Send Your Child to a Jewish Summer Camp: Case Study – Camp Ramah

It’s summertime. Many parents send their children to generic camps specializing in sports, swimming, and the outdoors. This is an understandable and praiseworthy choice. Potentially much more transformative in the life of a child is a JEWISH summer camp! Jewish summer camp is not merely a worthy summertime activity, but it represents entry into a life-long journey. Jewish camping builds Jewish identity through immersion into an intensive Jewish community atmosphere. A full range of Jewish-content camps merit mention, e.g., Massad [Orthodox] or Camp Harlem [Reform], Tel Yehuda [Young Judea] or a sleepaway camp of the local Jewish Community Center and so forth.

Every parent should send his or her sons and/or daughters to a Jewish summer camp, year after year. The cumulative effect is profound. A 2017 study with over 5,260 respondents attested to the “long-term” impact of Ramah summers upon the lives of alumni.

Building Memories – Inspiring Jewish camp memories abound. Iconic author Chaim Potok z”l mused, “I remember my first Friday Evening Service at Ramah [Conservative]. I was not a newcomer to prayer… The entire camp gathered beneath a huge spreading shade tree. Garbed in white, we sat on benches that formed a semi-circle; a hushed throng, more than 300 people, here and there bathed in the final rays of the setting sun. Warm evening air, a breeze in the leaves, birdsong, and then the start of the service – a song softly sung by all about the setting sun and how we were going forth to greet the sacred and blessed Shabbat queen who was descending to us accompanied by her angelic host of peace and tranquility … somehow transforming the very air through which it sounded into particles of sanctity. I was transfixed by that service. It remains a radiant memory.”

Jewish Identity – We live in an era when many young adults are turning away from identification with Judaism and with being Jewish. Not so for Ramahniks! Participants in the survey were asked “How important is being Jewish in your life?” Almost everyone answered “important,” to some degree, 83% indicating “very important.” A firm Jewish identity leads Ramah alumni into Jewish engagement on US campuses, during Israel encounters and upon entering the work world.

Socialization – We live in a mobile and often atomized world. We are concerned about connecting our sons and daughters to Jewish peers. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l taught, “Jews need other Jews in order to be Jewish.” Ramah sets its campers onto a path for Jewish socialization. Ramah alumni responded affirmatively to “How many of your close friends are Jewish?” Amongst the alumni, 78% reported that all or most of their close friends are Jewish, and two thirds of single alumni are dating only Jews. Nearly half of respondents have at least three close friends whom they originally met at Ramah. “Of those married, over a third are married to someone who went to Ramah (not necessarily the same camp), and just over 40% met their spouses through a Ramah connection.” The spouses of 93% of married Ramah alumni are Jewish.

Israel Attachment – 2019 also is a time when Jewish leaders and parents worry that the next generation is becoming “detached” from Israel. Yet the Israel attachment of Ramah alumni remains very strong. Virtually all of them have been to Israel; 5 out of 6 have done so two or more times. Three quarters of respondents “have close friends or immediate family living in Israel” and “18% have seriously considered living in Israel.” The vast majority of Ramahniks remain “attached” to Israel, with 62% self-identifying as “very attached.” Israel attachment is fostered by the use of spoken Hebrew, Israeli artistic and musical expression, discussion of Israeli life and challenges, and the presence in each camp of a delegation of Israelis [Michlachat] on staff.

Synagogue Engagement – Pundits speculate that the institution of the synagogue will not survive. Only a minority of American Jews are synagogue members. This is not the case among Ramah alumni. A large majority of respondents are affiliated with a congregation. In fact, often Ramahniks are at the core of American shuls. “Most have served as congregational or Jewish organizational lay leaders.” “Almost a third have worked for congregations or Jewish organizations.” They are not only joiners but also leaders in liturgical life. “Over a third of alumni report attending services weekly and almost two-thirds attend at least monthly.” “A third have chanted Torah in the last year, and almost as many have led services as the cantor or shaliach tzibbur. Over a quarter have given a sermon or d’var Torah.”

Social Justice – Commentators lament that Jewish educational institutions do not address the passion among adolescents for Tikkun Olam. Not so with Camp Ramah! A sizable number of its alumni have become social justice activists. Camp Ramah magazine has stated that “One of the educational goals of Ramah has always been to engage campers in the mitzvah of Tikkun Olam. Tikkun Olam is a central belief in Judaism that teaches us to become actively involved in improving the world by working in our communities … To truly be partners with God, we cannot avert our gaze, or turn our backs to the many social ills that afflict our world. Instead, we must address the problems at hand and turn our minds and bodies to work toward lasting solutions.

Jewish Culture – At Ramah, boys and girls are immersed into the world of Jewish music and dance and crafts. Girls and boys interact through Israeli folk dancing. They learn and partake in a wide array of spirited Hebrew songs. They can participate in Jewish themed drama presentation. They are empowered to craft art objects suitable to Judaica, whether challah covers, kiddush cups, havdallah sets, mezuzot and so much more. It is not a coincidence that many Jewish authors, artists, craftspeople, and musicians can be counted among the ranks of Ramah alumni.

Jewish Learning – Summer camp is an effective mode for informal Jewish learning. It is not an add-on to public school nor is it in competition with local sports activities. Campers thrive by living within a Jewish immersive experience. They absorb Jewish values both in classes, by witnessing Jewish learning for all ages of Jews, and in conversations with peers and staff. As noted by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a former Ramah camper, “Even at age 12, however, I was impressed by the fact that Judaism was truly a way of life for the people at camp. It was not restricted prayer and study, although we did more of those than I had ever done before; Judaism affected every aspect of my life at camp, from discussions with friends to the evening activities to the sports field… It was all so natural and unselfconscious. For the first time in my life, Judaism was a source of guidance and joy.”

Jewish Continuity – Virtually all respondents have recommended Ramah to others. The “others,” of course, include their own offspring. Ramahniks seek to be “raising engaged Jewish children.” They send their sons and daughters to Jewish summer camp and 57% are choosing Jewish Day School education for their offspring. More than nine out of 10 “think it is very important or essential for their children (when they become adults) to marry Jews, raise Jewish children, celebrate Jewish holidays, and feel attached to Israel.” “Majorities feel likewise about observing Shabbat.”

The Ramah data are a powerful example of the impact upon our children by Jewish content summer camps as well [e.g., Massad, Harlem, JCC, Tel Yehuda]. As noted by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld and Kathy Green years ago: “The environment [of Jewish camping] is total. Every aspect of the facility is intended for your intellectual and emotional growth….you are far from home and family pressures in a mountain retreat, living in close proximity with your peers….The stage is set for some of the most intense experiences of your young life…No wonder that many of us recall summer camp experiences as the most significant of our young Jewish lives and identities.”

Send your child to a Jewish content summer camp! You will never regret your decision!!

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD has been the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey since 1979. From … 1993 to 1995 he served as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. From 2000 - 2005 he was President of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. He served as Chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel from 2010-2014. He currently serves as the president of Mercaz Olami. He is the author of It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Interdating; Preserving Jewishness In Your Family: Once Intermarriage Has Occurred; as well as Alternative to Assimilation: A Social History of the Reform Movement in American Judaism, 1840-1930.
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