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JTS Reflections on Visits to Ramah

Each summer, leaders from The Jewish Theological Seminary visit Ramah camps. They study and learn with campers and staff, and have the opportunity to engage in informal conversations on such topics as their own personal Jewish journeys, the future of Conservative Judaism, and study opportunities at JTS.

Some of these JTS leaders have graciously taken the time to reflect on and write about their summer visits. We are delighted to be able to share their thoughts with you.

Dr. Arnold Eisen
Chancellor and President of the Faculties, Professor of Jewish Thought

The great sociological theorist Peter Berger passed away earlier this summer, just as thousands of Jewish kids were heading off to immersive camp experiences that build and sustain identity in ways that Berger’s ideas brilliantly help to explain. Visiting Camp Ramah New England right after reading the obituary for Berger in the Times, I could not help reflecting through the lens of his theory on the magic taking place before my eyes. At summer’s end—with the memories of several visits to camp still vivid in my mind, along with the disturbing images of Charlottesville and Hurricane Harvey that have left their mark on all of us—I offer these thoughts on what makes summer camps like Ramah essential to contemporary Jewish life—and what we need to do to ensure they remain successful.

Berger’s first key contribution to our thinking on this matter came in The Sacred Canopy (1967). Before the modern period, he explained, most people lived inside all-encompassing  frameworks of meaning constructed with the help of religion. Sacred orders of belief and observance worked to convince people that the organization of society, economy, politics, and daily life was built into the very nature of reality. For Jews (I extrapolate from Berger’s theory using the insights of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, longtime head of JTS’s Teachers Institute and a major inspiration for Camp Ramah), the sacred canopy was an all-inclusive order that set Jews apart from the surrounding society and culture, via commandments they believed had been ordained by the Creator of the universe.

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Dr. Eisen at Ramah New England.

Cantor Nancy Abramson
Director, H.L. Miller Cantorial School and Director, Women’s League Seminary Synagogue

Walking onto the campus of Ramah in the Berkshires this summer, I was struck by how welcoming it was. From the new administrative offices to the “how can we help you attitude” of the staff, I felt drawn into the avirah of camp. I sat in a Zimriyah meeting of the talented music staff, and knew they were creating a magical environment of Hebrew song for hundreds of campers. I observed a group of younger campers being led in a Jewkelele chug (yes, that’s Jewish ukelele), and couldn’t stop smiling. Kids were singing as they walked from activity to activity, and the entire camp buzzed with positive energy. It was a great visit.

Nancy Abramson at Berkshires Educators' Day

Cantor Nancy Abramson (4th from right) at Ramah Berkshires for Educators Day 2017

Rabbi Joel Alter
Director of Admissions, The JTS Rabbinical School and H. L. Miller Cantorial School

Even with only a few hours at camp this summer, I was impressed by the joy, intelligence, and camaraderie among the staff at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack. The unique structure of Nyack among the Ramah camps, in which the campers come and go each day but the staff stay overnight, makes afternoons and evenings special at Ramah Nyack. The staff, of course, have a welcome opportunity to reflect on their days and simply to relax. Relaxation for some meant dancing to Israeli music playing continuously across the migrash – the main lawn, and for others it meant making one champion toss of a frisbee after another.

Joel Alter at Ramah Nyack IMG_1936.JPG

Rabbi Joel Alter (2nd from right) at Ramah Nyack, 2017

But the staff were also conferring on program plans for the coming day or week, or preparing for the peulot erev – activity groups – that they would be conducting with and for one another later that evening. The combination of seriousness of purpose, easy and deep friendship, and opportunities for creativity and fun created a palpable energy that I felt in conversation, at dinner, and during my teaching session.

I should mention, too, that Nyack is home to Jews of different stripes: the Conservative movement framework sustains a pluralistic community, and staff members’ different backgrounds gave texture and depth to conversations touching on identity and programming. I headed home that July evening with renewed confidence in Ramah’s ability to nurture beautiful, meaningful, and joyful Jewish experience.

Marc Gary
Executive Vice Chancellor & Chief Operating Officer

As soon as I stepped foot on the beautiful campus of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, I knew that I was home. More than forty years ago, I served as a counselor at the camp. It was here that I learned to speak Hebrew, where I discovered what a truly inspirational Shabbat experience could be, and where friendships that have lasted a lifetime were formed.

Much has changed at Camp Ramah in the Poconos during the intervening four decades, and yet the uniquely impactful experience of a summer—or even a weekend—at the camp has remained undiminished. Under the dynamic leadership of JTS alumnus Rabbi Joel Seltzer, the camp has grown in both numbers and in the content of its programming. Joyous Jewish living is inhaled by every camper and staff member along with the clear mountain air.

