In typical Camp Ramah style, the event began with songs and cheers — Berkshires! Poconos! Rockies! — as alumni from camps in those idyllic summer spots raised their voices high.
But it wasn’t long before veterans of the Conservative movement’s camping arm were treading over political terrain as potentially perilous as those mountain ranges. In fact, the new discussion over Ramah’s educational programming around Israel — including whether or not to use the emotionally freighted term “occupation” — reflected the movement’s high-wire act on Israel, a balancing not necessarily faced by either the Reform or Orthodox movements.
About 40 Ramah alumni gathered last Thursday night at Congregation Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side to hear the results of a private meeting between 15 Ramah alumni and leaders of the National Ramah Commission. The topic of discussion was how Ramah teaches about modern Israel, which some Ramah alumni believe has unjustly excluded the Palestinian narrative.
The meeting followed a campaign begun in the fall by Ramah alums in conjunction with IfNotNow, a U.S.-based progressive Jewish group that opposes Israel’s presence in the West Bank. (On its website, the group says, “We do not take a unified stance on BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel], Zionism or the question of statehood.”) The campaign, which largely played out in public protests and online testimonials posted with the hashtag #YouNeverToldMe, focused on stories in which alumni of youth groups and camps were taught about Israel without hearing about Israel’s West Bank policies, or even hearing the word “occupation.” The alumni urged Ramah leadership to include the word “occupation” in its Israel programming and to talk about its moral implications with campers, just as it teaches campers about other Jewish moral values.
“This isn’t about a difference of opinion, it’s about omitting a part of history,” said Ilana Levinson, one of the 15 former Ramah campers who met with Ramah leadership last week at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “Ramah cannot out of one side of its mouth say here, liberal values, treat your neighbor how you want to be treated, and then on the other side of its mouth never talk about the occupation of Palestinians.”
For years, Jewish organizations have poured resources into fighting the BDS movement and criticism aimed at the Jewish state by outside groups. But a trickier challenge, and a more nuanced argument, may be coming from some of the community’s most engaged youth. These young leaders are contesting the status quo of what they see as acceptance of Israel’s “moral disaster” in its treatment of the Palestinians. Ramah has recently found itself in a difficult position as it grapples with the political views of some of its more liberal campers and staff.
For Rabbi Mitch Cohen, executive director of the National Ramah Commission, the purpose of Ramah is not to wade into Israeli politics. “We’re not in the business of setting public policy, or trying to influence public policy,” said Cohen. “We’re an educational institution; we start from being a mission-oriented camp, a Zionist camp, a camp that wants all of our kids to love Israel.”
At the public meeting, Rebecca Millberg shared her experience as a former camper and staff member during what her Wisconsin camp referred to as “Israel Week.” She wanted to run a program about the occupation, but without resources or support from camp leadership was unable to do so. “I felt I had failed my campers, that they were going to go out into the world and feel they had been lied to,” she said.
Other stories, shared at the public meeting and in online posts, included accounts from alumni of the TRY high school semester in Israel program and Ramah Seminar, a summer program. The alumni accounts recalled having to participate in a Shabbat in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank or having to participate in Gadna, an Israeli army boot camp that is meant to mimic the experiences of Israel soldiers and culminates with learning how to shoot a rifle. In a video posted on social media, one former camper asked how Ramah could reconcile its support of campers participating in last week’s March For Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., in support of gun control while bringing campers to Gadna on Ramah’s Israel Seminar every year.
Of course, not all Ramah alumni have been supportive of the IfNotNow campaign. But many of those who have been critical of IfNotNow have focused on its methods, in which it originally refused to meet with Rabbi Cohen when it began in the fall, rather than its aims.
“I think Ramah could do more to teach about the occupation … that could fit into the broader educational mission,” said Josh Cooper, a former Ramah camper currently living in Israel. “But I don’t think the majority of my friends feel that deep frustration and anger that I saw that was motivating this protest.”
While the meeting did not appear to result in any major changes to this summer’s programming, the Ramah alumni left expressing optimism that the Ramah leadership had understood their goals.
“They committed to move,” said Toby Rae Irving, one of the leaders of the campaign, who told The Jewish Week that Rabbi Cohen emphasized “staff training and changing curricula” as areas in which Ramah can begin to improve its Israel education. “They are uniquely positioned to change the way the Jewish community talks about Israel and about Palestinians, and I do believe that they heard us and I believe that we’re loud enough to make sure that they move.”
In an email with The Jewish Week after the meeting, Rabbi Cohen affirmed his commitment to discuss creating a broader Israel curriculum with Ramah directors and senior educators, “with the goal of providing our teens and staff members at our camps and Israel programs with a full range of opinions on the conflict.
“I agreed that educators at Ramah camps who espouse pro-Israel feelings should be able to share this narrative with our teens and staff members, as long as they understand that others with different opinions (more center and right) will also be allowed to educate according to their beliefs and interpretations of the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” he wrote.
But on one of the central issues for the Ramah alumni, obtaining a commitment to a frank discussion of Israel’s occupation with campers, the alumni were not fully satisfied. Rabbi Cohen wrote in an email, “There is no specific policy on the use of the word ‘occupation’ in Ramah’s educational materials.” He noted that the word had been used by educators in the past and could continue to be used.
“He used the term capital O occupation,” said Irving of the meeting with Rabbi Cohen. “He really lives in this active Jewish leadership where occupation is primarily a political term thrown around by Americans. And what we know is we’re just trying to reflect reality by using that word, and we felt him come up short of that commitment.”
“Outside of the Jewish community, it’s common knowledge that Israel is an occupier, and it’s just not something that we really assume in the Jewish community,” said Sylvie Rosen, a longtime Ramah camper and staffer who will be returning to the Ramah Rockies staff this summer.
The alumni emphasized their place in the ranks of Ramah’s most dedicated core, with two of the 15 alumni at the meeting returning to camp as staff this summer.
“All of us in the meeting tonight are Ramah alumni, and we all hold it as an institution really close to our hearts,” said Joe Ornstein, a former camper at Ramah New England.
“If you have a population of campers who are deeply committed to camp who are saying they want to understand more about Israel, in my mind that’s a good thing,” said Joshua Ladon, West Coast director of education at Shalom Hartman Institute and a former dean of the Jewish Community High School in the Bay Area. “If campers and staff are saying we want our education and experience to reflect our reality when we’re out of camp, that probably means you have an engaged population of participants.”
Said Ilana Levinson: “Ramahniks are Ramahniks; we’ll come back to our community — we love our community, we have to be able to be our full selves in our community. This is an issue that Ramah can take on; we know they can do it.”