A summer of civic engagement

A summer of civic engagement

Camp Ramah Nyack addresses the present moment

Counselors and campers play at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack.
Counselors and campers play at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack.

So you think something is wrong with the world, with the country, with your city or town. You want it fixed. You want to help fix it.

But you feel entirely helpless. Useless. You’re just one person. Everything seems to get worse by the day. What can you possibly do that could make a difference?

And you’re Jewish. That informs the way you think; it directs your understanding of moral and civic responsibility and engagement. You’re pretty sure that it can provide you with some tools, but you’re not sure how.

Maybe you want to start small. Start local. Start by understanding how the network of governments work.

Maybe, if you’re a counselor at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, you want to start by taking the civic engagement initiative that Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal and Dr. Eitan Hersh taught this summer.

Ramah Nyack, one of the summer camps that the Conservative movement runs, is, as its name makes clear, a day camp, but it’s a sleepaway camp as well. Its pre-kindergarten through ninth-grade campers come every day, but their counselors live at camp during the summer. Those counselors — high school and college students — live almost double lives at camp. They have many very serious responsibilities that they undertake wholeheartedly, but they also have evenings, Shabbatot, and weekends, where their Jewish, moral, and spiritual educations are central. (And they also have fun. That part shouldn’t be neglected either.)

Ramah Nyack draws campers from northern New Jersey and Rockland; of the nearly 800 who have been part of the camp this summer, 176 of them come from Bergen, and 83 from Rockland. (Most of the others came from right across the Hudson — Manhattan, Westchester County, and Riverdale.) The counselors come from Bergen and Rockland, as well as from across New Jersey, around the country, and a few from around the world.

Rabbi Ami Hersh is Ramah’s director (and he’s also one of the Orangetown Jewish Center’s rabbis; he’s the shul’s family life coordinator).

Dr. Eitan Hersh teaches at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack.

“There are a lot of things going on in the world now,” Rabbi Hersh said. “A lot of tough things. I felt like we needed to find a way at camp, in the Jewish context, to explain to our staff and campers that they really can make a difference in the world, and that their voices could be heard within the context of American politics.”

Although many people know a lot about what’s going on politically, Rabbi Hersh said, “many people think that being involved means posting on social media or watching 12 hours of cable news.” That’s a great way to make yourself miserable, but it does not effect change, he said.

“But if you get involved in local politics, if you go to local meetings, you can have a real impact.”

That’s an important insight, but how can it be turned into action?

“In conversation with Rebecca, who could bring the Jewish experience, and with my brother Eitan, who is a professor of political science at Tufts and who studies civic engagement and similar topics and who could bring the civics, we realized we could do this initiative about what it means to bring real change today.

“So we put together a series of workshops in the evenings to help the counselors understand how to take what they are passionate about and how to pursue it to make change.”

Rabbi Rosenthal and Dr. Hersh both worked with the counselors, who are “developing small programs to take back to their local communities and campuses.”

Counselors, who live at the camp, think, study, and learn.

The examples are small-scale and low-tech — and possibly, probably effective. “One staffer was talking about how voter turnout is low on college campuses because people forget to go to vote.” Time and memory and priorities work differently when you’re in college. “You can’t go from door to door trying to get out the vote, because of security. So someone had the idea of buying a megaphone, going outside, and shouting about going to vote — and then measuring voter turnout,” he said. “We will track the projects to see how they are doing, to see if we can make a difference in the world on a small scale.

“Although young people today — especially young Jews — don’t think very much about small-town politics, there is power in that, in some ways more than on the federal level.

“We wanted to do something in parallel for campers, too, as part of their Jewish learning,” Rabbi Hersh added. “One of our teachers, Avi Kravitz, worked with us throughout the spring to develop curricula to let them know that even though they are children, their voices could be heard. They thought through some topics and issues of interest and concern to them, and they chose the area’s use of plastics — bags and straws.

“We took them through the process, to think the issue through on various levels. What can they do in their own lives? They can carry water bottles, instead of disposable ones. On the camp level, they advocated for more recycling bins. We wanted them to push it a step further, so they wrote letters and had a phone call with someone in the county executive’s office.

“For them to know that someone in that office would take the time to talk to them — to let them be heard — was a truly important thing. They were super inspired by it.”

What about the Jewish angle in both the counselors’ and the campers’ projects?

“Rebecca talked about how there is a Jewish imperative to be involved in your local government,” Rabbi Hersh said. “She talked about dina d’malkhuta dina” — the Jewish legal principle that the law of the land is the law, and that Jews are obligated to follow it. “It’s an understanding that there is local government, and that we have to play our part in it,” he said.

Rabbi Rosenthal is the director of youth and family education at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. She’s also a former Ramah camper, counselor, and rosh edah — division head — the sister of two former Ramah campers, and the mother of two more. (Her third child’s still too young.) Her connection to Ramah, clearly, is deep.

She took on the project because “Ami started thinking about how, given the state of the world, could we help the counselors put a Jewish frame around their civic engagement,” she said. Even more basically, “how could they even get started.

“I have done a lot of writing about voting, and about the Jewish role in voting and taking kids to vote,” so it was natural for her, she said. She’s written about how her parents used to bring her and her sisters into the voting booth with them on election day, and on how she does the same with her children. She’s written about the Jewish and American lessons that teaches, and how sometimes those lessons not only sink into children’s brains but into their hearts and souls as well.

“It is very important that when Ramah counselors go out and do things in the world, that they understand that there are not just moral and human reasons but also Jewish reasons,” Rabbi Rosenthal said.

As she put civic passions into a Jewish context, Rabbi Rosenthal kept the discussions nonpartisan. In fact, she said, although at the start “there was at least some feeling in the room that everyone had the same politics, they realized that there may be differences of opinion. It wasn’t all as black and white as they had imagined.”