M Gary Poconos 2017

Marc Gary (3rd from left) at Ramah Poconos, 2017

My Shabbat at camp allowed me to interact with campers, staff, and visitors in diverse ways. On Friday night I led a shiur for staff members and guests on moral decisionmaking guided by halachah. Shabbat morning was a special treat as I davened with several different edot, each imbued with a special Shabbat ruach. In the afternoon, I had the singular privilege to lead a discussion on Jewish leadership with 150 campers from both Camp Ramah in the Poconos and Ramah Darom. And as the sun was beginning to set, I led a final session for camp visitors (including board members) on the exciting new programs and initiatives at JTS.

I was proud to see so many JTS alumni and students leading and teaching at camp. As was the case forty years ago during my tenure as a counselor there, the bond between Ramah and JTS remains strong and apparent.

Camp Ramah in the Poconos represents the very best of our movement – its dynamic present and its unlimited potential for the future.

Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky
Associate Vice Chancellor and Associate Professor of Bible

I spent two remarkable weeks this summer learning with and from the chanichim (campers), madrichim (counselors), and tzevet (staff) of the glorious Camp Ramah in California in Ojai! It is a magical, inspiring, and loving place. On the last Shabbat of the first session, I sat and learned with a group from Adat Shalom (7th graders), on the grand hill that cuts through the heart of camp. I asked them what would be their favorite Ramah memory that they would carry home with them. Many mentioned the chocolate muffins served Shabbat mornings. Others talked about celebrating Shabbat with their friends Others mentioned the mud-hugs (to see it is to believe it!) given by the Machon campers (10th graders) when they return from a five-day hike covered in mud. After the kids shared their memories, they asked me what I would remember. It is hard to say. It may be sitting with my Tzophim girls (9th graders) and talking about prayer. It may be discussing with my Sollelim girls (8th graders) essential Jewish values, and why I personally value generosity of spirit.

A Kalmanofsky California 2017

Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky (3rd from left) at Ramah California

It may be learning Torah with the tzevet and thinking about what it means to create sacred space and how/if it is possible to gauge the impact they are having on their campers. It also may be the walks I took with counselors, and the talks I had with the amazing and gifted professional staff. I learned so much watching them work. It may be the beautiful havdalah I joined my last Shabbat at camp with the participants in Ezra, the camp’s vocational education program. And, of course, it may be those delicious chocolate muffins! I have many, many beautiful memories from Ramah Ojai. It was a gift to spend time there.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins
Dean, The Rabbinical School and the Division of Religious Leadership

Another summer, another open-mouthed sense of awe at the kids, counselors and leaders of the Ramah camps. I had the privilege this year to visit three locations—Ramah Galim (Northern California) toward the end of their staff week, Ramah Berkshires during the inaugural year of its director Ethan Linden, and Ramah in the Rockies, which retains a start-up vibe even as it becomes a mature organization, with staff who grew up as campers.

Some images from Galim—Rabbi Sarah Shulman spinning a wheel after each Aliyah of Torah to elicit diverse insights on the portion from her staff (rewarding winners with Ramah Galim swag). A JTS cantorial student/marine biologist who is equally at home identifying humpback whales and leading the camp in song. Havdalah on the beach, with the Pacific crashing over the songs and dances of a pumped-up staff. Eager anticipation of the arrival of campers the very next day—what a treat for them.

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires has benefited from a stable series of directors, and it looked great, with a sparkling new arts center. Still, camp is ultimately about people, not buildings, and Rabbi Ethan Linden brings deep and wise concern for the people in his care. He has ineffable enthusiasm—it is infectious and beautiful to behold. I am proud that CRB also launched a new partnership with JTS this summer called Nishma B’Ramah, led by Dr. Jason Rogoff. Four of our rabbinical students are spending the summer there, studying and teaching Torah, giving and receiving in the best Ramah tradition.

Finally, back to the Rockies, for my fourth visit. I can’t stay away from this place! In fact, they literally had no place for me to stay, so I pitched a tent up the slope and roughed it for three nights. It was well worth the creaky bones each morning. Rabbi Eliav and his team bring joy and positive energy to camp life. We ate tasty greens from their organic garden and healthful food from the kitchen staff. I always leave this camp feeling more physically fit and spiritually nourished. It helped to have four JTS rabbinical students as well as students from our other schools (and great prospectives too). I love spending time with our JTS students, past, present, and future, at Camp Ramah.

