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Why We Love Camp Ramah

You walk into the field and see a group of children huddled around a fire pit. They’re having fun, performing strange rituals, singing odd songs, and building a community. What do you call this? Summer camp. If the songs are in Hebrew and the rituals are thousands of years old, then you’d call it Camp Ramah.

Camp Ramah is the camp for the Conservative Movement of Judaism. I didn’t plan on sending my kids to a Jewish summer camp. We signed up for Camp Ramah Nyack because our friends said it was awesome and that the kids would have a great time. The Jewish part was secondary. Growing up, I thought that Jewish summer camp was less fun than “regular” summer camp. Religion was something I had to do vs. something that I wanted to do, and camp was supposed to be fun. The Rabbi would say, “All of our ancestors died so that we could be Jews. It’s your responsibility to live a good Jewish life to honor them.” And, “Remember all of these people died in the Holocaust. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”(1)For a comic version of this check out Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Remember That We Suffered. As my friends got older, they didn’t find this message compelling and gradually stopped coming to shul.

We need a more positive better version of Judaism to inspire young people. That’s what Ramah is about. It’s not about indoctrinating our kids into the formalities of Judaism, it’s about teaching them to lead a good life. As Camp Ramah Berkshires says in their mission statement, this is “a place where Judaism is lived, Shabbat is cherished, and every moment is elevated.”

Summer camp is a place for kids to grow up, away from school and home.(2)This wording makes me think of a Third Place for kids out of my head— like a Starbucks for them to hang out together without any parents. We send kids to camp so they can be independent, have fun, and make friends. You’d think that a non-religious camp would be better positioned to provide this. But most camps are profit-making enterprises, and it’s parents that pay the bills. So most camps are more focused on making parents happy. This tension is on display in an unintentionally comical email from Camp Tyler Hill being passed by parents this summer. The email is pleading with the parents to stop remotely helicopter parenting their kids by sending messages like, “Why isn’t my son smiling? Can you take another picture with him smiling?”

The goal of summer camp is for the kids to be happy, but what does the word “happy” mean? In ancient Greece, there were two words for happiness. There’s the “eat drink and be merry” version of happiness the Greeks called hedonia. However, there was another higher level of happiness called eudaimonia, the happiness derived from leading an good life. Ramah is about the happiness ofeudaimonia—using Judiasm to raise better kids.(3)This American Life had a great interview of a Methodist Preacher answers the question “Why do we praise G-d so much when we pray?” He says that it’s not about praising a person. It’s about praising the values that we hold dear like loving one another and being an honest person. Praising G-d is about reaffirming these values.(4)Religous camps can focus on important values rather than focusing on the individual. In a similar vein, the anthropologist Richard Sosis examined two hundred communes in the nineteenth century. He found that 39% of religious communes survived vs. 6% of secular ones. Communes require a joint sacrifice for the greater good. Religion and G-d provide a vehicle for that. I learned about this from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, a wonderful book for understanding why conservative values like religion should matter to everyone.

When I came back from summer camp my parents had to power wash the camp influence off of me. They had to extricate me from the Lord of the Flies environment I’d spent 8 weeks in. When Blake came back from Ramah not only did he have a great time but he became a better person. He was more relaxed and confident and would constantly ask how he could help us out.

In many ways, secular camps are quasi-religious experiences. Kids are immersed in a culture where they learn unique rituals to form a tight community. Kids love camp with a lifelong devotion and connection which often resembles a religious connection.(5)If you’ve never been to summer camp or just want to remember what it was like, take a listen to This American Life’s Notes on Camp. I was amazed how similar this was to my summer camp growing up.

Camp Ramah mixes camp and religion well. When Blake came back from camp in 2019, I asked him about prayers before breakfast. When he said, “Those were pretty fun,” I thought he was lying. Who likes praying before breakfast? But he and I saw this ritual differently. I saw it as a painful religious ritual that was performed every day. He saw it as singing songs before breakfast with friends. Thinking about it his way, I’d enjoy this morning communal ritual too. At Camp Ramah, instead of learning camp songs, they learn prayers. Special events are religious events. Saturday isn’t about free play it’s about the holiness of Shabbat.

Great! You might say. But this is religion! Wouldn’t it be better to take all of this time spent on religion and put it to better use? Possibly, but most camps end up re-creating many of the aspects of religion. One of my friends said of a former YMCA camp, “They just sing camp songs during the time of day when they would be singing vespers.” While there’s nothing wrong with learning camp songs and traditions, these rituals don’t travel well beyond camp. As my kids get older they will have a firm rooting in the Jewish community that they can use for the rest of their lives.

When I went to Yale, I was thrust into a wonderful diversity my freshman year. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish New York suburb, I was introduced to a whole host of new things. The first week of school I became friends with international students, Mayflower descendants, and former TV stars. It was all invigorating but also overwhelming, and I didn’t feel at home anywhere.

Freshman year I found my home at Shabbat dinners at Hillel. I didn’t go every week but I gradually started to feel comfortable with all of these traditions and made them my own. I remember going to Yom Kippur services and understanding what it means to meditate on G-d, thinking of nothing else, not even food. But I still felt a little bit out of place, like the rebellious son at Passover, still pushing back because I wasn’t comfortable with my Judaism. This made sense because I only went to shul on the High Holidays after my Bar Mitzvah.

We are providing my kids with the tools so they won’t have this problem. They will have this thread of Judaism throughout their life. They will still be part of the cosmopolitan modern world but they will be able to use the songs, traditions, and sense of community that they learned at Camp Ramah as a foundation for their life. When they go to college they will find a comfortable home at Hillel. When they graduate college and move into the world, they will find a shul to welcome them. They get all the benefits of camp, plus they get the rooting in the Jewish community for free.

Camp Ramah helps me to raise strong and upright Jewish kids. If they’re going to learn some rituals and culture at camp anyway—why not make it about Judaism? Ramah provides my kids with a foundation for becoming a strong part of the Jewish community. Not just the rituals and history but the most important positive values about religion and G-d.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 For a comic version of this check out Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Remember That We Suffered.
2 This wording makes me think of a Third Place for kids out of my head— like a Starbucks for them to hang out together without any parents.
3 This American Life had a great interview of a Methodist Preacher answers the question “Why do we praise G-d so much when we pray?” He says that it’s not about praising a person. It’s about praising the values that we hold dear like loving one another and being an honest person. Praising G-d is about reaffirming these values.
4 Religous camps can focus on important values rather than focusing on the individual. In a similar vein, the anthropologist Richard Sosis examined two hundred communes in the nineteenth century. He found that 39% of religious communes survived vs. 6% of secular ones. Communes require a joint sacrifice for the greater good. Religion and G-d provide a vehicle for that. I learned about this from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, a wonderful book for understanding why conservative values like religion should matter to everyone.
5 If you’ve never been to summer camp or just want to remember what it was like, take a listen to This American Life’s Notes on Camp. I was amazed how similar this was to my summer camp growing up.