When Gabe Scott-Dicker, 30, lost his mother last year, he found him-self wondering where he was going to say Kaddish.
Like most in his generation, he does not belong to a synagogue. Raised in West Caldwell, New Jersey, and now living in Manhattan, he visited many and felt welcomed by all. But none of them felt quite right. “What I really wanted was that feeling you get at camp,” he realized. “I wanted that Friday night Camp Ramah experience again.” Out of that realization was born the Ramah Minyan, started by Gabe and fellow Camp Ramah in New England alumni Jenna Silverman and Allison Moser. They reached out to friends hailing from all the Ramah camps, and held their first service last February in a space provided by Park Avenue Synagogue. That Shabbat, 165 young adults in their 20s and 30s attended; on weeks when dinner is served, more than 200 come. While a core of regulars is emerging, the number of newcomers continues to climb as the Ramah Minyan meets every other Friday night.
“What’s amazing is that many of these are not people you’d ever see going to Shabbat services otherwise,” said Rabbi Ed Gelb, director of Camp Ramah in New England, looking at the list of his former campers on the Ramah Minyan roster.
Meanwhile, 23- year old Talia Spitzer moved to Dallas for a new job. She knew no one, but soon discovered that as she met new people, the ones she felt the most immediate connection to all had one thing in common: Ramah. An alumna of Camp Ramah in California, she organized an after work evening at a lounge for young adult Ramah alumni and their friends. “I hope that Ramah alumni know that now there is a community for them in Dallas,” she said. “And that if you ever end up in a city in which you have never stepped foot, as I did, chances are there will be a Ramah network there to support you.”
That is Reshet Ramah’s mission: to use the power and passion of the existing Ramah alumni network to increase adult Jewish engagement and create stronger, more vibrant Jewish communities. (Reshet in Hebrew means “network.”) Funded by a grant from The AVI CHAI Foundation and the Maimonides Fund, with additional sup-port from the Jim Joseph Foundation and a number of local funders in various cities, it is a grand experiment, one that stands to make a real impact on the fabric of the Conservative movement and the North American Jewish community as a whole.
It is a bold step for the 68 -year-old Ramah system. Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism, boasts eight overnight camps, five day camps, the Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY) high school semester in Israel, the Ramah Seminar summer experience in Israel, and the Ramah Israel Institute travel program for schools, synagogues and family groups. Last summer more than 10,500 individuals (counting both campers and staff) participated in Ramah programs. This number is on the upswing: Camp Ramah in New England recently added two new bunks to accommodate increased demand, Camp Ramah in California will add a new edah (age division) next summer, Camp Ramah in the Rockies has grown to full capacity after only five years of operation, and the newest Ramah overnight camp is set to open next summer in northern California.
Clearly Ramah knows how to run great camps. But what does that have to do with stepping into the current trend of Jewish engagement work?
We estimate that there are approximately 250,000 “Ramahniks,” as alumni like to call themselves. When the 2013 Pew Survey of Jewish Americans was published and quantified what every rabbi and Jewish educator could have told you – that affiliation rates are plummeting, that millennials don’t want to belong to institutions built by previous generations, that only 33 percent of American Jews between the ages of 18 to 29 state that being Jewish is “very important” to them – the time seemed ripe for Ramah to leverage the positive emotional impact of its brand and augment the good work being done by synagogues and so many in the community.
To be sure, Reshet Ramah is still in the entrepreneurial, experimental stage, and its mission is not limited solely to millen-nials. As Joel Einleger, Director of Strat-egy, Camp Programs, at The AVI CHAI Foundation observed when the project was announced, “Reshet Ramah will seize the opportunity to build a stronger movement from the huge numbers of alumni of the Ramah camps across North America…that will in effect extend the experience begun in a Ramah camp years or even decades earlier.” In other words, the bonds built at camp really do last a lifetime, and the hope is that through Reshet Ramah those bonds will be nur-tured at various stages of life beyond the camper years.
The initial start-up phase was about building infrastructure, such as the creation of the Find Alumni Directory, and the Reshet Ramah website, www.reshetramah.org with stories of alumni marriages, reflections, accounts from olim, and news of upcoming events. The camps needed time to think through the impact of a national-level alumni initiative and how their own individual alumni associations would connect to that. And then there were people to galvanize, a board to establish, and programs to begin to imagine and build. Two years into the endeavor, we feel that Reshet Ramah is starting to see real traction.
What we are finding is that there is nothing cookie-cutter about this work. As we seed garinim, councils of alumni in cities across North America and Israel, each group is empowered to create its own programs with its own ideas. In San Francisco, the garin has leaned toward “boutique” events: Shabbat dinner at an art gallery, a kosher wine tour. In Washington, DC, the kick-off was a Chanukah party at someone’s home. In New York, the garin has created a mix of social and religious programming. For example, last Purim, 120 people attended a Reshet Ramah megillah reading and open mic night at a stand-up comedy club, and the following Saturday night 240 turned out for a Purim-themed costume party at a club downtown.
Other initiatives, like the launch last spring of RamahDate in partnership with JDate, Reshet Ramah trips to Poland for adults or the Israel Bike Ride and Hiking Trip to support special needs programs at Ramah, are staff-driven and marketed to the Ramah alumni community. Partnerships are crucial, especially with synagogues and other community organizations also involved in this work. Since its launch, Reshet Ramah has sponsored more than 70 events in 30 cities involving nearly 2,000 unique individuals.
“One of the real gems of the Conservative movement is our camps,” said Sheldon Disenhouse, president of the National Ramah Commission and a member of the Reshet Ramah board. “Ramah is well-poised to harness the Jewish joy and connection that comes from camp and can bring it back to people well after the camp years.”
“If we are successful,” added Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director, “we will have changed the fabric of the community, offering another layer of options for Jews, young and old, looking for meaningful Jewish connection at various stages of their lives.”