D Nevins Rockies 2017

Rabbi Daniel Nevins at Ramah in the Rockies

Whenever I feel demoralized about the state of the Jewish people and of our brand of traditional egalitarian Judaism, I think about the magical kingdom of Camp Ramah. Davening is sweeter, learning more profound, and community more engaging when we dedicate ourselves to being together in this way. Kol hakavod to all of the Ramah staff and campers of Kayitz 5777—bring your joy of Jewish living to your families and communities so that we may all start 5778 with strength and renewal.

Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz
Dean of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies

It’s always a treat to spend time at Ramah, but it was especially meaningful to visit Camp Ramah in Wisconsin—the first Ramah camp founded—this summer during Ramah’s 70th year. To mark this special anniversary, I had the opportunity to share with counselors, senior staff members, and older campers the foundational principles that inspired the creation of Ramah in 1947. We looked at texts from the 1940s which articulated Jewish leaders’ most pressing goals and hopes for the camp. The founders felt the burning need to identify future Jewish leaders, capture time in the summer for formal Jewish education, create a vibrant Hebrew speaking environment, expose campers to the beauties and joys of Jewish living, and cultivate wholesome Jewish personalities and caring human beings.

Counselors, staff members, and older campers were animated by hearing the distinctive mission articulated by the founders, the sense of urgency in their words as they assumed the weighty responsibility—in the wake of the Holocaust—to ensure the flourishing of a robust Jewish life in America. I felt equally energized by the passion and dedication of today’s Ramahniks! We considered how and why Ramah has changed over the decades and in what ways it furthers the founders’ vision. What role does and should Hebrew play in camp today? Should Ramah expand its tent to include all who want to attend, or ought it to retain standards of study, observance and Hebrew in order to flourish in the future as it has in the past. Passionate conversations ensued even as the outstanding camp program continued: beautiful zemirot sung with fervor and joy; life-long friendships deepening; campers stretching themselves to master new skills; and instances of kindness, empathy, and chesed touching individuals throughout the community.

S Schwartz Wisconsin 2017

Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz (top, center) at Ramah Wisconsin

Ramah Wisconsin staff—from the inspired leadership of director Jacob Cytryn to the newest junior counselor—is driven to enrich the lives of campers in 2017 through the same vehicles used by the founders. But as I watched the Tikvah campers perform a sketch that had been developed and rehearsed in partnership with Machon campers, I was also reminded of the ways in which the current Ramah vision has flourished beyond what could ever have been imagined. I could only smile with deep satisfaction knowing that the visionaries of the 1940s would be gratified to witness dedicated staff hard at work advancing Ramah’s mission in the same beautiful (though physically, much enhanced) space some 70 years later.

Dr. Jason Rogoff
Academic Director of Israel Programs/Assistant Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics

I had an amazingly unique experience this summer at Ramah in the Berkshires. It was the first summer of the “Nishma b’Ramah” program. The Nishma summer study program at JTS expanded to include a group of four rabbinical student fellows studying at Ramah Berkshires. Together, we spent the mornings studying the chapter of Talmud which focuses on the cities of refuge. In the afternoons, each joined one of the specialty staff at camp sharing some of the skills that they have with our campers. It was an incredibly rewarding program integrating Torah study and debate into the fun camp setting.

Dr. Jason Rogoff (7th from left) at Ramah Darom

In addition to participating in the flagship year of “Nishma b’Ramah,” I was fortunate to visit Ramah Darom and experience for the first time a Ramah Camp in session that was not my Ramah Berkshires home.

My visit was without a doubt worthy of a shehekhiyanu sticker! I witnessed their commitment to being a dynamic center for Jewish living and learning through tefillot with Gesher in the morning, planning a peulat erev with tzevet for garinim campers and a late night limmud session with tzevet members. During Tzevet limmud we studied a short selection from the Babylonian Talmud which describes God’s daily routine. The Tzevet engaged in insightful discussions about what the rabbinic description can teach us about our own lives. The facilities alone make you want to stay forever. Add in Torah, and I understand why so many people come to Darom’s year-round programming.

Dr. Ben Sommer
Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages

This summer, in addition to teaching staff again at Ramah Nyack, I visited Darom for the first time and had the privilege of teaching staff there as well. Seeing yet another vibrant community of young Jewish adults who were enthusiastic, hard-working, and most of all joyous in their embrace of Judaism and in their work with Jewish kids was a highlight of my year. Whenever I teach Torah at a Ramah camp, I feel confident about the future of American Judaism.

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