Gemara Under the Sun

A pair of students — a traditional chavruta study partnership — grapple with a tricky piece of Gemara. Their heavy tomes rest not on a classroom desk top but on freshly mowed grass. And the tiny letters of the Rashi and Tosafot commentaries are illuminated by a blazing summer sun instead of fluorescent bulbs.

This is Lishma, a new summer program at Camp Ramah in Ojai, where a group of college students will spend six weeks studying traditional Jewish texts in an egalitarian, yeshiva-type program.

“So many of our former Ramah campers and staff members were looking for something deeper and wanting to continue their studies, and they were heading into the Orthodox environment to satisfy that need,” says Brian Greene, executive director of Camp Ramah in California. “We very much wanted to provide a Conservative framework for serious Jewish study.”

The name Lishma is derived from the Hebrew phrase “Torah Lishma,” which means studying Torah for its own sake.

Eighteen students are currently signed up for Lishma this summer — about half of them from Southern California, and the other half from universities around the country. Participants will spend their days in chavruta text study and in classes in which those texts are discussed. Each day will also include three prayer times and an evening program dedicated to real-life applications of what the students studied during the day.

Faculty for the program includes a scholar from Israel, the chair of the religious studies department at Arizona State University, and a professor of Talmud from the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which is co-sponsoring the program. Two rabbinic students from the Ziegler school will serve as mentors, helping the Lishma students appreciate their studies as a spiritual as well as an intellectual endeavor.

The program also includes a social-action aspect, in which students study texts that relate to social services, and devote the next day to a community-outreach project.

“Lishma combines the strengths that liberal Judaism has brought to the table with the commitment to Torah study and religious life that the right wing of Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism have brought to the Jewish world,” says Lishma coordinator Daniel Greyber, a second-year rabbinical student at the Ziegler School.

The Covenant Foundation recently awarded Lishma a grant for $36,000 a year to go toward tuition and stipends through 2000. Tuition for Lishma is $1,500, and each student is awarded a $1,000 scholarship and another $1,000 stipend upon completion of the program.

“Providing a Jewish environment for college students, in many ways, is what we are all about,” says Ramah Director Greene. “We employ 150 counselors who are college students, and the Ramah environment really has an impact on them at a time in their lives when they need it. But being a counselor is not for everyone, and this is another way to bring strong, committed kids into that environment for the summer.”

Greene is excited about having the Lishma participants as role models and teachers for the younger campers.

“There will be a natural role modeling we expect to take place,” Greene says. “Campers will see them and wonder who they are and be impressed with the fact that these are college kids who are here to study Jewish texts.”

Greene expects Lishma to add a new depth to the already charged and passionate camp setting.

“The Ramah environment is this dynamic, exciting Jewish community,” Greene says, “the kind of place where everyone is committed Jewishly, where prayers and Hebrew and kashrut are part of the natural fabric of the place.”

Bringing college kids into this environment, for serious spiritual and intellectual engagement, could be a boon to the Conservative movement, Greyber says.

“The hope for this program,” he says, “is that we will develop committed and knowledgeable lay leadership for the future of Conservative Judaism.”