The Camp-Campus Connection: Seizing the Opportunity

The level of Jewish engagement and support for Israel on college campuses can be significantly strengthened by leveraging the incredibly positive Jewish experiences of the thousands of undergrads who spend their summers at Jewish camps. It is absolutely time for camp and campus leaders to work more closely together to harness this leadership potential to increase Jewish engagement and positive identification with Israel.

At Ramah, we have created the Ramah College Network, part of our Reshet Ramah alumni initiative, to help high school students benefit from the knowledge and experience of fellow Ramah alumni in making their college choices. This network is also a powerful force for encouraging our camp alumni to take a more active role in Jewish life on campus, as we have sponsored dozens of Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, and pro-Israel activities at a variety of universities.

According to many of the more than 40 Ramah alumni now serving as Hillel professionals on campuses throughout North America, strengthening this link is crucial. Adam Naftalin-Kelman, Director of Hillel at UC Berkeley, recently urged me to pursue a broad national strategy to create a partnership with Hillel. “We know some of our strongest potential leaders work at Ramah each summer. Why not use their positive camp affiliation and extensive training to create a powerful avenue for campus leadership?”

Shana Zionts, Director of Student Life at Columbia/Barnard Hillel and a Ramah Canada alumna, echoed this sentiment, stating that three of their Hillel’s last four student executive board presidents were “Ramahniks.”

One need only look around college campuses throughout North America to see that many Jewish student leaders during the academic year are also Jewish overnight camp staff members during the summer. This is no coincidence, and neither is the fact that a considerable number of Hillel professionals, like Zionts, are also alumni of intensive Jewish camps.

Ramah alumni at Tulane University, Sukkot
Ramah alumni at Tulane University, Sukkot

Simply put, camp and campus have more in common than just four letters.

“Jewish camp alumni know how to plan programs for their fellow students that are challenging, stimulating, and meaningful. They know how to make them educational and interactive, and not just social,” reported Gita Karasov, Director of Engagement at the University of Michigan Hillel, a former leader at Ramah Wisconsin.

Maiya Chard-Yaron, a Ramah New England alumna who is the assistant director of the University of Maryland Hillel, commented that she makes a point of immediately engaging “camp kids,” because she knows they already have the skills to take on leadership roles.

Ira Blum, Director of Jewish Student Life at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel and an alumnus of both Ramah New England and Ramah Poconos, has noticed that the students who arrive on campus after having been Jewish camp counselors in the summer feel more comfortable with Jewish practice. “They own their Jewish identity more,” he said.

Although the impact of Jewish camp is clearly felt on campuses, not all Jewish camp counselors and alumni have found their way to being Jewishly active on campus. Young adults who make camp such a vibrant Jewish place are an underutilized resource in terms of efforts to create and ensure robust Jewish life on college campuses.

Ramah alumni at the University of Pennsylvania
Ramah alumni at the University of Pennsylvania

Imagine how much more vibrant Jewish campus life would be if we were successful in engaging more camp alumni at their universities.

A look at the numbers shows just how vast this untapped potential is. Camp Ramah, with nine overnight camps and four day camps, provides a helpful example. At the end of this past summer, approximately 1,500 of our 2,500 staff members were headed off to begin or continue their undergraduate studies at various colleges and universities.

An obvious next step would be for Hillel and Ramah to work more closely together to try to establish a stronger camp-campus connection. We at Ramah have so much to learn from successful Hillel professionals. We are in the process of forming an advisory committee of 20 of these dedicated campus leaders, all Ramah alumni, to share their thoughts on how to create a more robust partnership.

We are currently pursuing a number of initiatives on both the local and national levels, and we hope that there will be philanthropic support to strengthen these efforts. We must create more opportunities for increased partnerships in this area, beginning with more visits by Hillel professionals to Jewish camps, training programs specifically designed to encourage camp staff to become campus leaders, and more Jewish engagement programs on campuses specifically targeting camp alumni and their friends.

A number of years ago I attended a multi-day gathering at Ramah Wisconsin of Hillel professionals from Midwest campuses. The energy was amazing. Camp and campus leaders were united in their desire to make a real difference in university life. These types of gatherings should be standard, and must lead to greater initiatives with camp alumni leading the way.

Ramah alumni are some of the most pro-Israel and Jewishly-committed students on campus. Let’s empower many more of them, as well as alumni from other Jewish camps, to create a real difference on campuses throughout North America.

About the Author
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen assumed the leadership of the National Ramah Commission in 2003 after having served for 11 years as the director of Camp Ramah in Canada. Prior to 2003, he served as the founding principal of the Solomon Schechter High School in Westchester, New York. After graduating from Brown University, Rabbi Cohen attended the New York University School of Law, and was admitted to the New York Bar in 1984. He spent two years working as a corporate litigator and then enrolled in the Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary, receiving his ordination in 1990.
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