This past weekend, OJC’s rabbis, cantor, and youth director attended a celebration for Ramah Day Camp in Nyack (the place that introduced us to each other!) and its director, Amy Skopp Cooper, who is entering her 18th year in the role. The hall was filled with some of the Conservative movement’s finest young rabbis, innovative educators, and budding leaders, all of whom have received a piece of their training at camp. While Ramah as the camping arm of Conservative Judaism is certainly one of the brightest spots among our achievements, and a major factor in shaping and ensuring our children’s future Jewish identities, it has also been crucial in shaping the leadership of our movement. Most synagogue success stories will include in their narratives the profound effect that Ramah’s model of experiential education has had on clergy, educators and youth leaders. The experience of a camp Shabbat is something we all try to replicate for our synagogue communities, and those synagogues with engaging and participatory services usually point to the Ramah model as a major part of that success.
For our own synagogue, Ramah has deeply influenced our professional leadership and the way we try to educate. We have been blessed with some marvelous rabbinic interns over the past 12 years; most of them have come to us with Ramah experience that has enabled them to offer creative programming and to transition with ease into the role of educators in our synagogue, and later in synagogues of their own. Our award-winning youth program is directed by a long-time Ramah division head. We take great pride in our religious school and our youth programs, and it is no coincidence that the leaders among our youth in both of those settings usually have had some Ramah experience as part of their resumes. We are blessed to be able to boast of dozens of campers and staff members in our synagogue community who have attended and worked at Ramah camps, and our services and programs have benefited immensely from their experiences, their comfort level in leading prayer, and their love for Jewish community.
I believe that the future success of the Conservative movement will largely depend upon the extent to which the the Ramah educational model will be utilized in our synagogue communities for our children, our families, and our adult educational experiences. Camp Ramah has the advantage of a unique eight-week laboratory every summer in which Jewish educational experiences can be offered to learners of every age. If given the opportunity and support to work in partnership with our other institutions (including our synagogues, Schechter day schools, USY, and Hillel), Ramah could serve as the primary educational resource for our schools, our youth groups, our family education, and our ongoing learning.
At the end of each of my summers at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, I would tell the college-age staff members that they had been trained to be our future builders, but that it would take work and determination on their part. Perhaps that was not fair of me; perhaps I have expected too much and offered too little. Instead of losing our most promising young leaders to communities with stronger senses of belonging and Jewish connection, it is time that we reclaim and promote our own, empower and support them, help them recreate their best Jewish moments and reshape our synagogues in their image. Ramah has already begun doing so through a variety of projects being heavily funded by major foundations. While there are few experiences as intense as a summer at camp, our congregational communities can become places of growth, of empowerment, of participation, of communal caring, and of holiness if we allow Ramah to serve as the model. Funders are apparently seeing the possibilities of what Ramah can do for the Jewish future. It is time for our synagogues communities to recognize the same potential, and to bring Ramah–and our Ramahniks–home at summer’s end.
Rabbi Craig Scheff