Camp Ramah adds ‘bridge year’ for 11th-graders eyeing staff spots


Camp Ramah in Ojai, part of the Conservative movement’s group of Ramah camps across North America, will begin offering a program for rising 11th-graders this summer for the first time in its 60-year history. 

The program will be similar to the 11th-grade programs already available at the movement’s eight other overnight camps in the United States and Canada. The Southern California camp is the last of the group to add such a program.

Campers in the Machon program, as it will be known, will lead Maccabiah (color war), take a one-week trip outside of camp, and shadow staff counselors to get an idea of what the job entails should they choose to return as staff members once they graduate from high school. 

“It will be the best of both worlds. It’ll give these older campers their capstone Ramah experience while giving them a taste of what their future could be like when they are on staff by giving them significant and real leadership responsibilities around camp,” Rabbi Joe Menashe, executive director of Camp Ramah in California, said. “That’s new for our camp, and that, more so than the age component, is an even greater impact of the transition from camper to staff.”

The addition of the program is meant to act as a “bridge year,” according to Ariella Moss Peterseil, the camp’s associate director. It will involve an emphasis on self-reflection to improve participants’ skills as leaders and role models. 

The 10th-grade program for rising sophomores was renamed Kochavim (stars) and revamped with a “new cultural identity … and some new programming, including new small-group experiential tiyulim (trips),” Menashe said.

Previously, the Ojai camp had programs for high school students going into their freshman and sophomore years. After that, many teens participated in Ramah’s Israel Seminar, a six-week program in the Jewish state, but they were a year younger than their peers coming from other Ramah camps. That will no longer be the case. 

“This will guarantee a home for every camper at Ramah through their high school years, a similar trajectory with their fellow Ramah campers from across North America, and a staff that is one year older, more mature, and who have had a glimpse of leadership and what it means to be on staff at Ramah in their final camper year,” Peterseil said.

It’s unclear why the 11th-grade program has never been part of the camp at Ojai, which opened in 1956, according to Menashe, who is in his sixth year as executive director. However, one factor that precipitated the change had to do with the fact that the camp, in years past, could not accommodate the large number of rising high school seniors who wanted to return as staff. By adding an 11th-grade program, staff would come from teens about to enter college, and the number of applicants would be expected to fall naturally, Menashe said.

A 2012 vote by the board of directors of Camp Ramah in California allowed Peterseil to spearhead the initiative to add the new edah (age group) after extensive research, including a recommendation from consultants Lauren Applebaum and Nina Lieberman Giladi of American Jewish University, who have backgrounds in Jewish education and nonprofit business management. 

“Ramah needed a more seamless transition from camper to staff that better prepared the emerging adults for their roles, enabled more of our community to remain part of our system for longer, and to provide a camper experience that better honored adolescent sophistication and capabilities,” Menashe said. “There was no single issue that sparked the evaluation, but a clear sense from Ramah leadership that we needed to better understand the situation so that we could make a significant change.” 

The camper cost for the 11th-grade program will be $4,645. Financial aid is available.

Camp Ramah in California is running a capital campaign for an estimated $2.5 million to accommodate the new living area associated with about 80 new campers per 11th-grade session. Menashe said the camp has reached 70 percent of its fundraising goal. 

The camp, which hosts about 1,300 campers over the course of the summer, sits on 100 acres. Revised housing plans currently are in development. 

“The addition of the new Machon will accomplish our goals to retain as many high school students as possible through 12th grade,” said Ellen Brown, a Camp Ramah in California board member and co-chairwoman of the committee to create the new edah. “Studies have indicated that Jewish summer camping provides children and teens a positive, long-term Jewish identity, and in the end, in the midst of all the fun and learning, that is our ultimate goal.”

For those like Noa Getzug, 16, a nine-time camper from de Toledo High School, the change has created an air of excitement.

“Another year at camp means that I get to spend another month with my closest friends, exploring who I am as a person, furthering my Jewish identity and taking advantage of all the experiences camp has to offer,” she said. 

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