Investing in Camp Ramah

By Julie Schonfeld

Camp Ramah registrations are arriving in mailboxes around the country. Mine arrived last week.

In August, on the last day of Camp Ramah Nyack, I attended the annual רקודיה, “Festivale,” as a parent. Perhaps the most potent endorsement for the camp was the clarity with which every camper, counselor and staff member projected a sense of being comfortable in their own skins. The day was rich with power and energy because that which was clear and bounded, such as people and time, and that which was unbounded and infinite, such as connection and community were fully inhabited. God and God’s Torah were everywhere.

Recent studies have shown that camping is one of the most effective uses of communal funds and Ramah is widely considered to be the most effective Jewish camping system.

7% of Conservative kids attend Ramah. 7% has been enough to shape generations of Jewish leaders, but it is statistically too small a number to grow a religious movement and to provide young adults with a critical mass of peers. When we see Ramah kids go elsewhere in adulthood, it is not because Ramah didn’t work or Conservative Judaism didn’t work. It’s all about the numbers.

Nurturing children to become Jewish leaders is an eminently worthy goal and one of which we can be immensely proud. But if we want Ramah camp to contribute substantially to the revitalization of a religious movement, 7% is not enough to make the impact we seek.

How can we best leverage Camp Ramah to build the Conservative Movement?

I have heard many suggestions that we try to make several parts of our Movement “more like Ramah.”

Ramah remains a decades-long leader in camping. Can experts in camping contribute to Hebrew schools, youth groups and informal synagogue education? If they want to try it, we should support their efforts and we’ll find out.

We know for a fact that our camping experts are “best in the business” at camping. I have even heard more than one Conservative movement skeptic say so in public.

The most direct way to make more of the Conservative movement “more like Ramah” is to “make more Ramah,” and provide the necessary financial resources and incentives to get more kids there.

It’s an ambitious goal, but we must try to imagine ourselves 20 years into the future, and ask “what actions can we take today to make the great impact down the road?”

We can see the outstanding results of getting 7% of kids to camp, what would 15% look like? We have three Ramah day camps. Can we get to six in North America? We have one outdoor adventure camp. Can we get to three?

As Conservative leaders, it is hard to remember how to dream because our Jewish religious vision symbolizes something that the community knows is necessary but fears is unachievable. As top down structures in all sectors of society have given way to looser, more competitive networks, Jewish leaders have successfully quarantined much of their anxiety in the Conservative Movement. Promoting an ongoing array of speculative new ideas, they have thus evaded the obligation to answer the eternal questions of community and commitment that Conservative Judaism lays at our feet.

Miraculously, advocates and skeptics agree about Ramah. Let’s take yes for an answer. If we get behind an effort to dramatically grow the Ramah system, we will be surprised by who comes along with us.

The last day of Camp Ramah was a great day for Aytan and me because we were grateful to give our children an experience that was so good for them. The last day of camp was bittersweet, however, for Noam and Gabi, who left behind a community where they could take on big challenges and succeed. It meant everything to them.

Now the summer is over and the challenge to embark on a path to success lies before us. We are all searching for ways to reignite a Jewish religious movement whose success we know is crucial to the future of our people. We can divide our energies in a hundred directions or we can take a model, proven to work, and give it the resources it needs to have the full impact it can achieve. Let us take yes for an answer.

Best wishes for a light filled Hanukkah to you and your families.

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