December 8, 2019

reTURNING to Ramah

Fifteen years ago was my last summer at Camp Ramah (as a camper at least). I have returned to camp since my days as a camper; including six summers as staff along with visits to show my wife a little slice of the Judaism that resonates with me the most. This year I returned to Conover, Wisconsin as a rabbi for the very first time. Camp Ramah, referring to the camp in Wisconsin (although I am sure the other camps as well), is a place where Judaism and Jewish education are at their finest.

This summer I visited to four Jewish summer camps, all great in different ways. Some excel in Ruach (spirit) and others in the ability to allow Jewish kids to be openly Jewish, make Jewish friends, and if we are lucky marry a Jewish spouse. These are all great attributes and certainly beneficial to Jews everywhere. And while it’s not the most popular thing to say or write, and often rabbis shy away from this topic, I feel the overwhelming need to promote Camp Ramah inside my synagogue, especially as a Conservative Rabbi and Jew.

The fact is, Ramah is not a camp for just the religious or studious. I was neither of these things before I went to Ramah or during my time there. Ramah was suggested to me by my Rabbi in several forms, including the bimah. Some of my friends attended as well, so it became a natural fit. Ramah does more than give young campers or counselors Jewish friends. It provides them with Jewish answers and tools to live Jewishly in the real world. At Ramah, campers and staff learn, not just in text classes, but by osmosis and real conversations. On Saturday night during my recent visit I sat with over 100 campers and staff who gave up their free time to sing zemirot (Jewish songs) together. And while this was happening I was able to find a bit of Kavannah (spiritual intention) in my own life, something not always easy for the day-to-day rabbi to conjure up. I realized that Ramah serves as the answer to Conservative communities, especially families and clergy invested in Jewish education, to the struggles of how to best educate our children and excite a synagogue.

Most families who send their kids to Ramah, and then experience it for themselves, say to their rabbis “How do we incorporate that Ramah feeling into synagogue life?” The fact is synagogues cannot recreate camp. Synagogues are not 24/7 vehicles of living and breathing Judaism for each individual. They are platforms for lifecycle events, formal education, rituals and services, and if you are lucky a close connection with the limited clergy you have. However, while we cannot recreate Ramah inside a synagogue we can do our best to extract some of the excitement, rich learning, and deep connection by highly encouraging our children to attend Ramah. Show me a growing Conservative synagogue without a strong Ramah presence. It probably does not exist.

As day school tuition continues to be a barrier and Hebrew school education dwindles in days and hours, Ramah is the perfect supplement for the Jewish education a child needs. But it’s more than that. We know that Ramah works just by looking at rabbis and committed Jews everywhere. Ramah has played a major player in many their lives. So if the Conservative Movement has this proven entity, why are some afraid to say Ramah is the answer. Yes, there are other camps and they have great qualities, but if you and your child want more out of your Jewish lives; Ramah gives you that opportunity. Let us not shy away from promoting Jewish camping which is what the Conservative Movement excels at providing.

I want to encourage my colleagues to speak about Ramah from the bimah. I want to encourage all those reading this (hopefully a few are not my Facebook friends) to really think about sending their kids to Ramah next summer. Summer camp is expensive but the return on your dollar is powerful and has longevity. Most camps have scholarship funds and if Jewish education is important to you I encourage you to not be shy to ask for help. Jewish summer camp is an amazing vehicle and I believe that Ramah will provide the most amazing ride.