Environmental Learning: Why A Liberal Rabbi Is Hopeful

Environmental Learning: Why A Liberal Rabbi Is Hopeful


This is the word I would use to describe my primary Jewish community. Many might wonder how a liberal Conservative Rabbi could use such a positive word given the recent Pew study that many say predict the demise of liberal forms of Judaism (especially the Conservative Movement).

To those people, I would say, yes your concerns are valid when looking at the status quo within the broader American Jewish community. But I am a rabbi fortunate enough to be the head of an incredible summer camp, Ramah Outdoor Adventure at Ramah in the Rockies—a community that comes together physically for nine weeks a year and remains intact through various networks for the remaining forty-three weeks. In this community, Jewish learning and living are not only surviving, they are thriving. Young people embrace their Jewish identity and look for opportunities to celebrate it. We are reaching Jews, many of whom would not otherwise go to a Jewish camp.

We are not alone. There are over 150 Jewish camps in the country, and in most of these Judaism is enjoying a renaissance in a way most of the American Jewish Community can only dream about. So how are Jewish camps, like Ramah Outdoor Adventure, creating oases in our broader American society?

The answer lies in the educational principle taught by Peter Berger called “plausibility structures." According to Berger, if you want to make the impossible possible, then you must create a place where the improbable becomes probable. One does this by creating “legitimations”– creating an atmosphere that builds up the possibility of having certain outcomes.
Jewish summer camp provides numerous legitimations throughout the day to make one want to celebrate their Jewish identity and to go deeper into understanding our Jewish texts, values and traditions. 

Summer camps achieve this goal by creating a schedule that revolves around Jewish time—from morning prayers to daily song sessions to discussions and activities that challenge children to think deeper about their relationship to Judaism.  At Ramah Outdoor Adventure, we hire Jewish role models, most in their early 20s, who are on their own spiritual and religious journeys and are instructed to be open with their campers about their own struggles and triumphs in internalizing and reconciling their Jewish identities with their American identities.  

We choose specific moments to infuse Jewish teachings in the lives of our campers. For example, when we want to teach the Jewish concept of kedusha (holiness) we might do so after an early morning hike to a beautiful vista where we are looking out over a mountain valley.  It is hard not to have a feeling of awe in such a place! When we learn about tzar baalei chaim (being kind to animals) we do so while taking care of our myriad of animals from our dogs to our horses to our alpacas. Children learn that rising early to feed ones animals is an inherently Jewish task.

So why the sense of hope?

It comes after reading the recent release of the Jewish Outdoor Food and Environmental Education (JOFEE) study recently published by Hazon and the Jim Joseph Foundation.  Ramah Outdoor Adventure is a key player in this broader Jewish environmental movement—and one of the only organizations surveyed located to the West of the Mississippi River, but with a large percentage who reside in the New York Metro area. Our campers and staff live daily in close contact with the natural world around them. We practice a Judaism that sees environmental living and learning as core to who we are as people. Most of our staff, fall into the group surveyed who say that they express their Judaism through their efforts to live intentional Jewish lives in concert with the natural world around them. Most of our older campers and staff fall into the 70% of JOFEE participants who refer to themselves as “leaders” in the Jewish world.

Like we do in summer camps, JOFEE programs create legitimations to form a community of people that care deeply about the environment, want to affect real change in their community and are seeking meaningful ways to connect these values to their broader Jewish identities. The plausibility structures in JOFFEE communities inspire participants to take the lessons learned in their immersive experiences and apply their lessons back in their home communities. I have heard from our campers and staff how they have left our program and spent more time on their bikes, become involved in their community’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs and started/improved recycling program at their school(s).  The lessons learned continue to be passed on.

So here I am, the director of Ramah Outdoor Adventure, already having seen first-hand how hundreds of lives have been changed for the better, already seeing how young adults have made new inroads into the Jewish community because of our camp.  And I see how we are moving towards another year with record enrollment of campers, hiring more staff than ever before and moving into providing additional programs for families and adults to experience Jewish living and learning in the outdoors.  And so yes, I am left with an overwhelming feeling of hope.

A longtime Boy Scout and camp counselor, Rabbi Eliav Bock is the director of the Conservative movement’s Ramah Outdoor Adventures.

read more: