wonderful guy she met that very first summer in the Rockies. They are the first Rockies “Ramah marriage” (read more). Nate is not only Sarah’s husband and father to their new beautiful baby girl, Lielle, but also serves as the camp’s Business Manager!)
7. A Jewish Camp at a Christian School– The Monterey Bay Academy is one of the crown jewels of the American network of Seventh-day Adventist religious institutions. Ironically, during one of our first meetings with school leadership (the principal is a Christian minister and former camp director), they loved the idea that they could rent to a group that not only shared religious language and educational values, but that observed the same Sabbath day! Our MBA hosts are respectful and eager to make this partnership work and grow, and there are numerous opportunities for interfaith education as well. They maintain a strict vegetarian kitchen, which we have kashered and taken over for the summer, but have allowed us to bring in a portable outdoor meat kitchen. (And this could be the first time in history that Seventh-day Adventists and Conservative Jews worked together to build an eruv!!)
8. Ramah Growth Overall– The development of this new camp, and the participation of its 250 campers, most new to Ramah, is part of a growth trend all around our movement, as more and more Jewish parents recognize that Ramah camps and Israel programs are perhaps the best way to ensure a strong Jewish identity for their children. We’ve doubled in 20 years. We are strategizing about how best to grow even more new day and overnight camps. All our camps are full or near full, and some are waitlisting in certain grades. This year Camp Ramah in California added a new edah of entering 11th graders, and is in the process of purchasing extensive adjacent land. Another new Ramah camp, the Ramah Day Camp of Greater Washington, D.C. (under the auspices of Ramah New England), opened last summer and has grown significantly. The “Sha’ar” Hebrew immersion program at the Ramah Day Camp in Nyack now has 80 campers and is being used as a model for Hebrew immersion at numerous other camps throughout the country. Every Ramah camp is growing and thriving in many ways, and as I visit each camp this summer, I look forward to reporting on even more inspirational stories.
9. Inclusion from the Outset– Ramah Galim leadership decided that even in its first year of operation, it would begin a Tikvah Program for children with disabilities to be fully included in the Ramah camp program. This follows a trend of Tikvah expansion throughout the Ramah system. New Tikvah programs have been established at Poconos and Darom, vocational education programs are expanding at Wisconsin, New England, Canada, and California and piloted at Rockies, and all of our camps have expanded their offerings for children, teens, and young adults with disabilities. The Ramah Israel Bike Ride and Hiking Trip, together with the generosity of The Ruderman Family Foundation, other foundations, and many individual camp donors, continue to provide significant funding to support all of this growth.
10. Finally, a Camp with Perfect Weather!– Seventy years ago, Ramah’s original founders purchased a site in northern Wisconsin, far away from the summer heat and high humidity of Chicago and other Midwest cities. While the cool Northwoods air is delightful, they did not solve the challenge of rainy days or chilly nights. Each subsequent Ramah camp developed in a region of North America with its own weather rewards and challenges. But if this week is any indication of the weather in Northern California, we have found perfection. Cool mornings, warm and sunny program days, never too hot, and never any rain! While some may argue for the advantages of variety, and even the wonder and amazement of camp thunderstorms, I personally look forward to returning to Ramah Galim for my next visit in mid-July, which again will include a stroll on the beach, a bike ride through extensive strawberry fields, and most of all, a deep feeling of satisfaction watching our newest Ramah campers and staff thrive.