When it came to the issues, “we didn’t pick them,” Rabbi Rosenthal said. “We just asked them what they cared about, and there was a wide range; abortion and gun violence prevention and climate change and Israel.”

Rabbi Rosenthal helped give the counselors the tools they’d need to work on these issues. “One of those tools is story telling,” she said. “How do we tell our own stories, use our own experiences to influence someone?

“My job is to help them see why what they are doing is Jewish,” she continued. “We look at texts, we talk about ideas. Judaism teaches that you do not separate yourself from the community. That means you should get involved to make the community better, to think not only about Jews but about whoever is vulnerable. To think about how we can help.”

Staffers relax after the kids are gone.

Dr. Hersh is not only a political scientist at Tufts — he lives in Brookline, Mass., but spent some time at camp in Nyack this summer — but also a past international United Synagogue Youth president. (That was in 2001, and “this will be the first story about me that mentions both Tufts and USY,” he said.) His second book, “Politics Is for Power,” is due out in January.

Like his brother, Dr. Hersh talked about how today’s political impulses often find themselves playing out impotently on social media, or in outraged sessions spent snarling uselessly at TV talking heads. “People often are obsessively interested in politics and news, but they also feel melancholy. They don’t know what to do. They’re unhappy with the state of the world, but they have no idea what to do.

“The goal is channeling that energy into concrete goals. It’s about understanding what it actually means to do politics. It’s about getting power for your views.

“We included a session on talking to people who disagree with you. When people are on social media, they don’t necessarily practice empathy. When you talk to political organizers, though, they realize that if they want people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do, they have to empathize with them. They have to respect them.

“So whatever issue you are going to talk about, whatever goal you are going to work toward, you have to move from a positon of argument and debate to one of direct personal engagement and empathy.”

Dr. Hersh took the counselors to a zoning board meeting in Ramapo. “Although the politics of Ramapo are probably unique in the world, zoning board meetings are exciting anywhere,” he said. Although listeners might think he was being ironic, he was not. “They are contentious; you see people who have different values and interests using a public process to channel them.

“For young people on the center left, the environment is the number one issue. The way we construct roads and buildings in every community” — the issues that zoning boards address — “have a big impact on the environment. So we tried to connect the dots from national political issues to the concrete ways in which those issues get resolved in the community.”

There was a woman in the zoning board meeting who embodied many of his points, Dr. Hersh said. “We got the sense that she was a regular at those meetings; that every two weeks or so, whenever the board meets, she spends her evenings there. Everybody knows her. She has a position on the buildings. Sometimes she is antagonistic to the builders.

“When most of us will spend the evening on our couch, streaming some show, she has taken it upon herself to do this. To go to these meetings. She’s a model.

“I think that if you just heard that there is this woman who spends from 7 to 11 p.m. every two weeks arguing with her community about zoning issues, that might sound crazy, or at any rate outside your interests.

“But when you see this, you see that she has real power in the community. By going to the meetings all the time, she has learned a lot about the regulations. Because she knows what is going on in the community, she knows what she wants to argue for.

“And they take her seriously.

“So, I shift from the world view that this must be a crazy person to thinking that she is making better use of her time than I am. And that is a cool shift.”

Not only can someone involved on the local level make real change, but that change can have implications on the state or national level, Dr. Hersh said; it’s his job as a teacher, and it’s organizers’ jobs as well to make sure that students know that. “It’s important to know the connections between housing restrictions and zoning laws,” he said. “As an ordinary citizen, you can feel like you’re a drop in the bucket. The way to think about it is that you can multiply your vote by convincing other people. Now you’ve doubled or tripled or made your power tenfold.

“The concept of employing empathy to learn from someone, and have them learn from you, is like the way that a local zoning board can play into larger concerns, like climate change. There are ways that people can use their energy to increase their power.”

Rabbi Hersh, Dr. Hersh, and Rabbi Rosenthal all returned to the Jewish roots of civic engagement.

Rabbi Rosenthal “drew a nice connection in our session between debating and chevruta,” the Jewish system of pairing students who talk, read, learn, argue, and grow over the course of what can be years, developing the sort of intimate understanding of each other’s thought processes and emotions that can provide surprising insights on both the text and on life, Dr. Hersh said.

“Basically, she said, you can argue about someone in a vicious way if you don’t know them,” he continued. “But if you are in a long-term relationship, you treat it differently.” The more you do chevruta, the better you can do political discussions.

Dr. Hersh and Rabbi Rosenthal also talked about the basic Jewish value of community, and the constant tension American Jews feel between community and individualism.

“A lot of people do politics in a spiritual but not religious way,” Rabbi Hersh said, playing with the way people say that they are spiritual but not religious; they feel the ineffable deeply but on their own schedules and their own terms. They do not need community, with its inconvenient demands. “They are seeking an intellectual and emotional connection, but it is for themselves,” he said. “They are trying to feel something or learn something, as opposed to serving others.

“You can’t really engage with the Jewish value of supporting your community from a yoga mat. You have to be part of a community of people who depend on you, and who you depend on. The spiritual-but-not-religious ethos is the opposite of that. I don’t want to depend on anyone. I don’t want to be guilted about anything. I will listen to a Jewish podcast, and I will eat a bagel and lox. I don’t want to dirty my hands on a zoning board. I will just go on twitter; I will listen to a podcast and be able to recite polling data two years out from the election. I will get something off my chest, but not in service of anything else.”

That is not the ethos in which the counselors at Ramah have been immersed. Instead, they’ve been learning how the community and their own individual desires to effect change can work together, from the community level on up.

We all look forward to seeing what they’ll do with this knowledge as the world continues to barrel forward.

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