Ramah Fosters Community

National Ramah Director RABBI MITCHELL COHEN is proud that Ramah accomplishes so much without sacrificing Jewish content

by Rabbi Mitchell Cohen

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Rebecca Kahn’s article on the need for all of us to encourage more children of Conservative affiliated families to attend Camp Ramah and other Jewish summer camps is to be applauded. Indeed, Rebecca echoes the sentiments of so many who praise our growth in recent decades and advocate for even more aggressive expansion.

We are proud of the last 20 years, when, in the face of declining demographics in the Conservative movement, Ramah has attracted and retained 30 percent more campers, so that we now host more than 9,000 children, teens, and young adults each summer. We have built new overnight camps (Ramah Darom in Georgia in 1997 and Ramah Outdoor Adventure in Colorado in 2010), opened new day camps (in Philadelphia and Chicago), and added capacity to our existing camps to make room for more children who come from a wide variety of educational and religious backgrounds. What makes us most proud, however, is that we have accomplished all this without compromising our commitment to the highest standards of intensive Jewish experiential education. This, I believe, is the source of the cohesive lifelong friendships and Jewish commitment that thousands of alumni cite as the legacy of Ramah, credited by so many as the source of the most positive and joyful Jewish experiences of their lives.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, recently wrote: “As Conservative leaders, it is hard to remember how to dream because our Jewish religious vision symbolizes something that the community knows is necessary but fears is unachievable. Miraculously, advocates and skeptics agree about Ramah. Let’s take yes for an answer. If we get behind an effort to dramatically grow the Ramah system, we will be surprised by who comes along with us.”

So my response is yes! Let’s all work together to radically increase the number of Conservative families attending Ramah and other camps that have strong programs of Jewish identity-building. And yes, let us continue to develop new and cutting-edge methods of teaching Jewish content, with the understanding that our families represent the broadest spectrum of Jewish practice and various levels of education.

But we can accomplish all this without sacrificing Jewish content. Ramah has shown that with the proper guidance from young role models, constant innovation, and tremendous care and sensitivity, we can indeed attract children from all levels of family observance and bring them, on their own path, to greater commitment to Judaism.

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The Conservative movement does not need any more attempts to attract more adherents by lowering expectations. Ramah is one of the movement’s success stories because we stand for something. We must be open to change, and our camps are centers of experimentation and innovation. The real challenge is to continue to grow and innovate, and to bring the Ramah experience to a wider percentage of North American Jewish families. Our professional and lay leaders strive to accomplish this every day. But we cannot do this alone. We call upon all our Conservative partners to heed Rebecca’s call for growth, but within a Ramah system that has proven itself over 65 years, is willing to answer the call for modernization and innovation, has attracted the support of the top foundations of Jewish life, and has maintained, not compromised, Jewish standards.

In his keynote speech at the 60th anniversary celebration of the Ramah camping movement in 2007, JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen said: “We need more Ramah, more camps, more campers, more leaders, more mitzvot, and more prayer that’s enlivened by the wholeness of self that comes about only in a camp setting…. I want to have more and more human beings at Ramah who understand the gift that they have been given, the ability to develop answers for themselves to the eternal questions of why the Jews, why Judaism, how to live Torah, how to partner with God. And to do all of this inside of the Jewish time and space, of wholeness and of joy that are not easily available elsewhere.”

Ramah looks forward to decades of growth, to bringing into our camps more families with an even wider spectrum of practice, and to our alumni continuing to strengthen our synagogues and schools, to help build a stronger Conservative movement and a brighter Jewish future.

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen is director of the National Ramah Commission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.