There was a Bar Mitzvah at a Ramah overnight camp a few weeks ago. That’s not unheard of, but it’s notable considering current debates on the role, worth and nature of Jewish education.
Josh Eakman turned 13 just as his session at Ramah Outdoor Adventure at Ramah in the Rockies was winding down. Instead of waiting for his Bar Mitzvah at home in Las Vegas early next year, he pushed to study at camp and, in this special case, read from the Torah in a bucolic camp environment surrounded by close friends unknown to him just a few weeks earlier, and family members who drove up for the occasion.
Beyond the joy of this simcha, taking place as it did at Ramah’s newest camp, the whole episode underscores the unique way that Jewish camping environments solidify Jewish identity, observance and enduring commitment to community.
The evidence goes far beyond this one camper, who, by the way, left camp desiring to spend the rest of the summer learning Hebrew.
A survey by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University last fall of 2,500 parents of summer 2009 Ramah campers revealed that social connections, personal growth and Jewish and Zionist development and identification were among the major takeaways of their child’s camp experience. Social connections – whether to fellow campers, counselors or other camp personnel – and their potential for longevity and lifelong Jewish imprint, topped the list.
As I spent this summer on the road, visiting Ramah’s eight overnight camps and three day camps from coast to coast, as well as hundreds of teens in the Ramah Israel Seminar, I was heartened by these findings because during my visits I witnessed the formation of bonds and immersion into Jewish life that will ensure our community’s continuity into a new generation. Jewish camping, especially the Ramah style of immersive Jewish living and learning, produces committed young Jews, making Jewish choices throughout their adulthood, and serving as future Jewish leaders.
All of this is taking place in camping environments that are innovative and experimental in approach. Ramah and those who are supporting us – such as the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Covenant Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Foundation for Jewish Camp – recognize the imperative of veteran organizations to find new and innovative tacks for participation and effective, long-term engagement.
Ramah Outdoor Adventure at Ramah in the Rockies, combining elements of environmental education, Jewish life and learning, and wilderness skills, is in its inaugural season and is positioned in a region historically underserved by organized Jewish camping. The emergence of this camp is a great symbol of the growth and innovation of the entire Ramah camping movement, and is an inspiring development for the Conservative Movement and the Jewish community. This, for sure, is just one example.
It is a given that those of us in leadership positions in established and upcoming Jewish organizations are committed to solidifying and growing Jewish identification, lives and community. Reaching our youngest generation is not an option; it is an urgency.
So why has Jewish camping traditionally been on the lower rungs of the communal agenda? Based on evidence – anecdotal and proven – that Jewish camping matters and is a potent strategy, it is great that more funders are recognizing the critical value of intensive Jewish summer camping for Jewish identity formation, and we hope more will take notice.
It’s the evergreen debate about the efficacy of formal education versus informal education, and whether funding, support and emphasis should be on Jewish schools or Jewish camps.
But these are false choices, for the most effective approach is to create a continuum of intense Jewish exposures throughout the year, not just during the academic months or the camping season. All of us must recognize that summer is a critical time for Jewish growth, in partnership with other experiences that take place during the school year.
The Ramah Fellowship program, now in formation, would do just that. The idea is to create a national cohort of post-college Ramah senior staff who will bring Ramah-style Jewish educational and engagement programs to children, teens, and families in schools and other Jewish institutions across the country.
If the goal remains the strengthening of Jewish identity among our up and coming generation, then the impact of informal, experiential approaches exhibited by Ramah and other camping movements adhering to immersion and experimentation must continue to receive support, notice and credit.
The Jewish camping season goes by in a flash, so let’s not ignore the critical, positive power of it for our youth and the long-term vitality of our community.
Rabbi Mitch Cohen is director of the National Ramah Commission.