On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

The Magic of Jewish Summer Camp

/ 25 Adar 5772

Amy Skopp Cooper, national assistant director of the National Ramah Commission of JTS, director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, New York, and 2011 winner of the prestigious Covenant Award, on the joy, power, and community of serious Jewish camping.
I spoke last week at the Leaders Assembly of the Foundation for Jewish Camp on a panel, hosted by the Jim Joseph Foundation, with President Richard Joel of Yeshiva University and President David Ellenson of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. We were there to celebrate the enormous achievements of serious Jewish camping in North America in recent decades, to thank donors such as the Jim Joseph Foundation who have greatly assisted in that achievement, and to reflect upon the still-greater possibilities to be tapped in years to come. I share the gist of my presentation to the Foundation for Jewish Camp here.

First things first: I was proud to address the gathering as chancellor of JTS, the institution that founded Camp Ramah more than 60 years ago and which has worked closely with it ever since, and doubly proud to speak as the parent of two former campers and counselors. I know first-hand, as well as through my scholarly work on Judaism in North America, the tremendous role that intensively Jewish camps play as a vehicle of Jewish education, a building-block of Jewish identity, and a vital source of Jewish community. That role is why JTS is intent on working ever more closely with Ramah. We want to help grow the Ramah network through new camps, new sorts of camps (such as Ramah Outdoor Adventure in the Rockies), and increased numbers of campers. We hope to participate in deepening the links that join Ramah to Israel and to heighten Ramah’s impact on experiential education that takes place in day schools and congregational schools—and to increase Ramah’s impact on JTS. The challenge facing all of us in Jewish education, I think, is to take the phenomenally successful model of Jewish camping in places like Ramah and adapt it to the generation that tweets, blogs, multi-tasks, and routinely embraces changes with which people of my generation struggle to keep up.

The current enthusiasm for serious Jewish camping is well justified. There are not many things any of us could do for the future of Judaism and the Jewish community in North America that would be more effective than getting more Jewish kids to spend more time in serious Jewish camps, experimenting with different educational aims and methods at those camps, and increasing the presence there of Hebrew, Israel, and compelling, relevant teachings from the Jewish tradition—such as Jewish ethics pertaining to relationships and other issues that are at the forefront of kids’ and teens’ minds. Our people, our tradition, and our society will be the better for this effort.

Why is this so? There are two major theoretical sources for understanding why Jewish camps like Ramah matter so much right now.

The first source is the Torah. We Jews are here, I believe, to build communities guided by Torah, and to carry forward the tradition of thought and practice that has Torah at its core, so as to serve as God’s partner in a covenant designed to make the world better—more just, decent, and compassionate. To that end, we Jews were not constituted as a religious group alone but as a people: a nation; a global community; diverse and disparate local communities. We need the enhanced ability to get things done in the world that comes from community, and the added resolve to go against the flow. We know from the Torah, as well as from our own experience, that participation in the building and maintenance of communities can take individuals higher and deeper than almost any other activity in which they engage. Communities focused on what Martin Buber called a “Living Center,” capital L, capital C, have the proven power to elicit, as nothing else can, the gifts and talents with which we are blessed.

The Torah demands and makes possible a kind of wholeness. We yearn for that wholeness: heart and soul and mind wrapped up together, every member of the group needed for the task at hand, every experience and source of wisdom valued. And, as wise educators know, when you teach lessons that seek to take hold of a person, especially when these lessons go against the taken-for-granted assumptions of a larger culture, the teaching must be operative 24/7—“when you lie down and when you rise up”—and must take place in public space and not just private space—“sitting in your house and walking upon the way.”

That’s where camping in North America rises to meet the challenge of a social reality that for the most part does not place Jews inside Jewish gates or Jewish doorposts very much of the time. The Jewish part of life is usually off to the side, marginal to the main business of life as we live it—and so a Jewish educator wants to create a counter-reality, where sports take place in Jewish space, where drama and arts take place in Jewish time, and where Torah is studied and practiced in surroundings filled with Jews, Jewish commitments, Jewish images, and Jewish fun.

These imperatives are amply confirmed by current sociological and pedagogical theory. We know from social scientists such as Peter Berger about the “social construction of reality” and the need for “plausibility structures” strong enough to bear the weight of transmitting values. Educational theorists and developmental psychologists have explained over and over why giving kids a space of their own, safely away from parental supervision, can have the remarkable effect of making those kids committed to bringing new energy, direction, and ideas to the service of their parents’ ideals.

