Religious practice at camp

An issue that surfaced on numerous occasions over the past two weeks in my talks with parents about Ramah, is about the religious standards and attitudes present at Ramah Outdoor Adventure.  One parent, with whom I spoke, told me that she could never send her child to Ramah because we did not hold to a high enough religious standard.  Another parent told me that he was concerned about sending his child to Ramah Outdoor Adventure because we were going to indoctrinate his child with our religious thinking.  In other words, we were both “too religious” and “not religious enough.”

These conversations are by no means unique, and I have had these same conversations numerous times with prospective parents and campers.  One of my favorite aspects of recruiting campers for Ramah Outdoor Adventure is helping parents understand how the Judaism that we practice allows for individual experimentation, but also mandates a certain level of observance in public.

Ramah Outdoor Adventure  holds by eight core religious values.   Please take a look at the earlier blog post to familiarize yourself with these values.  It is important to note that these values are not creeds.  As a community, we do not dictate what someone must believe, but rather we work with our community members to find their own religious expressions within the context of these eight core values.

So let’s use our 6th core value, relating to Jewish observance, to further explore what I mean.  It reads “we believe that at the core of the Jewish people is their dedication to Jewish observance (Halacha). Commitment to halacha has enabled the Jewish people to thrive for over 2,000 years.”  Underlying almost every parental question about how “religious” we are at

Ramah Outdoor Adventure is actually the issue of halacha/ ritual observance.  In particular, I believe that many parents wonder about how much religious practice בין אדם למקום – between person and God—we have at camp.  I do not believe that there are parents who are worried that their children are going to become too respectful of others at camp, or that their children will decide to give too much tzedaka because of camp.  I think that there are many parents who are concerned that there is too much prayer, or not enough prayer, too much ritual observance on Shabbat or not enough ritual observance etc.

So regarding halacha and camp:  Ramah Outdoor Adventure is part of the Conservative Movement.  As such, we maintain a very high level of ritual observance when we are together as a camp community.  Jewish prayer and ritual help us define every day.  For example, we begin each day with prayer; we begin and end each meal with blessings before and after the meal; and we mark each week according to the days left until Shabbat.  Living one’s life 24/7 according to the Jewish rhythm of the day is one of the most magical aspects of time at any Ramah camp.  Rarely are we able to escape the demands of the secular world and completely immerse ourselves in such an intimate Jewish community.

Now, within this rhythm of the day, there is plenty of opportunities for individual observances.  For example, in the mornings, everyone wakes up and prays.  All boys must wear tallit and teffilin (if they are over the age of Bar Mitzvah).  Girls can choose whether or not to wear Tallt and Teffilin.  But what one says during the prayer is a very personal decision.  At times, we conduct prayers like one would in synagogue, where everyone is chanting together in unison.  At other times we allow for private meditation during prayers, allowing people to go off on their own and reflect on their own relationship with the Divine.  At other times, we might engage in Yoga or chanting in lieu of formal prayers.  In all these instances, we, as a community, provide the framework for a religious encounter, and leave it to the individual to find an experience that speaks to them.

Similarly, when it comes to Shabbat, we provide the framework for a deep encounter with the island of time, Abraham Joshua’s Heschel’s metaphor for Shabbat, and then require each member of the community to decide on their own how they will approach the island. On Shabbat, we leave all communal lights turned on, so that no one has to create a new light on Shabbat.  But at the same time we allow for individuals to use flashlights in their own private domains if they want to lie on their bed and read a book.  Likewise, we build an eruv around our living area that encompasses over 50 acres where we function as a community.  Yet there are another 310 acres of ranch beyond our eruv where older campers are allowed to explore on Shabbat, if they choose.  When they do so, they must make the individual decision about whether or not they will carry beyond the communal boundaries. Again, as a community we allow for those who hold by the eruv, but also acknowledge that there are those who are comfortable operating without it.

If there is one tenet of our community that is paramount (even though it is not a core religious value) it is the value of open communication.  While we do have bottom lines at camp (such as that only Kosher food is served at camp) as a community we are strengthened through multiplicity of voices and opinions. (Kosher food is a whole other story: In short, the Kashrut standards at any Ramah Camp will be almost identical to the Kashrut standards of any Orthodox camp.  But, we are under the supervision of Rabbi Joel Roth, a preeminent Conservative Rabbi, not an Orthodox Vaad.  Please call me if you want to discuss our Kashrut policies). We encourage campers and staff to ask, challenge, probe, support, and reinterpret Jewish laws traditions and customs.  Only through such an engaged process will our community really become an active and intellectually engaged Jewish community.

When hiring staff, I did not just hire rabbinical school students or graduates of day schools from observant families.  In fact, I specifically hired a range of people who are on a religious journey.  Some of these people would consider themselves to be completely observant of mitzvot between God and Man—they pray three times a day, keep kosher, and observe the laws of the Sabbath.  Yet, I also hired many people who I know do not maintain as high a religious standard in their regular lives as they do at camp.   One of these counselors asked me whether it would be OK for her to share with the campers that she goes out on Friday night with her friends to a music club.  My response to her was that I wanted her to be genuine at all times.  I asked her why she goes with her friends on Friday night, and she responded “there is no Jewish community at my school.”  “Well.” I answered, “if there was a Jewish community would you still go?” “Probably not” she replied.  “Going with my friends to hear music is the way I celebrate Shabbat given my limited community.”  In other words, for this person, Friday night is a time to spend with friends and family.  I have encouraged her to share her story this summer and to also explain why she is working at Ramah where we have such an intense Jewish community.  I think that our campers can learn from her experience and understand that they too will have to make choices in life.  Perhaps they will choose to go to a specific college or spend time in a specific area, but if there is no Jewish community, then their identity as Jews will be affected.

Ramah is so successful as a Jewish education institution because we maintain a high religious standard that allows for even the most observant campers to feel comfortable.  But at the same time we encourage open dialogue and individual expression within the confines of the religious standards of the camp.  In our new community this summer, I am certain there will be some incredible and provocative discussions that ensue.  My hope is that these discussions will engender a deeper level of understanding and a deeper commitment to our core religious values.

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