To Revitalize Conservative Jewry, Build On Camp Ramah
Tue, 02/05/2013
Special To The Jewish Week

Those of us who have grown up in the Conservative movement have heard the conventional wisdom for years — Camp Ramah is the best and most successful program that the movement ever developed. We would even hear this from Jews across the spectrum who admire with envy this jewel of a program that formed lifetime bonds among alumni and created a community of knowledgeable, proud, energized, committed, Zionist young Jews.

Ramah transformed countless lives of children, young adults and, through them, countless families and communities. So why should our movement today be in crisis and facing an unsure future?

When Ramah was started in 1948, its mission was to create an elite Jewish leadership group. Ramah exceeded its goals, developing an enormous number of professional and lay leaders and an alumni base, which formed the core constituencies of the most committed Conservative communities around the country.

So when we had this tremendously successful program of Ramah churning out future leaders, where did we fall short? And maybe we also need to ask: Why have we as a movement squandered the obvious opportunity to grow Ramah to far greater numbers? Further, facing the realities today, how do we use this most successful model of Ramah to revive and revitalize a potentially vibrant and thriving movement?

We all readily acknowledge that immersion programs of informal education that create joyous relationships to one’s Judaism and Jewish lifestyle like Ramah are the ones that succeed. But the impact we need to correct the downward trend requires many, many more children and young adults than the numbers we encounter today. We too easily pat ourselves on the back, noting proudly that we serve 750 children each summer at Ramah Berkshires, barely reaching 5 percent of the potential population of the New York and New Jersey communities. One could only imagine where we might find ourselves if over the last 25 years we had increased that amount tenfold. Imagine if that were also true for the regions being served by the other six Ramah camps around the country.

I would therefore suggest that our response requires a new mission for Ramah. Whereas Ramah created many “leaders” but few “followers,” I would propose that its mission today must consist of drastically building the increasing numbers we need for a future movement to be empowered to build upon itself.

Although the solution may sound simple, the task is not. It requires us to radically rethink and reimagine the current synagogue education model. Such a task requires great financial investment by our movement’s institutions into the Jewish camp sector.

To attract the numbers I am suggesting will require many new camps and new sites. To maintain a competitive edge, it will require staffing and programs and facilities of excellence. We will need to find more access points to the Ramah experience, for example, through winter vacation week camps and Pesach family camps in the Ramah model. We need to be active partners with the Jewish Theological Seminary in order to be the face of Jewish education for our movement, expanding the Ramah Service Corps currently serving in our synagogues and schools throughout the year. And we need to be active partners with the Rabbinical Assembly in order to create and validate synagogue alternatives to Hebrew schools through Ramah camping.

Let us think creatively and open our minds to other possibilities.  Imagine the dramatic change we might see if instead of the typical Hebrew school model, synagogues offered the positive, inspiring and spirited Jewish summer camp experience as its educational output, supplemented throughout the year by occasional Ramah-style Shabbat programming and a class trip to Israel. Camping costs for a month are roughly equivalent to a year’s tuition for Hebrew school. Imagine if instead of subsidizing Hebrew schools, synagogues subsidized Jewish camp experiences. Talk about cost benefit…

As Ramah has been reaching full enrollment as early as November each year, we are already turning away countless numbers of children each summer. Will they be lost to us forever because we did not have the will and commitment to accommodate them? Let us not make the mistakes we made 25 years ago when we paid little attention and responded so poorly to the clear warning we received about our future.

This is my dream that inspires my passion for camp, shapes my vision and guides my agenda and goals: reaching every possible family and creating a camp of extraordinary excellence. It may seem insurmountable. But we will not have a second chance 10 or 20 years from now. Therefore, it is imperative to pursue this path in order to give us a fighting chance to build back our movement and to ensure a future for the shrinking “big center” of American Jewry. I fully believe that such a radical shift in thinking and in action would bring about dramatic change in Jewish life. By transforming the lives of our children and young adults, we will transform their families, our communities, our movement, and ultimately the Jewish people.

Hugh Pollack is president of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.

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Ramah is arguably one of the most successful Jewish institutions of the last 50 years. It has produced committed Jews of all stripes - Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Orthodox and secular - anything but "cookie cutter Jews." That is not a weakness - it is a strength.