Jewish camps like Ramah regularly accomplish that. They make the parents of campers wish that their own Jewish lives were more like camp, their synagogue services more like those at camp, their friendships as intense as those one forms at camp and often keeps for life. At its best, a camp such as Ramah creates a world where Jewish kids can come to be at home in the world, including the natural world, at the same time as they grow comfortable inside their own bodies and skins. They are places where teens can feel themselves growing, and growing more confident; coming alive intellectually and emotionally and, yes, awakening sexually. They are places where they reach the bedrock of self, in the dining hall and the bunk, and so no longer need worry that they’ll be “found out” as being less than what they are and less than what they want to be. Add other elements such as Hebrew, Israel, the fact that studying and even davening are part of the culture rather than the counterculture; factor in the information that campers and junior staff learn less from books than from activities with good friends supervised by teacher-role-models just a few years older than they are; and you have a Jewish reality where community is not discussed or planned but danced, sung, played, loved.

I’d add one more piece to this mix, which is the particular genius of Ramah: camp is a place where education for the staff at every level is given pride of place, where they keep growing and learning Jewishly well into their twenties and beyond. Now, thanks to new programs like Ramah Service Corps, the staffers of Ramah are bringing the spirit of camp, and especially of the kind of learning that goes on there, to schools and communities around the continent, and by doing so they are interesting more young people in signing up for the Jewish magic of summer.

I’ve learned from my colleagues in JTS’s Experiential Learning Initiative, sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation, that school classrooms where you sit in rows and spend time studying texts until the bell rings can be sites of Jewish learning no less experiential than what goes on at camp. But it’s harder. Experiential learning requires engagement of multiple faculties, it demands reflection of the whole self, it thrives on passion. It takes long twilight hours, benefits from raucous dining halls, and makes good use of swimming and baseball.

Camp is not the only venue where valuable learning of this and other sorts takes place. Day school is the next best thing in terms of creating Jewish social realities, and has the advantage over camp that it is school, which for kids is the heart of social reality, 5 days a week, 10 months a year. Congregational schools have to work extra hard to create community and transmit meaning. Many good congregational schools accomplish this now, despite the obvious difficulties raised by afternoon fatigue, competition with soccer and music lessons, uneven quality of staff, and lack of total support from the parent body. Congregational as well as day schools will benefit, JTS believes, from a healthy dose of experiential learning that we hope to transmit from its home at Ramah. Jewish camps can’t do the job of making Jews all by themselves. Educators, community leaders, and donors in the world beyond camp need to show that they also care about living Jewishly, building communities, and learning Torah. But what a difference a good camp makes!

As the chancellor of JTS, as a scholar of contemporary Judaism, and most of all as a caring Jew, I thank the Jim Joseph Foundation and Foundation for Jewish Camp and everyone else who is helping us build camps, sustain camps, and bring Jewish kids and counselors to camps in ever-increasing numbers. I’m grateful in particular to everyone who has played a role in building and sustaining Ramah over the past six decades. The difference camps are making to the Jewish future is incalculable—and well-demonstrated by the difference they have made to the Jewish present.

We need to take advantage now of possibilities and resources that are available at this moment for camps, other educational venues, and training grounds for ideas, personnel, and innovation, such as JTS. We won’t want to look back a generation hence having missed what everyone recognizes as a tremendous opening. The investment we make in camps will repay itself many times over.


  1. Mel Scult says:

    Ramah was the most important educational=religious experience of my life. It took a kid from a Conservative congregation who didnt know very much about Jewish life and transformed him into a dedicated Jewish scholar active in many phases of Jewish life. As a young person I attended Ramah camps in Maine, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and California. The path became clear-Ramah, JTS. and a Phd in Jewish Studies

    It is the story of my life and has given my life meaning.

  2. Florence Abramowitz says:

    I attended the first Camp Ramah in the east during the summer of 1948 at the campsite in the Belgrade Lakes Maine It was one of the greatest summers I ever had

    I sent my children to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires We all made wonderful friends and enjoyed the experiences

    Florence Abramowitz, Ed.D.

    first Camp Ramah

  3. Rebecca says:

    As someone who did not attend such a camp growing up, but was a Ramah counselor one summer, I worry that certain institutional realities undermine undermine the diversity of the committed, adult Jewish laity.

    Not ethnic diversity, but experiential.

