January 18, 2019

New Jewish dating app keeps the campfire burning

For many Jews, nothing cooks up piping-hot nostalgia quite like reminiscing about summer camp. Adults who recall those times may think back to pounding on tables during birkat (grace after meals), intense and often heated Maccabiah competitions or “color wars” and musical theater performances. 

For some, that list might include memories of meeting that special someone. For the rest, it might not be too late, thanks to some help from the Internet. 

RamahDate, a specialized online dating platform that Camp Ramah and matchmaking powerhouse JDate are working on together, will launch in May. It will give alumni of the Conservative Camp Ramah movement — campers and staff — the opportunity to mingle online and possibly even quiet the kvetching of frustrated Jewish mothers. 

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, the National Ramah Commission’s national director, told the Journal that parents of Ramah alums have been adamant for years that the experience of camp shouldn’t stop after camp. 

“Mothers and fathers have been asking me for the last seven or eight years, ‘My son or daughter didn’t meet anyone at camp, so why can’t there be some sort of online dating?’ ” Cohen said. 

But many did meet spouses through camp, a shared experience that creates a powerful bond. Cohen claims that Ramah can identify at least 700 such couples — and more than 300 Ramah marriages are registered on ramahmarriages.org, complete with touching stories of how the couples met.  With others undoubtedly uncounted, Cohen said he firmly believes there are well over a thousand couples who met at Ramah. 

Lauren Ross, a 41-year-old social worker at a Denver public school, met her husband, David, a piano teacher, while staffing together at Camp Ramah in Ojai in the early ’90s. They eventually got married on the picturesque Ojai camp and now have two children together. 

“David and I have a lot of similarities because of the camp experience,” Ross said. “It’s definitely something that came up.”

Sarah Shulman, the education director at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge and newly appointed camp director at the soon-to-be Camp Ramah in Northern California, met her husband, Nate, while staffing together at Ramah Outdoor Adventure in Colorado five years ago. 

“It’s not always easy to find people who share common values and interests and that are also Jewish,” Shulman said. “It wasn’t always easy to meet people who wanted to spend their summers like I did. When I met Nate, I was baffled and in awe of how much we had in common. I just thought, ‘He’s a teacher who’s Jewish with incredible outdoor adventure skills. This guy exists?’ I heard about people getting married based on Ramah. It wasn’t until I became one of those people that I understood how that really happens.” 

Marriages that originated in camps long have been a source of pride for Ramah leadership. Campgrounds are covered with plaques inscribed with the names of couples who met at camp and who often have their wedding ceremonies there. And while there’s long been interest by some in creating an online meeting place to give adults an opportunity to engage with other alums who share their core values, the question for people like Cohen was: Would people actually use it? Not to mention, initial research indicated that implementing such a site would cost the nonprofit National Ramah Commission $150,000. 

Things started to move ahead after the formation of Reshet Ramah, the camp’s alumni network that took shape in 2012, thanks in large part to $1.8 million in grants from the Avi Chai Foundation and the Maimonides Fund. The newly formed organization set out to strengthen and connect an alumni network of 200,000 and initiate a variety of new programs based in Jewish engagement for adults of all ages. According to Cohen, Reshet Ramah estimated there to be a subset of 15,000 singles under the age of 40 among its network. 

Cohen and his cohorts at the New York-based National Ramah Commission had previously worried that online dating and its reputation would scare off users. But now, JDate reports that half of married Jewish couples meet online; all involved agreed that this hurdle had been cleared and that the only hurdle remaining was financing the project. 

Laura Belinfante, National Ramah Commission’s program marketing manager, saw working with JDate as a no-brainer.

“It’s a reputable, proven model. I knew it would be great for us to have the JDate name behind the project and that it would help make our product more reputable,” she said. “Once we got on the phone and they became aware of how many alumni we had and that they’d have direct marketing to those people, from their end, it was just like, ‘OK, great.’ ” 

According to Belinfante, the partnership with JDate will alleviate much of the upfront financial burden. Its engineers, project management and customer service teams will be the ones essentially creating the service. 

Ramah users will simply subscribe to JDate and provide their Ramah background with such pieces of information as camp attended and years at camp. Then, Ramah users will receive a badge that will be featured on their profile. They then have the option to interact with all of JDate’s 750,000 active users or only with fellow Ramah badge holders. It will operate like any other online dating filter service.

“We felt that it was important to make the registration process distinguished from the JDate process. Other than that, it’s the same. We wanted to stand out and make alumni feel like it was a little different,” Belinfante said. 

Sarah Koppel Smith, a 26-year-old geriatric social worker in New York who met her husband at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, is excited about the possibilities. Smith believes in the mystique of the Ramah romance and points to values that were largely learned and honed at Ramah as the foundation of her relationship. 

“It’s more than just a camp. It’s a way of life,” she said. “I think it’s something really special to be with someone who also went to Ramah. I’m really excited for my single friends! I hope it works!”

Negotiations with JDate also resulted in an agreement to donate 70 percent of Ramah users’ initial subscription fees to camp scholarships. 

“We want to make this appealing to alumni. They can get a service and can be donating to an organization they obviously care about through that service,” Belinfante said. “They’re able to contribute in a meaningful way.” 

As the May launch date approaches, Belinfante and her colleagues at the National Ramah Commission are working diligently with JDate to get the website up and running and are planning launch parties in at least four Israeli and North American cities, Los Angeles likely being one of them. 

Rabbi Joe Menashe, the executive director of Camp Ramah in Ojai, expressed to the Journal his admiration for Ramah’s forward thinking and commitment to its vast network of alumni. 

“The Ramah movement now welcomes over 10,000 campers and staff a summer, and why should we limit the potential to find our beshert to only one camp limited by one’s year?” Menashe said. “We’d be ignoring our mission if we did not take advantage of technology to facilitate [campers’ and alumni’s] connection more easily and naturally around the world.”

CORRECTION 2/5/15: This article originally stated that Ramah users would have to provide the names of their camp counselors in order to subscribe.