Ramah has created serious, committed Jews of all stripes - Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative - and even secular. This is not a failing, but a tribute to its success. It is one of the most successful Jewish institutions of the century. Long may it thrive.

Hugh, we at the Foundation for Jewish Camp could not agree with you more regarding the transformative power of Ramah camps for the Conservative Movement. And it doesn’t end with Ramah. The positive impact of all Jewish overnight camps is helping to build a stronger, more vibrant Jewish community as displayed in our quantitative research study, CAMP WORKS, which provides the data on Jewish camp alumni engagement as adults. We look forward to working with you on developing more options to allow more kids to experience the “joyous Judaism” at Jewish camp. Thanks for sharing your vision, passion, and leadership.
- Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO, Foundation for Jewish Camp

A commendable mission statement and vision from Mr. Pollack.

This is a long overdue idea which needs to be considered and acted upon in the near future. As a Ramah camper who grew up in a town with very few Jews, I understand personally just how significant my Ramah experience was in fostering a sense of Jewish peoplehood and love of prayer and tradition. I have yet to come across a comparable institution which instils Jewish pride in such a unique and enjoyable format.

While I think Mr. Pollack is right that Ramah can be a fantastic road for many families to help their children learn what it means to be a Jew and lead a Jewish life, he falls short in his attempt to replicate this at the "Hebrew School" level. One or two, or dare I dream three day a week programs for 1-2 hours after school will never have the impact of a Ramah. What he has failed to even consider and what has been forgotten by many is that their are Schechter and community schools that will energize young learners and be the backbone of Ramah's across the country for years to come. We are the people of the book and the conservative movement has done a poor job supporting the K-8 and K-12 schools that will almost guaranty continuity of the movement beyond what a Hebrew School and even a Ramah experience can. Ramah has thrived under the guise that it is a good substitute for a Jewish Day School education. They need to compliment one another, not be a substitute.

here is an apocryphal story of a Ramanik who was so moved by his experience at camp that he started to keep kosher and Shabbat and pray three times a day. When he met his former Rosh Eidah at a reunion, he explained how wonderful the experience had been and how it had changed his life but he expressed his frustration that of all the mitzvoth he had learned at Ramah the one he could not do was make Havdalah. Perplexed at this, he was asked why. “Because we don’t have a lake at home.”

A 4 or 8 week experience, as incredible as it may be, needs reinforcement and support if it is to have any meaningful long-term impact. If the Conservative movement is serious about its own survival, it must build on the experience of Ramah so that it can survive the pressures that exist outside of the confines of camp. It means creating an elite corps of religiously committed kids, perhaps as part of U.S.Y. These kids must be nurtured so that they have the opportunity to make their camp experience a means to Jewish life and not a ends. Rabbis and educators must take them under their wings and help them whether as part of Hebrew school or as a substitute. However, what is important to keep in mind is what makes them elite is not their leadership or knowledge but their enthusiasm about Jewish observance in the face of the enormous obstacles they face in the homes, schools and synagogues.

Game Ramah aside,the Conservative movement is finished. JTS can't even place their own graduates.Conservative shuls in NYC have been closing all over the place.The movement was destroyed by intermarriage.Past tense.Orthodox shuls are still growing and being built in Brooklyn and Queens.The Jewish Week is busy with articles about "Haredization". They are the ones keep Judaism alive.

Actually I know quite a few non-Orthodox Minyanim that have opened up in Brooklyn/Queens in the last decade and Orthodox Shuls in NYC that have closed. It also seems like the JTS pulpit placement rate (while not perfect) is much higher than that of YU. CJ is far from finished...Like it or not!

Study Torah!!!

I don't know what Ramah is like now compared with when my daughter attended more than ten years ago. At that time, a camper above a certain age had to spend the full 8-week summer at Ramah in order to go. For some campers, this was overwhelming. For some parents, it was just too expensive. Also, Ramah was a very competitive environment -- not encouraging for a child who didn't have good Hebrew skills or wasn't a good athlete.

