A Sprinkle of Camp

The new Ramah Service Corps brings counselors into synagogues to share some camp-style fun year round.

by Nancy Rosenberg

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Speaking with interns in the Ramah Service Corps is like being immersed in a giant bubble bath. Young adults in their late teens and early 20s, their enthusiasm for serving as camp ambassadors at synagogue schools is just that effervescent and buoyant.

Sarah Atterman, a former intern at B’nei Torah in Atlanta, raved about her fellow interns’ creativity: “The bar keeps getting raised for programs that people come up with.”

Since the 1940s, Ramah Camps have been a leading force in creating summer experiences that engage children spiritually, socially and physically and that establish a lifelong love of Judaism. For some time now, national camp directors have pondered how to sprinkle some “Ramah magic” into Conservative synagogues throughout the year.

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In 2010, aided by an Ignition Grant from the Covenant Foundation, Ramah leaders spent a year brainstorming the possibilities. According to Amy Skopp Cooper, director of Camp Ramah Nyack and associate director of the National Ramah Commission, the placement of Ramah leaders full-time into a congregational setting was a possibility, but an expensive one. Instead, Cooper and her fellow leaders recognized that the “dynamism of the young adult staff, along with their skills, is landscape changing.” Aided by support from the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the Ramah Service Corps was launched in 2011 with a program that embeds camp staff in congregations during the school year. The program encourages interns to promote Ramah-style experiential learning while giving the interns themselves a chance to lead and work in educational positions during the off-season from camp.

In 2012, Slingshot, an organization of young Jewish philanthropists, included the corps on its list of the 50 most innovative Jewish programs.

Now the service corps is set to expand thanks to a significant new grant – from an anonymous donor – that will fund a joint initiative by Ramah and the camping arm of the Union for Reform Judaism. The larger program will include the training and support of up to 80 camping staff alumni serving at Conservative and Reform congregations. Ramah and the URJ Camps will share administration, logistical and developmental aspects of the program, while maintaining individual supervision over their own service corps participants.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to significantly advance this program in partnership with URJ Camps,” said Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission. His URJ counterpart, Paul Reichenbach, said: “We are thrilled to have this extraordinary cross-movement opportunity to bring the excitement and magic of Jewish summer camp to synagogues across North America.”

One way to consider the corps’ success is to examine the number of kids inspired by the interns to enroll in Ramah and other Jewish camps. One hundred and two new campers from synagogues that had corps interns attended Jewish camps this past summer, although some of these may have signed up anyway.

At congregations like B’nai Torah in Boca Raton, Florida, such an uptick would be hard to discern because Education Director Cathy Berkowitz has also been head of education at Camp Ramah Darom for 17 years and already spearheads Ramah-style informal learning at the shul. Given that her school staff consists of “fellow travelers,” the impact of one additional intern is less about change than solidarity. Nonetheless, that intern, Marcy Morris, felt she had an impact. A music counselor, she relished the chance to introduce fun music programming into a religious school setting.

Even less camp-oriented congregations have shown a growing enthusiasm for Ramah. April Better was working at Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, California, before the corps began. When she arrived in 2008, one family sent its children to Ramah Ojai. Now Better, a recent college graduate, watches a growing stream of interest – currently seven or eight families have signed their children up for Ramah. She points out that having a teacher accompany kids to camp provides real value to the parents. They know “their kids are going to be in familiar hands. They’re sending them to a place with a familiar face, and there’s a piece of home away from home.” As for the kids, “they are excited to see me and
love having that connection.”

For Temple Emanu-El of Providence, Rhode Island, the challenge lay in finding a way to add Ramah programming into the mix of a busy multi-generational congregation. Miriam Abrams-Stark, director of congregational learning, and her interns have incorporated the Ramah style into extant programs. Abrams-Stark feels that Emanu-El’s support for Jewish camp is stronger than when she arrived 15 years ago, and her current intern, Hannah Glickman, has found satisfaction in her position. After Glickman led a campstyle children’s service, parents flocked to touch base with her about their own Ramah experiences.

Most of the interns spent years at Ramah, and many were already friends. But even if they didn’t know each other, once they attend a five-day training in Los Angeles, they are closely bonded. Marcy Morris pointed out that “adults need to put themselves in a mindset where they know how to play and understand that they are also learning. It’s learning how to play and how your teaching resonates with the students.” Michael Fingerman, a college junior, singled out a visit to the Zimmer Children’s Museum in L.A., a museum modeled on the immersive Jewish camp experience, as particularly inspirational. It “gave me a larger perspective about how what we’re doing at camp is molding the lives of campers and counselors.”

During the school year, webinars and breakout sessions keep the interns enthusiastic, inspired and connected. “The most important part is the planning and bouncing ideas off each other,” said Morris.

The interns create three camp-style programs during the year. Morris tried to put camp spark into each, developing different music programs and instilling learning by stealth. Israeli dancing, Better’s specialty, provided physical activity, spiritual connection and immersive learning. Atterman devised a range of programs, including Shabbaton weekends. In one activity, each grade created a song about Israel. When designing programs, Atterman aims for “deeper things in which kids are active participants.” At the Brachah Café, for instance, they order food using the correct brachah. For one of his programs, Fingerman ran a Pre-Passover chametz scavenger hunt.

In some instances, the internship has been life-altering. Atterman, a counselor at Ramah Darom and until recently a Jewish day school teacher, has been with both the corps and her shul long enough to be charged with overseeing new interns. She credits the Service Corps as the catalyst for her recent decision to work with Ramah full-time so she can share the magic with others. If the program’s goals were to ensure that young leaders remain devoted Ramah ambassadors and inspire some to become Jewish professionals, then the service corps has been a triumph.

Nancy Rosenberg is a writer in Brooklyn, New York.