Before I begin, let me make it clear that the opinions expressed below are purely of my own accord, and as such, I do not speak for any larger organization other than myself.
Furthermore, it is essential to understand that I am writing this article from the perspective of a staff member. And lastly, it is important to note that I have worked for several organizations that are related to the one which I will discuss below. Thus, to eliminate any confusion, concerns, or otherwise, it is important for me to be frank in that I worked for Ramah in the Berkshires in 2012, and United Synagogue Youth (USY) Summer Programs in 2013, 2014, and 2015.”
Hidden among Colorado’s vast Rocky Mountain ranges, lies a Jewish summer camp under the auspices of the Ramah Camping Movement – Ramah in the Rockies.
I have only been working at Ramah in the Rockies for about two weeks, yet I have already observed that this camp is unlike any other summer camp or program I have worked for. That being said, I am going to be honest and critical in my reflections, -as Rabbi Eliav Bock, director at Ramah in the Rockies, gave me the go-ahead to do so- Ramah in the Rockies is not perfect; but what Jewish summer camp is? Rest assured, I have loved my time here thus far. In none of my other staffing positions have I ever felt like the organization’s administrative leaders cared as much about my personal growth as I do here.
Moreover, my co-staff, are all amazing individuals who have been hand selected, based not only on their ability to work with young adults, but also on their capacity to grow Jewishly alongside the campers they care for. This, for me, is extraordinary; Ramah in the Rockies does not just seek out staff who can merely take care of children. They hire staff who are passionate, well-rounded, and are on Jewish journeys just like their campers are.
And I could write an entirely separate post on the ruach -the spirit- of tefillah at camp, especially during Shabbat – in fact there is a good chance that may happen by summer’s end.
Now for my critique, let’s start simple; Ramah in the Rockies’ newly revised mission statement:
To nurture the character development of Jewish youth by providing them the opportunity to challenge themselves physically, intellectually, and spiritually.”
Let me just say, I love this! This is an excellent objective. My concern, however, is putting this mission into effect. I have noticed a few significant issues in the time that I have been here so far, which directly stand in opposition of the camp’s mission to challenge campers within the sphere of Judaism.
First is the problematic use of Hebrew on a day-to-day basis. The Ramah Camping Movement prides itself on the integration of the Hebrew language into their camps – and they are doing a fantastic job of doing just that. However, an issue arises when kids come to camp having little to no knowledge of the Hebrew language. After all, immersive language experiences only work as well as the individual’s prior experience.
I think it is wonderful that Ramah in the Rockies, and all of their fellow Ramah Camps, immerses their campers in Hebrew, but at a certain point the use of Hebrew becomes less of a learning opportunity and instead an obstacle.
For example, can it really be expected that a camper of middle school age, who has hardly any Hebrew learning experience, be able to understand: *“Anachnu b’amud tishi’m v’arba.” Then go and find that page, then find the correct place in that tefillah, which by that point is most likely more than halfway completed? Obviously, the answer is no, but for some reason this way of Hebrew immersion continues.
In a similar vein, another issue I have noticed thus far occurs during birkat hamzaon, grace after meals. In 2011, the National Ramah Commission published an updated version of their larger birkat booklet (containing birkat and other songs), called the Shireinu; Ramah in the Rockies uses this, it has no English and no transliteration. Furthermore, the trifold pamphlet, which Ramah uses most often for birkat, was last copyrighted in 1985, and likewise contains no translation or transliteration. And, on top of that, the pamphlet contains several variations of the birkat for various types of meals.
I myself have fallen victim to not knowing which version of the birkat we are saying, and I am someone who, as stated above, has been working with the Conservative Movement’s youth for years. In comparison, I would like to point out that USY currently uses a 2010 updated version of their birkat booklet, known as the B’kol Echad; it contains both transliteration and translations to English. And moreover, as an ironic side note, the Ramah shortened birkat and the USY shortened birkat are not consistent with each other; this in itself points to a much larger issue.
Thus, it is my assumption that if the National Ramah Commission had the funds to publish and distribute a siddur, that too would lack both English translation and transliteration – this, for me, is extremely problematic.
I understand that Judaism is a religion of both past and present, and that by keeping with our linguistic routes we are staying true to our traditions and Judaic ancestors. However, we are no longer living in a day and age where Hebrew is used colloquially outside of the camp environment, and the time to change that has long past.
In order to keep the youth engaged, we must provide them with the tools to linguistically connect with their heritage. If the average Israeli, using one of Ramah’s birkoniem, came across the word, **“she’chonantanu,” in the birkat, they most likely would not know what it meant. It is comparable to English speakers trying to read Shakespeare. So why is it ok to expect Ramah campers to use this word during tefillah without accompanying the text with at the very least translation?
I firmly believe in what the Conservative Movement is offering its youth, whether through Ramah or USY; both options are amazing and have proven to successfully cultivate young Jewish adults. However, the Conservative Movement needs to ensure that its youth continue to successfully be engaged. Leaving translation and transliteration out of the picture will only harm the Movement’s future. In general, the Movement’s future is in a precarious position, and I believe that abstaining from the inclusion of tools, which will only help engage the youth, is a grave mistake.
* Translation: “We are on page 94.” And, in addition, pages are usually not announced in English.
** Translation: “Bestowed upon us.”
To learn more about Ramah in the Rockies visit: Ramah in the Rockies