Jewish fun in the sun

Jewish fun in the sun

A Ramah camp hits 50, and gets better with age

Future campers celebrate at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires’ birthday bash. All Photos by Johanna Resnick Rosen/Candid Eye

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires is turning 50.

That can be a sobering milestone for people. While it might not be old, it is unequivocally no longer young.

But camps are different. They are all about being young, but they also are about continuity and staying power. Fifty absolutely is something to celebrate, and the next 50 is something to look forward to with joy.

On Sunday, Camp Ramah in the Berkshires – which in fact isn’t in the Berkshires at all, but in Wingdale, N.Y., and draws campers from New Jersey, New York City, Westchester County and Long Island – celebrated its anniversary with a huge reunion. About 1,000 people trekked up Route 684; some are young now, and others went to remember being young, and to feel young again.

Ramah Berkshires is part of a larger group of Ramah camps, a semi-autonomous sprawling conglomeration of eight sleepaway camps and three day camps across North America and programs in Israel. Ramah camps are part of the Conservative movement; arguably they are the part from which the movement can derive the most hope for its future.

Its impact can be measured. In 2007, demographer Dr. Ariela Keysar researched the impact of Ramah on college students. She found that Ramah graduates are three times more likely than Jews overall to date only Jews, four times more likely to attend synagogue services, and three times as likely to spend significant time in Israel.

Just as surely as Homer tells us that the sea is wine-dark and Athena is gray-eyed, so does the trope frequently employed by Jewish pundits tell us that the Conservative movement is failing. But you couldn’t prove it with Ramah camps. They are flourishing.

The Ramah experiment began in Wisconsin in 1947. That camp was seen as a place for the movement’s best and brightest, a place where up-and-coming young campers would be supervised by rabbinical students, awkward at first in their shorts, their teeth clamping down on invisible pipes, but where the entire world was Jewish. Ramah was envisioned as a place where campers and young staff members could live full Jewish lives, unfettered by the outside world, and learn the joy that such lives offer.

The model took, and soon other camps were built. Ramah Berkshires was the fifth of them. The camps were assigned catchment areas, although campers could get waivers to go to camps outside their districts. Campers had to register through their synagogues, with their rabbis’ recommendations, and only after they had been enrolled in either Jewish day schools or afterschool programs that ran six or eight or even 10 hours a week.

Ramah Berkshires took over from the much smaller Ramah Nyack, which opened with beds for about 250 campers in 1961 and closed three years later, sending its campers to the much larger Wingdale facility. (Ramah Nyack is now a day camp and one of Ramah Berkshires’ prime feeders.)

Renah and Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz of Teaneck were staffers at Nyack and then at Ramah Berkshires. (He is an associate professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary and chairman of the Conservative movement’s Joint Bet Din; she is a longtime Jewish educator and nonprofit administrator.)

“The Berkshires camp was open to answer the cries of Conservative congregations and individuals who wanted to expose more and more young people to the magic that was a summer at Ramah,” Renah Rabinowitz said. “The Ramah experience gave campers and staff the opportunity to have an extensive education and a fun-filled summer in the context of a religious Zionist Hebrew-speaking environment. It created a sense of community; together with the sense of unity, there was always room for questions. Differences were always respected, and the feeling of community was paramount.”

Driven as they were by the camp’s spiritual and pedagogical mission – and the overarching understanding that if camp isn’t fun, its mission would go unrealized because campers wouldn’t stay to learn it – they had very real practical challenges to surmount, as well.

Ramah bought a pre-existing facility that was, not to put too fine a point on it, shabby, ill maintained, and falling apart. (It used to be two camps, one for boys and one for girls, called Ki-Wa-Ki and Ki-Wa-Wa, Rabinowitz said; those camps had left behind artifacts that amused the budding anthropologists at Ramah.) “We think of pioneering, of chalutziut, in terms of Israel, but sometimes it can come in a variety of locations,” Rabinowitz said.

They were pioneers at Ramah that first year, taking unlikely situations and making them work.

“We were always trying to overcome enormous difficulties in terms of the physical plant,” she said. “There was a huge camp population; 733 campers, and a decent number of staff – the camper/staff ratio always was wonderful, so you had over 1,000 people in camp.

“In those first years, the kids caught on to the excitement. I think it overcame the particular shortcomings and problems — there were no ball fields, and not enough arts and crafts rooms.”

Campers were allowed to pick the activities they wanted, but the lack of space meant that the more popular programs had to be rationed. The dining rooms were so packed with people that there was no room for waiters; as a result, the system of having one camper from each table responsible for fetching food was born. Doing it that way demanded less space.

“Problems are not to be bemoaned or complained about, but to be solved,” Rabinowitz said.

She said that the camp’s educational goals demanded that staffers as well as campers be well educated Jewishly, even though at times that made staffers hard to find. Often the hires were unusual, made because the lure of camp strongly attracted academics, who like students often have summers off. Mayer Rabinowitz remembers directing traffic on visiting day, working alongside the already bestselling author Rabbi Chaim Potok of “The Chosen” fame.

