January 19, 2020

Ramah’s Happy,

During that first weekend, we found nourishmentfor all parts of our Jewish psyches. Religious services weretraditional but encouraged participation: I had my first-ever aliyahthere. The camp’s weekend scholar-in-residence gave us grown-upsserious food for thought. The children had their own programs, but weall came together for a wild and wacky Saturday-night carnival and aSunday Maccabiah in which points were awarded for ruach (a favoriteRamah word, meaning “spirit”) as well as for athletic skill. And, ofcourse, some lazy hours were reserved for swimming, snoozing andschmoozing. After all this, it was hard to go home.

Some folks never do quite go home again. Checkingout Ramah’s flourishing summer-camp program recently, I was impressedby how many families have made the camp a permanent part of theirlives. Campers grow up to be staff members; eventually, they bringtheir own children with them to camp, and the cycle begins anew.Thus, the notion of a summer committed to living Judaism passes fromgeneration to generation.

There are actually seven Camp Ramahs scatteredthroughout North America, all of them affiliated with theConservative movement. The oldest Ramah, in Wisconsin, has justcelebrated its 50th anniversary. California’s Ramah, now in its 41styear, has become so popular that, by December, most of itssummer-camp slots are filled.

The 520 campers attending each session are servedby 225 full-time staff members, many of whom are professionaleducators. What makes Ramah unique among summer camps is its seriouscommitment to Jewish learning for everyone. This means that allcampers spend an hour a day in study sessions, grappling with suchmeaty topics as Jewish heroes and peace. Older campers delve intosacred texts and improve their Hebrew-language skills. (Thanks to therise of day schools, a growing number of campers, in all age groups,can handle the curriculum entirely in Hebrew.)

But learning doesn’t cease when you stop being acamper. Teens coming onto the counseling staff via the mador program(for high school seniors) spend 10 to 12 hours per week in class,studying both Judaica and interpersonal skills. And all otherstaffers engage in ongoing learning on a weekly basis.

Elon Sunshine, a rabbinical student who heads themador program, explains that “camp isn’t only about the camper butabout the personal and Jewish development of staff on all levels.” Hefurthers his own education by studying Torah with the residentscholars every Shabbat afternoon.

Camp Director Brian Greene is a rarity in that hedidn’t grow up at Ramah. But he introduced me to many staffers whodid. A prime example is Jeremy Rosenthal, a senior at UC Berkeley.His parents met at Camp Ramah, and his mother, Wendy, has been onstaff each summer for as long as he can remember. He himself became acamper in 1985 and has stayed with it ever since, following the Ramahteen’s usual path of spending one summer at a Ramah program in Israeland then returning the following year to take up a junior staffposition.

Now, at 21, Rosenthal is a counselor in Ramah’sspecial Tikvah program, which allows developmentally disabled Jewishyoungsters to know the fun of sleep-away camp. He’s already wonderingwhat assignment he’ll draw in summer 1998.

Rabbi Ron Shulman and his wife, Robin, are membersin good standing of the “I met my spouse at Ramah” club. In the1970s, as young Ramah counselors, they fell in love. For the lastseven summers, during Shulman’s vacation from Congregation Ner Tamidof Palos Verdes, they have returned to the site of their courtshipwith their two daughters in tow. Robin works as a counselor/trainer,while Ron is officially known as a rabbi-in-residence, whose functionis to teach older campers and staff.

But at Ramah, no one stands on ceremony. Shulmanspeaks of his family’s annual month at camp as “the only time we getto live in an integrated Jewish community without pretense or title.”He insists that he would be happy participating in any capacity: “Ican sort mail, clean up the kitchen….” If this sounds far-fetched,consider that one of the rabbis on staff has the job of driving andservicing the camp bus.

Over lunch, I met a young man in a suede kippahand tie-dyed T-shirt. This was unit head David Stein, a Ramahnik forthe past 17 years. David and his sister, Emily, now a Ramahcounselor, are originally from Orange County. As kids, they wouldreturn from camp each summer with new Jewish ideas to contribute tothe Stein household. First, David talked his mother into lightingShabbat candles. Then, because he had made a havdalah candle at camp,the havdalah ritual became part of the family’s routine. And in his13th year, he taught his father to put on tefillin. Now his parents,too, consider themselves part of the Ramah family.

It was when Stein joined the counseling staff thathe became truly religious. Inspired by Ramah spiritual mentors whotaught him to see even a baseball game as a Torah experience, hedecided to enter rabbinical school. He now has a mission: to show hiscampers how they, too, can take Judaism home from Camp Ramah and makeit part of their world year-round.

Beverly Gray writes about education from SantaMonica.

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