Camp Ramah: The First 100 Days

Allen: Our society’s recently undergone a momentous transfer of power representing an abrupt shift from the longtime norms of democratic leadership. I’m referring, of course, to the new director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Rabbi Ethan Linden. I’ve heard only good things, though you and I are both a bit removed from the camp scene at this point (it’s been four years since I served on staff).

Over drinks last night, one of our old bunkmates, the inimitable Sam Goldfinger, asked what I’d do if I had the director’s ear. I came up with a few ideas of my own, but I’d be curious to hear yours. Imagine that you’re the Jared Kushner of the new Hanhallah: what items are on your wish list?

Aron: It’s probably worth beginning by mentioning that I (and, as far as I know, you) loved my time at Camp Ramah. While critiquing Jewish institutions is one of our favorite pastimes, I think it’s important to note that our critiques of and suggestions for Ramah come from a place of deep love.

(Edit: I also want to be clear that we know that Camp has a tough job; providing a meaningful Judaism for teenagers who don’t really want to spend their summers sitting around and learning is a really difficult task. Articulating a coherent, compelling vision of Conservative Judaism is also challenging, given the internal rifts within the movement. We also recognize that, though we were both staff members, it’s easier to critique camp from a blog than to actually implement changes on the ground.)

That said, here are a couple of potential changes that I think are important:

More meaningful approaches to ritual: There are some rituals, like kabbalat Shabbat, that are carried out with a sense of sacredness and community. Others, though, are done less well. Take tfillin, for example. Each summer, counselors are forced to corral unwilling 13-year-olds and force them to bind phylacteries. At no point during the summer, though, does someone sit down with the 13-year-olds and say, “Hey! Here’s why we think tfillin are an important and meaningful practice.” While there are doubtless some rabbis at camp who could give an informed response, I think that this issue is reflective of a wider confusion in the Conservative movement. Few alternatives have been given for religious practice besides the tried and true, “God said so,” despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Conservative Jews don’t believe in the divine authority of the Torah. Ramah should be a place where Conservative Jews wrestle honestly with the central challenges of the movement rather than just follow empty dogmas.

Inclusion: I know that Ramah has been making an effort to be more proactive on LGBTQ issues. I’m not up-to-date on these efforts, and I don’t know what it’s like to be LGBTQ at camp, so it’s difficult to offer precise prescriptions. One of the most important things the upper management can do is solicit the input of LGBTQ staff members and campers, and find ways to center and value those staff members. The same goes for camp’s efforts to be a more inclusive space for Jews of color. I don’t know what, if any, steps Ramah is taking to work on this, but I hope that Rabbi Linden listens to staffers and campers from a range of marginalized groups.

Draw the line: I don’t know the exact number, but there are still maps of Israel at Ramah that don’t have the green line. The green line shouldn’t be seen as a political statement; it’s a fact. On one side of the line, Israel is a highly flawed democracy; on the other side, it’s a democracy for Jews and a military occupation for non-Jews.

This touches on the much larger issue of education about Israel at camp. For many campers, the summer is the only time of the year during which they learn about Israel. It’s unfortunate, then, that their Israel education consists almost entirely, if not solely, of having Israel lifeguards, eating falafel, learning about Israeli innovation, and being presented with pro-Israel arguments whose sophistication is on par with The Case for Israel. Instead of merely being taught to regurgitate Dershowitz, campers should be exposed to a more diverse range of opinions: Benny Morris and Tom Segev, JStreet and B’tzelem, Beinart and Leibowitz alongside AIPAC and Danny Gordis. They should also read Palestinian narratives and, if possible, hear Palestinian speakers. I’m not asking camp to be a left-wing utopia; I’m just asking it to present a more honest and full picture of the conflict as it exists.

Allen: I second your warm feelings for camp: all this is coming from a place of respect. It would be inaccurate and obnoxious to blame Ramah for larger trends in the liberal Jewish world. The real problem can be summed up by Hillel’s statement in Mishnah Avot: “The ignorant person cannot teach.” By and large, our counselors probably never received a compelling reason for Jewish practice; never had a conversation about inclusion; never saw a model of pluralism on Israel; so it’s hard to blame them for not passing on what they didn’t get. Still, I can’t agree more with your suggestions.

