Those of us who have grown up in the Conservative movement have heard the conventional wisdom for years — Camp Ramah is the best and most successful program that the movement ever developed. We would even hear this from Jews across the spectrum who admire with envy this jewel of a program that formed lifetime bonds among alumni and created a community of knowledgeable, proud, energized, committed, Zionist young Jews.
Ramah transformed countless lives of children, young adults and, through them, countless families and communities. So why should our movement today be in crisis and facing an unsure future?
When Ramah was started in 1948, its mission was to create an elite Jewish leadership group. Ramah exceeded its goals, developing an enormous number of professional and lay leaders and an alumni base, which formed the core constituencies of the most committed Conservative communities around the country.
So when we had this tremendously successful program of Ramah churning out future leaders, where did we fall short? And maybe we also need to ask: Why have we as a movement squandered the obvious opportunity to grow Ramah to far greater numbers? Further, facing the realities today, how do we use this most successful model of Ramah to revive and revitalize a potentially vibrant and thriving movement?
We all readily acknowledge that immersion programs of informal education that create joyous relationships to one’s Judaism and Jewish lifestyle like Ramah are the ones that succeed. But the impact we need to correct the downward trend requires many, many more children and young adults than the numbers we encounter today. We too easily pat ourselves on the back, noting proudly that we serve 750 children each summer at Ramah Berkshires, barely reaching 5 percent of the potential population of the New York and New Jersey communities. One could only imagine where we might find ourselves if over the last 25 years we had increased that amount tenfold. Imagine if that were also true for the regions being served by the other six Ramah camps around the country.
I would therefore suggest that our response requires a new mission for Ramah. Whereas Ramah created many “leaders” but few “followers,” I would propose that its mission today must consist of drastically building the increasing numbers we need for a future movement to be empowered to build upon itself.
Although the solution may sound simple, the task is not. It requires us to radically rethink and reimagine the current synagogue education model. Such a task requires great financial investment by our movement’s institutions into the Jewish camp sector.
To attract the numbers I am suggesting will require many new camps and new sites. To maintain a competitive edge, it will require staffing and programs and facilities of excellence. We will need to find more access points to the Ramah experience, for example, through winter vacation week camps and Pesach family camps in the Ramah model. We need to be active partners with the Jewish Theological Seminary in order to be the face of Jewish education for our movement, expanding the Ramah Service Corps currently serving in our synagogues and schools throughout the year. And we need to be active partners with the Rabbinical Assembly in order to create and validate synagogue alternatives to Hebrew schools through Ramah camping.
Let us think creatively and open our minds to other possibilities. Imagine the dramatic change we might see if instead of the typical Hebrew school model, synagogues offered the positive, inspiring and spirited Jewish summer camp experience as its educational output, supplemented throughout the year by occasional Ramah-style Shabbat programming and a class trip to Israel. Camping costs for a month are roughly equivalent to a year’s tuition for Hebrew school. Imagine if instead of subsidizing Hebrew schools, synagogues subsidized Jewish camp experiences. Talk about cost benefit…
As Ramah has been reaching full enrollment as early as November each year, we are already turning away countless numbers of children each summer. Will they be lost to us forever because we did not have the will and commitment to accommodate them? Let us not make the mistakes we made 25 years ago when we paid little attention and responded so poorly to the clear warning we received about our future.
This is my dream that inspires my passion for camp, shapes my vision and guides my agenda and goals: reaching every possible family and creating a camp of extraordinary excellence. It may seem insurmountable. But we will not have a second chance 10 or 20 years from now. Therefore, it is imperative to pursue this path in order to give us a fighting chance to build back our movement and to ensure a future for the shrinking “big center” of American Jewry. I fully believe that such a radical shift in thinking and in action would bring about dramatic change in Jewish life. By transforming the lives of our children and young adults, we will transform their families, our communities, our movement, and ultimately the Jewish people.
Hugh Pollack is president of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.