Ramah is an element in the Rabinowitzes’ lifeblood. Mayer’s father, Simcha Rabinowitz, was a rabbi and both Mayer’s mother, Devorah Rabinowitz, and his uncle, Dr. Bernard Resnikoff, worked at Ramah. Mayer and Renah met at Ramah in Connecticut – in a camp that no longer exists – and they worked there for many summers. In fact, they spent their honeymoon at camp. (“I don’t necessarily recommend that,” Renah Rabinowitz said.) Their three children – Adi, Dalya, and Ayelet – all were campers, and their two daughters were on staff, as well; their son-in-law, Jeff Teitelbaum, is on the Berkshires’ board, and two of their grandchildren, Maya and Coby, represent the fourth generation of Ramah Rabinowitzes.

Rhonda Jacobs Kahn of Teaneck, who is now the communications director at the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, spent every summer in Ramah, beginning in Nyack. She was a camper in Berkshires when it opened. External circumstances made that first summer far less than ideal for her – the first morning she was called into the office and the camp’s founding director, Rabbi Jerome Abrams, told her that her grandmother had died. She did not go home; instead, she woke up the next morning covered with chicken pox, and spent the next 10 days in isolation.

“I think that Jerry Abrams still cringes when he thinks about it,” she said. But it didn’t stop her. “I came back to camp the next summer,” she said.

Kahn grew up in Rutherford, in a “very committed Jewish family in a not very Jewish community,” she said. “There was not a lot of Jewish life there. Ramah was where my Jewish life was, and that life became what I wanted.

“It had exactly the impact that it was designed to have.”

She has been on the camp’s board, and on the National Ramah Commission’s board, as well; all three of her children – Zachary, Rebecca, and Ilana – went to Ramah, and that is where Zachary met his wife, Jordana Kaye. Some of her oldest and deepest friendships were made in camp. “Ramah was absolutely formative,” Kahn said. “There is no question that I am what I am today because of those years and those friendships.”

Benjamin and Aliza Mann of Teaneck both are Jewish educators – she teaches pre-kindergarten at the Solomon Schechter School Day School of Bergen County and he is the head of the middle school of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Manhattan. He began Ramah as a camper and worked there for years; she began as a counselor and works there still, as an advisor. Their three children, Matan, Orly, and Ariella, are campers there now.

“Camp comes into play every Friday night at my Shabbat table,” Aliza Mann said. “We sing songs from camp, and talk about camp. It’s a transformative place.”

When Benjamin Mann talks about camp, he talks about music.

“My favorite part of camp is the zimriyah” – the song festival – “every year,” he said. “There is a lot of singing in camp, all in Hebrew – songs from the Hebrew canon, classical and modern Israel music, Jewish music. It is incredible to have 1,000 people together – mostly children – singing.

“It is really very powerful.”

Ilene Anesini of River Edge is Temple Emanu-El of Closter’s executive director. She is also the very happy parent of two Ramah campers.

“Jason and Michael go to public school, so it was very important for us to have them go to a camp that provided them with a rich Jewish experience,” she said. “It also provides them with regular summer camp experiences, like a choice of sports – Michael is an avid soccer player, and Jason likes swimming and is getting his lifeguard certification at Ramah.

“At camp on Friday nights, when the boys put on their white shirts and khaki pants, and go out on the lake and experience Shabbat together, it’s very special.

“There is a mix of day school and public school kids there, and they all feel comfortable.

“It’s a great place. I wish I could be a camper there!”

Rabbi Paul Resnick of Teaneck is a lifelong Ramahnik. He began as a camper in New England and then Canada, worked his way up on staff, was hired assistant director in 1987, during his senior year at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and was appointed director in 1990. He works at Ramah Berkshires’ offices in Englewood during the year, and then moves up to Wingdale every summer.

The camp, as bustling, outdoorsy, wet, muddy, dusty, and noisy as it is, also is a delicate mechanism that must be balanced carefully. Resnick must constantly weigh learning, friendship, safety and joy, as every camp director must, but everything at Ramah is filtered through a Jewish mesh.

“We teach skills in everything from being on your own and making your own bed for the first time, and negotiating life in a bunk with 12 other kids your own age, and the best traditions of the Conservative movement, Hebrew language, love for medinat Yisrael, t’filah, tikkun olam, and Shabbat,” he said. “We create a very intense and very intentional Jewish community. And it is done by using very accessible, spirited Jewish role models” – the counselors and other staff members, particularly the younger one, with whom campers can identify more easily.

The camp is doing very well, with 726 kids registered; it finds itself having to turn potential campers away. It requires that campers must “be enrolled in a year-round program of formal Jewish education,” he said.

It also has a program for inclusion of special-needs campers. B’reira b’Ramah offers those campers the chance to be in a regular bunk, mainstreamed with campers whose needs are typical. The campers have specially trained counselors, who live in their bunks alongside the other counselors. B’reira campers are not identified as such; instead, the goal is to expand the boundaries to let more kids fit inside them.

“It is one of the more satisfying pieces of my job,” said Resnick, who finds most aspects of his job satisfying. “Some of these kids are not treated as regular kids during the year, and here they are. The expectations of them are the same as of everyone else.”

He loves his work. “I get to go to summer camp every year,” he said. “I’m paid to create great fun experiences in a Jewish environment, with a great staff, alumni, and board.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about fun. If they don’t have fun, they won’t come back. And parallel to the fun is the yiddishkeit, having Shabbat not with your parents but with your friends.

“In the last decade, more serious philanthropic dollars have been coming into camps, and therefore there has been the need for more reporting and more data.”

That data show that “summer resident camping proves to be an effective way to make better Jews, more strongly identified Jews. We’re part of that.”

And, of course, “We can create a Disneyland for 51 days every summer,” Resnick said.

The view from Camp Ramah
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