Building Campus Community

The Ramah College Network creates opportunities for staff and alumni to connect year-round

by Marla Cohen

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NYU_Ramahniks_at_ReunionDinnerSpring-2014

Adina Allen is a Camp Ramah poster child. She spent six summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin as a camper and as many summers since on staff.

This was her second summer as a rosh edah (division head). In her “off season,” Allen tries to connect with those counselors who, like she, attend Washington University in St. Louis.

“We have an active Ramah network here at Wash U,” she says. “It’s nice to bring them back to a place that has been so integral to their Jewish identity.” She estimates there are about 50 former Ramah campers on campus, almost half of whom return to camp as staff members.

Not all are as hyper-connected Ramahniks as Allen. But they are part of a community looking to connect beyond online social networks. By providing opportunities within a Ramah-like setting, the National Ramah Commission (NRC) hopes to extend alumni and staff member links to the camp that gave them such a strong Jewish identity.

In Allen’s case, a grant from the NRC enabled her to organize a Ramah Shabbat on campus. “The Ramah vibe was very present throughout the entire evening,” she says. “Everyone could relate to bringing the energy and spirit of camp to a cold December in St. Louis.”

The NRC is interested in having a college presence “for a couple of reasons, but primarily to show young staff that we care about them,” says Rabbi Ami Hersh, NRC programming associate, who provides educational planning and oversight for Ramah’s eight overnight and four day camps. “Ramah can play an ongoing role in the shaping of their Jewish future,” says Hersh, who is also the assistant director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, New York. “We want them to feel supported.”

Outreach began in earnest about a decade ago and has intensified in recent years. Each summer, the Ramah College Network updates data on more than 1,000 alumni at more than 200 colleges and universities. Prospective students and their parents can get a handle on what kind of Ramah presence exists on campus, as well as a general sense of the Jewish ta’am, or flavor, of schools they are considering. Schools with deep Ramah connections include University of Michigan, Brandeis, Binghamton University, Indiana University, University of Maryland, Western University (formerly University of Western Ontario), and Washington University.

This year, the Ramah Camping Movement is piloting several new campus initiatives. The Ramah Service Corps will run programs with the Hillel centers at the University of Michigan and Indiana University. Camp Ramah in California will partner with the Hillel at the University of California, Berkeley, to launch the Hillel Ramah Fellowship translating the Jewish living experience and leadership skills learned at camp for the campus community.

The NRC also provides small grants that alumni can use for programming or learning. There have been dance festivals and havdalah programs as well as many Shabbat dinners. “But it has to be more than people just eating together,” Hersh notes. “There has to be real Jewish content.” The NRC received 15 proposals for programs this year.

Even though Americans might not think of Western University (in London, Ontario) as being a “Jewish” campus, it is actually one of the largest Ramah schools in North America, with 65 alumni on campus. According to Hersh, Ramah hosted a very successful Shabbaton there.

In his book, Relational Judaism, Ron Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University, describes how difficult it is for Jewish institutions to engage people as they transition from one life stage to another, and notes the one from high school to college is no different.

“I would think that Ramah has done a better job than most in retaining engagement of teenagers who have come through the ranks, become counselors and then head of edot during college,” he writes in an email. “This reflects the extraordinary loyalty and pull of the camp.”

Nonetheless, Ramah, like other organizations, can no longer assume that even engaged teens want to connect once they are in college. Working outside of organizations such as Hillel and providing incentives for engagement go a long way toward allowing students to own their Judaism and invent something they want to be a part of, he says.

“It cannot be a ’business as usual’ model, a programmatic model, a membership model, what feels like more of the same,” writes Wolfson.

To that end, the Ramah College Network has made outreach key. Aviva Millstone, the assistant director of Camp Ramah in Canada, toured three campuses – Western University and Queens University in Ontario, and McGill University in Montreal – simply to make alumni and staff feel part of Ramah, even in the offseason. “We want to retain them and we want them to know that we’ll be there for them,” she says. “We want to keep camp on their minds throughout the year.”

This year’s Shabbaton at Western University included Shabbat dinners in student homes. There was some learning, and, of course, singing. According to Orli Bogler, the school “is full of Ramah kids and we’re all very connected.” She became a Ramah camper as soon as she was eligible, when she was seven years old. This will be her third summer working as a counselor at Ramah Canada.

Ramah works with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life at various colleges, says Hersh. At the University of Maryland, Hillel connects with alumni and staff and often coordinates Shabbat dinners.

University of Maryland student Aryeh Kalender, whose father, a Conservative rabbi, and mother both attended Ramah camps, has worked at Camp Ramah in New England (where his mother also works) for the past four summers. He explains that the challenges at Maryland are unique. The Jewish presence is large, and “Jewish life is not hard to find.” Kalender says they are trying to create a more pluralistic environment, “But it’s up to each person to connect.”

Kalender has become involved in Ometz, a student group focusing on Conservative, egalitarian davening. Using Kalender’s Ramah connections, Ometz planned a Shabbat dinner and extravaganza that attracted 80 people. As at Western University, the dinners took place in student apartments both on and off campus, and afterward, everyone came together for an oneg. The evening received funding from the National Ramah Commission as well as several other Jewish organizations.

Kalender says, “So many people I talk to say that once their camp or their USY experience is done, they don’t have an outlet that is egalitarian and exciting. Ramah has the chance to provide this kind of experience. It’s a great opportunity for Ramah and the movement.”

Marla Cohen is communications manager for JCC Association and an award-winning writer. Her work appears at www.marlaecohen.com.