Camp Fosters Community

REBECCA KAHN asks what we can do to get more Conservative kids to Jewish camps

by Rebecca Kahn

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Over the past few months, it seems that every time I open my inbox I see an announcement from the National Ramah Commission about a new grant it has received.

This is no accident. For more than 60 years, the Ramah camps have been leaders in Jewish camping. They have pushed the field to bring the best in Jewish education into camp, in both professional development and programming. The eight Ramah camps have set the standard for ongoing leadership development of its staff and campers. This year, the Ramah camps have been awarded two important grants. One of them is a $1.8 million grant from the Avi Chai Foundation and the Maimonides Foundation that will fund an alumni program called Reshet Ramah. Another grant from Avi Chai, this time of $144,000, is to fund training opportunities for camp specialists at Ramah camps as well as the camps run by the Union for Reform Judaism.

I went to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires for nine summers, and I credit my experience as a camper, staff member, and executive leader on the alumni association board to my being where I am today, both personally and professionally. My commitment and involvement in Jewish life and the Conservative movement is a direct byproduct of Ramah, Solomon Schechter day school, and my family. I have spent the past eight years as a Jewish professional, working to engage children and young adults in Jewish life through Israel programs and Jewish summer camp.

This March my extended camp family, and I had to grapple with the sudden death of our friend, Eric Steinthal. I looked around the room at his funeral and was struck by the power of my Ramah community – we grieved together, celebrated his life together, and I hope provided some comfort to his family, his fiancée, and his inner circle of Ramah friends. It was strange and comforting to be surrounded by this amazing extended camp family grieving and crying instead of laughing and dancing, which we do each year at Camp Ramah’s Labor Day Alumni Weekend.

According to the National Ramah Commission, fewer than 10 percent of eligible Conservative movement-affiliated children go to a Ramah camp. If camp creates community, then we all should rise to the challenge of helping create more community for more of our children. We know that when children go to camps whose values and philosophy are deeply rooted in Jewish life, the odds that those children will become adults who participate in the Jewish world and identify with it are greatly increased. That is why we need to grow the number of children enrolling in this transformative experience.

Ramah is an extraordinary place. It nurtures leaders for the Conservative movement.

We also know that not every family can imagine or will want its children to grow up to become rabbis, teachers, or Jewish communal professionals. I think Ramah is the best but it is not for everyone. It might sound heretical, but not all Conservative Jews want their children praying daily, engaging in Jewish text-based study, or being immersed in a religious setting during summer vacation. And whether we agree or disagree, isn’t it our collective responsibility to make sure that these families find an appropriate Jewish community for their children over the summer? As a community we have to grow Ramah participation – but we also can’t give up on the other children of our movement.

Is it possible to develop summer experiences that meet Conservative Jews where they are in their observance, not where we think they ought to be? A place where they can explore their Judaism? Is there room for a different brand of Conservative camps that would reach more of our constituents? There are plenty of excellent Jewish mission-driven camps that meet the standards of the Conservative movement’s membership; do we have an obligation to promote these camps to our families alongside Ramah to make sure that every child has a rich Jewish summer experience?

By neglecting to engage in a larger conversation about Jewish overnight camps and other Jewish summer opportunities, are we simply giving up on the majority of families who send their children to secular overnight camps (which generally tend to attract lots of Jewish kids) and missing an important opportunity to engage these families in a meaningful way? To ensure the future of this vitally important movement, to which I am proud to belong, we need more than 10 percent of our children going to Jewish camps each summer, whether those camps are Ramah, another Conservative movement camp, or other Jewish missiondriven camps.

We need more opportunities to engage all Jewish children in Jewish camping. Every family should have a strong community so they too can celebrate joy and share loss together. Jewish summer camp is a great way to develop our community.

Rebecca Kahn graduated from Tufts University in 2003 and has an M.A. in public administration and nonprofit management from the NYU Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.