    Ex-campers are a power house in Jewish life. Their passion and education propels them to places of formal and informal leadership, and their shared experiences bind them together in every American city where Jews live.

    Part and parcel with this is a certain homogeneity of perspectives on life and the world. Specifically, many of the most influential ex-campers are people who come from families that had the means to give them the exact same summer experience year after year, and the personal desire to do the (almost) the exact same thing every summer.

    Ex-campers are the essence of rooted-ness, and are therefore the natural and sorely needed pillars of our Jewish community, which loves to pull itself in every which ideological direction.

    However, developing this pillar-strength, under the current system seems to undermine the development of skills and experiences that allow for effective outreach to those who wish for Jewish connection, but do not share these life experiences.

    Having been allowed to master moving through tight-knit communities as children- have they ever had the experiences to spur them to know how reach out to those who are not, and bring them in?

    We all want a vibrant Conservative Judaism whose population extends beyond its bare-bone, skeleton. It needs muscles, organs, ligaments, skin- the soft tissue comprising of people whose ideological DNA is the same, but express it differently.

    I wonder how much of the attrition of the conservative laity is not ideological, but has to do with these sort of hidden factors:

    A Conservative Jewish core that is -overwhelmingly financially secure,
    -have whole families
    -that overwhelmingly eschew cultural diversity/disharmony in the home

    …clashing with…

    a general Jewish population that is
    -less financially well off
    -more likely to come from broken homes
    – and more likely to be culturally mixed, and deeply value the richness/complication that comes with

    Neither group need to be very Jewishly distinct from each other to drive each other away from a given Jewish institution, via “I don’t fit in here” feeling.

    I applaud the Ramah Outdoor Adventure in the Rockies initiative as a wonderful step in the right direction. By promoting and validating different Jewish summer experiences for children, we can ultimately enrich and solidify our adult Jewish communities.

  4. Elizabeth Pressman says:

    Your comments are most welcome. My life was transformed by Ramah, begnning as a camper at the age of 12 in CT. Later I participated in the MADOR program and subsequently was a counselor in CT. As an adult I have been on the Board of CRNE for many years. Our three kids were campers and staff members and now our oldest grandson is camper.

    I am encouraged by the initiatives of the NRC and local camps to reach out to Congregational and Day schools. However, an area that I believe must be addressed is Shabbat davenning in many congregations. There are a growing number of congregations where alternative Minyanim meet and better resemble Shabbat at Ramah than the main service. I suggest that this area needs a lot more development.

    Ramah alums for at least the last 15 years or so have been instrumental in the development of Independent Minyanim because they found most synagogue services didn’t meet their needs. How can we encourage our Rabbis, JTS graduates, to be more proactive in developing a true Shabbat community? How can they be assisted in educating their congregants so that at least one Shabbat Minyan(either the main service or an alternative Minyan) can resemble Ramah and USY? Why after more than 60 years should Ramah campers still come home and be turned off by the davenning in their synagogues, the lack of a community with whom they can share Shabbat? I recognize this is not a simple transformation, but had we begun 60 years ago we might be in a different place today. ” Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo ata ven-chorin libatel mimena.” “You are not obliged to finish the task, neither are you free to neglect it.” Pirkei Avot 2:21

  5. Jacob Malki says:

    Prof. Einsen’s note should not have been written, because it is “obvious”;but unfortunately it is not.
    Much larger efforts, educational and financial ones, should be spent on this “informal method of education”.

    “Torah is studied and practiced in surroundings filled with Jews, Jewish commitments, Jewish images, and Jewish fun.” Yes, strange but it is true,Judaism can be fun. Smile!

  6. Stephen Simons says:

    Please don’t forget the intensive Jewish camping experiences of Orthodox and Reform camps, as well as the array of Zionist, Bundist, Yiddishist and other camps. We need a holistic approach to education, including not only camps for kids, but camp experiences for adults and families,and of course on-G
    going Jewish education made available to all.Wealthy federations should consider scholarships and day school support for members of not as advantaged Jewish communities. The various movements, likewise, should fund days schools and camps and Israel trips for Jews living outside o the large centers. In that way, there will be a diversity of experience for all of our children.

  7. toperfolg says:

    We’re a bunch of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your site provided us with useful information to paintings on. You have performed an impressive activity and our entire neighborhood will likely be thankful to you.

  8. Camping can give you some great perspective on various things in life. Thanks for sharing your camping experience.

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