December 28, 2006
Camp Ramah marks 50 years
Among the alumni: Sinai Temple's Rabbi David Wolpe, Temple Beth Am's Rabbi Perry Netter, Valley Beth Shalom's (VBS) Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Temple Aliyah's Rabbi Stewart Vogel, composer and Sinai Temple Friday Night Live impressario Craig Taubman and Bureau of Jewish Education Executive Director Gil Graff, just to name a few.
Having reached all of these future leaders in their formative years, Ramah can take some credit for the face of today's L.A. Jewish leadership. Spiritual leaders, social justice advocates, educators and community board members all proudly trace their strong Jewish values and current commitment to Judaism to their summers at Ramah.
"Ramah is a place where campers and counselors have their first experience in not only participating in, but helping to form and lead the Jewish community in which they find themselves," said Camp Ramah of California Executive Director Rabbi Daniel Greyber.
As it has throughout its history, the camp's programming team sees as its mission to create dynamic ways to blend recreational summertime fun with specifically Jewish lessons on values and life. The campers' days are divided into seven time slots allowing time for electives like drama, soccer or photography, as well as required classes like Judaic studies, Jewish music and Israeli culture.
Some activities are more recreational, others are more clearly Jewish, but the goal is that every activity shares a little of both. Sports, for example, teaches the Jewish values of respect, community, and taking care of one's body. Judaic studies classes offer campers concrete lessons in principles.
At Ramah, tefillah is also meant to strike a balance between inspiring kids to want to pray and giving them the skills and literacy they need to pray. Daily services take place outdoors and usually follow a traditional format. Once or twice a week, counselors design creative services meant to emphasize the inspirational side of prayer. These services might be held on a hike, as a scavenger hunt, or carried out as an art project. Ramah's weekly Shabbat afternoon Mincha services also famously overflow with spirit and song.
It's this brand of spirituality that inspired VBS's Feinstein. Having served as camp counselor and division head in the '70s and camp director in the 1990s, Feinstein believes a balance of fun and spirituality is key to the camp's success. It's also key to his work at VBS.
"I run the synagogue a lot like I used to run the camp," he says. "It's got to be a joyful community."
He believes summer camp is the most powerful Jewish experience, next to visiting Israel.
"Too often we forget that joy is a constituent element to all Jewish life," Feinstein said. "It's just so important to make joy the central part of Jewish living. That's the most important thing I got from Ramah."
Steven Spiegel, UCLA professor of political science, relishes Ramah's combined intellectual and social environments. One of 92 youths to participate in the 1955 Ramah pilot program, Spiegel returned as a camper, then counselor, program director, and ultimately teacher.
Ramah afforded Spiegel the opportunity to work and study in close proximity to Jewish teachers like David Lieber, Chaim Potok, Walter Ackerman and Jack Pressman. For him, Camp Ramah of California was an educational awakening.
"I couldn't be the kind of professor I am and do the kind of things I do without the Ramah experience," said Speigel, who acts as the director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA's Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. "Bringing people together and trying to resolve conflict, as well as working with students and colleagues, many of those patterns that I pursue I really first experienced at camp."
Similarly, Ron Reynolds, a camper from 1959 to 1964 and a counselor from 1965 to 1967, credits Ramah with sparking his interest in education.
"At camp, I realized the incredible power of education in all its modalities. Not just formal studies, but experimental learning and informal education," said Reynolds, who now acts as executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, an umbrella group that serves 1,750 private schools and 500,000 students,
Camp Ramah also emphasizes tikkun olam (heal the world) and engages campers and counselors in Jewish education. They are encouraged to debate, discuss and intellectually explore their Jewish world. They're offered classes in topics like Israeli current events, social justice, the Holocaust, Jews in comedy and how to make choices guided by Jewish principles.
Throughout the years, Ramah has always encouraged campers to be aware of the world outside their Ojai utopia. Last summer, in association with Friends of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Ramah hosted Israeli youths who had lost a family member in service to the IDF. In getting to know these youths, the camp community was able to personalize the current events in Israel. In association with The Jewish Federation, the camp also hosted several youths from bourgeoning Jewish communities in the Baltic area.
"When we're in camp, we're keeping an eye towards the outside world, and ask ourselves in what way can what happens at camp help the world and the Jewish community at large?" Greyber said.
Tzvia Schwartz-Getzug attended Ramah in the late '70s and early '80s and recalls a day when she and others brought residents from the Ojai Home for the Aging outside to watch a parade, enjoy the sunshine and be part of the festivities. It was something, she says, "which they never would have been able to do if we weren't there to take responsibility for them."
"That was definitely part of what I learned and what I began in my Ramah days," Schwartz-Getzug said.