I’d extend your point on inclusion a bit further to cover the community outside our eruv. Specifically, I mean the kitchen and maintenance staff and the residents of Wingdale. As a camper, I can’t remember having one real conversation with the Eastern European teenagers who picked up our trash and cleaned up our food. They come to America to learn about the country, only to live and work in total social isolation from the children whose summers they make possible. That’s a gap camp ought to bridge. (If you recall, our old counselor Lee Epstein once made some efforts along these lines.)

As for Wingdale: did you know that its unemployment rate is around twice the national average, or that close to 10%  of the town lives in poverty, or that Trump carried the entire county? I sure didn’t, until I checked the census data. Here’s a real opportunity to burst that partisan bubble we’ve talked about ad nauseum. How about a buddy program with campers and disadvantaged youth in the area, or a community service project for the older age groups, or an interfaith partnership with local congregations? This could begin to make up for the paltry volunteer opportunities Ramah has offered in years past.

Sam raised his own objection when I brought this subject up: he said that these programs go beyond the scope of camp’s stated mission. Ramah exists to build Jewish connections; projects like the kind I’ve described are commendable enough, but they can just as easily be done in other contexts. The same applies to your proposal on Israel — one could make the case that your sort of nuanced political treatment might be better suited for a classroom or a congregation, not a recreational summer camp. What are your thoughts: can and should Ramah try to pull it off?

Aron: Well, based on Camp’s mission statement, I’d argue that Sam’s actually wrong:

“[C]amp is infused with the best of the traditions and values of Conservative Judaism: love of mitzvoth, Hebrew language, and the land and people of Israel; commitment to inclusion and Tikun Olam; and the joy of learning and prayer.

Ramah is a transformative Jewish experience for its campers, staff, families, and the communities of the New York metropolitan area — a place where Judaism is lived, Shabbat is cherished, and every moment is elevated.”

Camp’s self-described purpose does include a “commitment to inclusion and Tikkun Olam,” so I think that all of the things outlined above do fall under Ramah’s aegis.

This isn’t just a question of getting campers to engage in social justice, though I think that would be great. It’s also about how campers engage with one another.

Consider the issue of bullying. Like any camp, Ramah has its bad kids and to its credit, the staff has been trying to clamp down on the issue by increasing supervision and getting rid of some insensitive traditions. I think these are good administrative measures, but I don’t think they address the roots of bullying: insecurity, apathy, selfishness.

What would happen if we made bullying a Jewish issue? I don’t mean that someone should lecture campers about how if you shame someone, it’s as if you shed their blood. Instead, consider this idea: once a week, counselors have a 15-minute Judaism-framed conversation with their bunks about a different obligation we have to one another (e.g. listening to each other, respecting each other, etc.) After the conversation, counselors pair off campers who don’t get along, and have them accomplish some task together related to the conversation. Granted, I haven’t been a counselor (or bullied) in a long time, but my sense is that something like this could change the dynamics within a bunk.

If Camp could get campers not just to learn about Jewish values, but also to live them in their day-to-day interactions with other people at camp, it could model a meaningful Judaism that campers could take with them for the other 10 months of the year. That would truly be a transformative experience.


One thought on “Camp Ramah: The First 100 Days

  1. Aron and Allen,

    As a second year staff member, I had the opportunity to arrive at camp early to help with setup. During that time it’s basically just Hanhallah and a few other staff members, along with maintenance and kitchen staff. In that smaller community (and without large groups of other people to hang out with) I found it much easier to connect with those staff members who aren’t normally part of the community in the same way. As the community grows, it becomes easier to leave people outside of it.

    I found a similar experience in college – at schools with smaller Jewish communities, those communities are inevitably much more inclusive. At schools with larger communities, it’s easier to subdivide and exclude people.

    Perhaps it’s just a function of camp being so large. I’d be curious to know how Ramah Galim fares in this area.


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