Advocating for Jewish summer camps

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Is it really all pray, no play at Ramah camps across the country?

This was the question posed by a Forward article this week. The piece, looking particularly at Ramah Berkshires, wonders if praying three times a day as well as having Judaic studies decreases the amount of “fun” that goes on at the summer camps.

It would have been hard for me not to address this article. I was not fortunate enough to attend a Ramah growing up, but have since staffed at two of the camps. Nearly all of my friends have both staffed and attended a Ramah.

The clear answer to the above question is NO.

The author of the piece begins with the following question:

At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Jewish campers wake up every morning at 7:30 and daven the morning prayers. After some swimming or maybe a Frisbee game, the older kids can, if they want, daven again in the afternoon. And at the end of a day that includes a 45-minute Judaic learning session, well, they can… daven again.

Sound like a fun-filled, carefree summer camp experience? (MORE)

This is gross misrepresentation of the experience at Ramah. Yes, most of the campers will daven three times a day, as well as have Judaic studies. But what about the many hours of sports, theater, camping, trips, singing, dancing, and boating. What about the life-long friendships and memories forged during these summers.

What is so amazing about Ramah is that most of the Judaica is seamlessly weaved into the daily schedule. Prayer is not seen as a burden, but as an opportunity. Most of the camps use creative approaches to services, bringing in rabbinical students and other professionals to transform what could be boring services into meaningful moments. It is because of this that many campers leave with a new appreciation for prayer.

As for Judaic studies, never in my life have I experienced such fun methods in learning. When working at Ramah Wisconsin, I taught two age groups what I called “Fun Jewish Stuff,” as opposed to yahadut (Judaica). One session used MTV’s The Real World as a basis for learning communal responsibility. Each student took on the persona of a Jewish teen from the around the world. They learned about global customs and practices. The message was clear “kol Yisrael aravim zeh lazeh,” all Jews are responsible for one another.

The other course used a scavenger hunt in the woods to find clues as to who sold Joseph into slavery, studying the famed Genesis story. As the campers found contradicting clues, they learned that the Torah cannot be read without a willingness to analyze and explore the text in greater detail.

Where else in the world can one play football using Hebrew words, do Israeli dance with hundreds of other kids, and daven overlooking a sunset radiating off of the lake?

If I could, I would spend every summer in such an environment that manages to foster fun as well as a love of Judaism.

Summer camp is unlike any other Jewish activity. Time and time again, professionals will tell you there is no better way to engaged children in Judaism.

As Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission said in the article:

Day schools do a phenomenal job of education, but it’s school, it’s homework. It’s not a fair fight with summer camp, which for many kids is the best experience of their lives.

Posted on June 29, 2007

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8 thoughts on “Advocating for Jewish summer camps

  1. Lili Kalish Gersch

    As a former Ramah camper and staff member, I couldn’t agree more. Ramah is a total immersion experience. Everything they do–the prayers, the learning, the blessings–are things that are a daily part of a Jewish life. What they are offering is a taste of the pleasures of the fully lived Jewish life, if only for a summer.

  2. BSL1

    It seems that both Ms. Gersch and Ms. Lewis really got it right while in my opinion, the author of the Forward article missed the point. The goal of Ramah (and other jewish camping movements) is to provide American Jewish youth with an opportunity to live Judaism. It is experiential education at its finest, about which John Dewey would certainly be proud. Religious school or day school is formal education, Judaic themed classes at camp are informal education, and as best I understand, camp itself is non-formal education. The concept of non-formal education is a new one in both Jewish and secular education. It teaches through doing, and by having staff members who serve as positive Jewish role models (regardless of their own personal observance during the other 10 months of the year), Jewish young adults have the opportunity to see Judaism live. Yes, they daven (pray), yes they say blessings before and after eating, and yes they come away from the summer with life-long friends and a deeper connection to Judaism than the majority of students who attend only day school or supplementary religious school. As an educator myself, I am thrilled when parents of my students tell me that they are choosing to send their kids to a Jewish camp. It really is the gift that keeps giving for families who hope their children maintain a connection to the religion and. Of all the things going wrong with the contemporary Jewish community, Ms. Spence from The Forward, picked on perhaps the only thing really going well.

  3. hotshot2000

    As utterly ridiculous as the Forward article is*, I’d also like to quibble with the notion that at Ramah “prayer is not seen as a burden, but as an opportunity.” In my two summers spent at Ramahs as an adult in pilot beit midrash programs, the low point of the day was davening. The experience was, at best, that of a pep-rally sing-a-along — there was no rhythm of devotion/meditation nor a feeling of engaging in a unifying communal experience. The kids (as a whole; there are obvious individual exceptions) never grew an appreciation of or built a framework for expressing why tefillah, let alone halakhic, mandated tefillah, is a worthwhile endeavor (unsurprising, since most of the adults leading it couldn’t articulate that, either).

    My overall impression of Ramah, then as someone growing in his own learning and observance as an adult, was that of a basically secular summer camp with a Jewish theme, as opposed to a place of intense engagement with what it might mean to live a Jewish life and how that life might differ _in its essence_ from the life of any other nominally liberal Protestant American. The failure of Ramah on this level is due, in part, to the phenomenon that BSL1 lauds above: “staff members who serve as positive Jewish role models (regardless of their own personal observance during the other 10 months of the year).” The kids see through such pretense immediately. Either living a Jewish life is important and changes who you are, or it doesn’t, and you just end up pretending, which is bad for the people forced to pretend and bad for the kids who end up learning that being a Jewish role model merely involves a willingness to pretend to be something you’re not, and something the importance of which you can’t articulate.