Camp Ramah is also the outcome of a Camp that used to exist may years ago Called Massad.
Massad was a Modern Orthodox Camp that embraced kids from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. It was a camp that Hebrew was taught and spoken as a living language. The influence of Hebrew was even on the Baseball field as well as other sports.Jewish Learning was mandatory everyday.It inspired Jewish identity for generations to come.Ramah should continue in this effort with Hatzlacha.

A sensitive and thought-provoking piece. As the father of three long-time Ramah Berkshires campers and staff members, I heartily endorse what Mr. Pollack has written. I credit the Camp, in combination with our local synagogue and what my wife and I have tried to teach our children at home, for their being who they are and what they are: proud and observant Conservative Jews, who care about (among other things) Shabbat and Yom Tov, kashrut, Israel, and marrying within the faith.

I have little use for some of the central organizations within the Movement: they all too often "rest on their past laurels" (as in 25 years ago) and have done little to generate enthusiasm and energy. They seem content with conference after conference, and projects like the recently released 900 page book "The Observant Life". The latter is an an admirable scholarly effort, to be sure, but it is NOT going to do anything in terms of making the next generation excited about Conservative Judaism.

The war for survival is being fought on the local level - at local synagogues by dedicated local rabbis who are striving, against all odds, to build up and sustain interest in coming to shul, participating in services, and keeping kids engaged long after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah party ends. The Camp Ramah program is a powerful weapon that can be used to create and maintain that interest, to make the next generation comfortable with (and even excited about) coming to shul, and teaching young people that Judaism (and Conservative Judaism in particular) is not simply a road to a party at age 13 but an endless range of opportunities --- to learn, to grow, to have fun, and to become a better person along the way (all things that Ramah offers in many ways).

The Ramah movement is made up of wonderful camps filled with happy children living full jewish lives each summer. The challenge for the movement is that while much of the staff (although far from all of it) are Conservative Jews, it is an unspoken fact that many of the campers come from Modern Orthodox families. This is especially true at the Ramah's near Orthodox strongholds. Visit Ramah Nyack and ask the kids where they attend school. You will see why Ramah is having an impact on Jewish life, but the movement that backs it is not reaping much benefit. As the number of youth in the Conservative movement plummets, Ramah has no choice but to accept others from either the Conservative or Reform movements.

This is a well-intentioned article and analysis. Unfortunately just like the Conservative movement itself it is a huge case of wishful thinking. Ramah is successful in creating a temporary Jewish neighborhood among its participants - Jews living with other Jews - something the Conservative movement "drove away from" when it OK'd driving to shul thus destroying any hope of Jewish neighborhood for its members. Ramah is only a part time replacement for Jewish neighborhood. The recommendation in the article to essentially expand Ramah to some kind of full-time opportunity to live in a Jewish neighborhood will fail, as all such neighborhoods are already Orthodox. It is too late for the movement to re-trace its footsteps and build Jewish neighborhoods of Conservative Jews walking to shul, sharing Shabbat and Yom Tov dinners with others of similar observance, attending Shabbat afternoon programs (not shopping and going to movies) hanging out together, etc. etc. Sad, very sad.

Meh. It's not too late for anything. Some communities do exist and with a little effort and leaders like Mr. Pollack there's no reason why there can't be many more. For years people have said that the secret to a vibrant CJ is to make our synagogues more like's the time to actually do it!

The author hits the nail on the head.

I am a proud alumnus of Ramah. I was both a camper and staff member. My involvement led to my becoming Modern Orthodox. One of the key reasons was, as the author noted, Ramah created many “leaders” but few “followers". Judaism is best experienced as part of a community. Passionate, committed, Ramah style communal Judaism was difficult to find in Conservative institutions outside of camp. Ironically, committed, passionate Orthodox communities were not hard to find. We found it unsatisfying and spiritually stagnating to be the only Sabbath observant family in our Conservative congregation, and left the movement we'd loved and grown up in to find growth elsewhere.

I wish Mr. Pollack the greatest success in his efforts. May Ramah with broader reach educate and inspire another generation of young Conservative Jews.

My involvement led me to become Orthodox. In fact, when I enrolled at Yeshiva Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem in 1979, I was one of many ex-Ramah campers and staff members!

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