Thursday, June 28, 2007

Is Camp Ramah TOO Jewish?

The Forward just published an interesting article about a long-standing debate: "Is Jewish summer camp fun enough?" Many parents of Jewish day school students argue that their kids should get a "break" over the summer and not be subjected to more Jewish education. Of course, Jewish summer camps that emphasize prayer and Talmud Torah (Jewish learning) like Camp Ramah, Camp Moshava, Camp Yavneh, Camp Stone, etc. also have other activities like sports, waterskiing, art, and drama.

The opening paragraph of this article is misleading. Columnist Rebecca Spence writes, "At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Jewish campers wake up every morning at 7:30 and daven the morning prayers. After some swimming or maybe a Frisbee game, the older kids can, if they want, daven again in the afternoon. And at the end of a day that includes a 45-minute Judaic learning session, well, they can… daven again." Add up the time spent in prayer services (even including the "optional" afternoon and evening minyanim), the 45-minute class, and mealtime and these campers are still left with many hours of typical camp activities.

Rabbi Mitch Cohen (Ramah)My colleague Rabbi Mitch Cohen (pictured), director of the Ramah Camps, makes a bold (but true) statement in this article, explaining, "Families who spend a fortune on day school education and then send their kids to nonreligious programs in the summer in some ways are wasting their investment."

The trick of course is to create summer camping experiences that emphasize Jewish living 24/7 with prayer services, learning opportunities, and Shabbat observance while also offering serious summer activities like sports. Having served as a staff member at three of the Ramah camps (Wisconsin, Nyack, and Canada), I can honestly say that they are successful at this synergy.

For three summers I served as the director of the Ropes Challenge Course at Camp Ramah in Nyack and was always cognizant of the synergy between Jewish education and outdoor camp fun. In that vein, I published a curriculum that was used at Ramah to teach Jewish values, Hebrew, and Torah to the campers while they were participating in the Ropes course and climbing wall.

I'm optimistic that the Foundation for Jewish Camping will work to ensure that Jewish summer camps where Judaism is a focus will be able to provide top-notch extra-curricular programs like sports taught by instructors one would find at the best sports camps in the country, as well as outdoor adventure activities that rival any secular camp.

1 comment:

Jill said...

Dear Rabbi - It's so funny for me to read this post, even though I recognize the seriousness of the issue. I say it's funny to me because my folks sent me to a "Jewish" all-girls camp in Maine in the 1970s. God bless them for paying that kind of money for that kind of experience but to me, those camps were the epitome of what was too Jewish - and not in the religious way, as you may or may not know. It was a different era, for sure, but now that my kids are camp age, two of my three attend a JCC day camp and then one goes to three weeks of overnight camp at the JCC's facility as well. My oldest, who has never been a camp kind of kid, is now considering overnight camp and if he doesn't go somewhere related to academics, he is thinking he might go to Ramah. Too Jewish? It's all relative, and also - people should try to understand what the alternatives of being "too Jewish" in one direction might mean as a negative influence if you end up being "too Jewish" in a different direction.