    * My favorite part is the quote from the day school parent about how he wants his kids to have a break from Judaism during the summer. That’s a sure-fire way to communicate the relative importance of Judaism. Last I checked, you only get breaks from things in life that aren’t really important; real committments (even those undertaken voluntarily, like parenthood and marriage), are 24/7 sorts of things.

  4. Meredith Kesner Lewis Post author

    Hotshot,
    I would say is rather unfortunate that this is the picture that you received while at Ramah. I would note that it is sometimes hard to get a perspective of what the campers are thinking as participating in one of the beit midrash programs that take place in many of the camps.

    Some campers may grow into their comprehension of prayer a little later in life (just as some of the older age eidot might do as well).

    I find it very hard to believe that one could see a Ramah as a basically secular camp. At most of the camps, if not all, a conscious effort is made to place Judaism in nearly everything that is done. Sometimes, this is more successful than others.

    As far as the positive role models staffers present, just by coming back to camp and being committed enough to want to spend 10 weeks making little to nothing in order to share the camp experience with younger children is a great way of being a Jewish role model.
    What you may not have seen was a staff that was wholly observant or may be actively in involved in Judaism in different ways. This in no way shape or form decreases their ability to be a Jewish role model

  5. MamaK

    As a parent of two former”Jewish Campers/Counsellors” any effort for Jewish children to be able to participate in a communal Jewish expereince is worthwhile. As hotshot says “24/7″many of these children do not attend day school, religious school or live in an observant home…Sometimes that is why they are sent to camp…its one of life’s experiences to live and learn and grow and realize Judaism comes in all sizes..one size does not fit all.

  6. rabbijason

    Ms. Spence’s exaggerated first paragraph in her Forward article sounds a lot like some of the complaints one hears from Ramah campers during the summer who feel like all they do is daven, study, and eat. But it’s interesting that these same kids always cry their eyes out on the final day of camp and then count the days until the next summer begins. Why? Because the Camp Ramah experience works. The best thing the Conservative Movement does. It creates serious Jews and therefore families that are serious about their Judaism and Jewish education.

    Many parents of Jewish day school students argue that their kids should get a “break” over the summer and not be subjected to more Jewish education. Of course, Jewish summer camps that emphasize prayer and Talmud Torah (Jewish learning) like Camp Ramah, Camp Moshava, Camp Yavneh, Camp Stone, etc. also have other activities like sports, waterskiing, art, and drama.

    The opening paragraph of this article is misleading. Columnist Rebecca Spence writes, “At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Jewish campers wake up every morning at 7:30 and daven the morning prayers. After some swimming or maybe a Frisbee game, the older kids can, if they want, daven again in the afternoon. And at the end of a day that includes a 45-minute Judaic learning session, well, they can… daven again.” Add up the time spent in prayer services (even including the “optional” afternoon and evening minyanim), the 45-minute class, and mealtime and these campers are still left with many hours of typical camp activities.

    National Ramah Director Rabbi Mitch Cohen (pictured), director of the Ramah Camps, makes a bold (but true) statement in this article, explaining, “Families who spend a fortune on day school education and then send their kids to nonreligious programs in the summer in some ways are wasting their investment.”

    The trick of course is to create summer camping experiences that emphasize Jewish living 24/7 with prayer services, learning opportunities, and Shabbat observance while also offering serious summer activities like sports. Having served as a staff member at three of the Ramah camps (Wisconsin, Nyack, and Canada), I can honestly say that they are successful at this synergy.

    For three summers I served as the director of the Ropes Challenge Course at Camp Ramah in Nyack and was always cognizant of the synergy between Jewish education and outdoor camp fun. In that vein, I published a curriculum that was used at Ramah to teach Jewish values, Hebrew, and Torah to the campers while they were participating in the Ropes course and climbing wall.

    I’m optimistic that the Foundation for Jewish Camping will work to ensure that Jewish summer camps where Judaism is a focus will be able to provide top-notch extra-curricular programs like sports taught by instructors one would find at the best sports camps in the country, as well as outdoor adventure activities that rival any secular camp.

  7. hotshot2000

    Indeed, it may be hard to get a sense of what the campers are thinking, no matter what program one is involved in or role one plays. ×?ין לדיין ×?ל×? מה שעיניו רו×?ות, and what I saw was a majority kids goofing off during the already heavily cut down davening. I’m not blaming them or the staff who are forced to conform to the model, but it seems like a Heschel-like model with separate more intense (e.g., full matbeah) davening spaces and “iyyun tefillah” spaces might be more successful, although then one might not get a minyan! :-)

    I used a very specific definition of secular and religious. And, indeed, it is the “conscious effort is made to place Judaism in nearly everything that is done” that makes it so. In real life, Judaism is not (and cannot be) as all-encompassing as camp makes it out to be, and therefore in real life Camp Ramah Judaism can’t be lived, because it isn’t real. I’d much prefer the camp experience to mirror real life for these kids and create a model of something normal and livable.

    Is there mesirat nefesh in “coming back to camp and being committed enough to want to spend 10 weeks making little to nothing in order to share the camp experience with younger children”? Absolutely! But there’s mesirat nefesh in a lot of things (and much more of it in many things than this one), and except for the general notion of mesirat nefesh as a “Jewish” value (really a human value that has particularistic Jewish expressions, such as making less money to devote more time to talmud torah) I’m not sure how much of a model it is. In no way do I ignore the multiple ways to connect to Judaism argument. What I mind, and what I think the kids see through, is the way that non-religious counselors are forced to adopt and enforce religious principles that are meaningless to them. This goes back to my above argument about how Camp Ramah Judaism is experienced as wholly unreal.

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