A Jewish Outdoor Leadership Institute Experience

This Pesach, as we read the story of yetziat mitzrayim in synagogue and at Seders, conversation may turn, as it often does, to leadership. We may discuss Moses’ fear about taking on the mantle of leadership, Pharaoh’s pride that keeps him from protecting his people, or Aaron’s capitulation to the Israelites’ demands to build them an idol. Every summer at the Jewish Outdoor Leadership Institute (JOLI), a program of Ramah Outdoor Adventure, teenagers have the same discussions, relating these core Jewish stories to their own leadership styles in the wilderness.

    Ramah Outdoor Adventure, located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, opened its doors in 2010 as a specialty camp in the Ramah camping movement. The camp began offering JOLI the following summer. JOLI is an intense training program for rising 11th and 12th graders that empowers them to become outdoor adventure leaders and Jewish educators. Now going into its fourth summer, JOLI has already changed the lives of over 50 participants.

    JOLI was the brainchild of Nate Bankirer and Sarah Shulman, two of the first summer’s staff at Ramah Outdoor Adventure. According to the JOLI curriculum, the goal of the program “is for each of its participants to learn Jewish wilderness, survival, and interpersonal skills that help them to emerge as a greater leader at camp and beyond.”

    JOLI allows Ramah Outdoor Adventure to train homegrown talent to become staff. “The idea behind JOLI is to teach 11th and 12th graders to become inspiring outdoor educators,” said Rabbi Eliav Bock, director of Ramah Outdoor Adventure. “In order to become staff at this camp, you need to have that training from our program or some other program.”

    JOLI also serves the Ramah movement more broadly. “Our goal is to be able to send our JOLI alumni to other Ramah camps,” said Bock, noting that some alumni have already gone on to become tripping staff at Ramah Outdoor Adventure and Camp Ramah in Ojai, California.

The structure of JOLI allows its participants to experience camp life, master outdoor leadership skills, and put those skills into practice. They begin the program at base camp, getting certified in Wilderness First Aid, which is a requirement for most outdoor leadership jobs, while also learning the concepts involved in outdoor leadership, including the spectrum of leadership styles, and the stages of group development.

    At the same time, the JOLI staff facilitates bonding through group challenges and the sharing of life stories. “We push them to become comfortable with each other fairly quickly…to be trusting and open and honest with each other about their fears and what intimidates them and what they need from each other, and we really push them to rely on each other with what they need rather than the counselors,” Bankirer said.

    The JOLItes (as the participants are known) soon test this self-reliance on a six day backpacking masa (excursion) in Indian Peaks Wilderness, where they learn and practice camping skills, continue to discuss Jewish leadership lessons, and undergo a 12-hour solo experience. Back at base camp for a week, they assist camp staff in leading activities for the younger campers, or cooking in the kitchen.

    For the final week, they have a choice of either assisting on a masa for younger campers, or doing the “JOLI adventure challenge”—a multiple sport masa (this year it involved mountain biking, backpacking and rock-climbing) where they decide what food and gear to bring.

    On this excursion, they also take turns as leaders of the day, an experience that many participants found to be among the most rewarding of the program. Shira Hill, a 2013 participant, said of leading her fellow chalutzim on Masa, “even though it was a challenge, it was definitely worth it because it helped me, and probably everyone else, be a stronger leader.”

    Other JOLI participants also emphasized the growth they felt in their leadership skills. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it takes a lot of patience, and that you have to accept people the way they are, and work with that,” said Aaron Zetley, while Maya Eylon said she realized, “that you don’t have to be a specific kind of leader…you can change your leadership style to fit the situation.”

    In addition, JOLI participants mentioned the group bonding they formed as a highlight of the program. “We got to that point in JOLI where we could laugh over the most ridiculous things because we’ve seen each other when we’re just totally chill and normal, and also when we’re totally freaking out,” 2013 participant Nomi Small said.

    The JOLI curriculum draws on a vast array of Jewish texts, from the tanach, to Pirkei Avot, to the writings of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. Despite this breadth, Moses remains a key figure. “We really use Moses as a model of someone who is an imperfect leader,” said Shulman. “He is aware of his speech impediment, and is able to use the fact that he has a weakness as a strength, in order to help empower other people.”

    The complaints Moses faced mirror those that any wilderness trip leader might encounter—hunger, thirst, homesickness, or resentment of authority. Just like Moses, the JOLI participants “have to learn about the group and how to respond to their complaints and needs,” according to Shulman.

    Even if they do not go on to lead backpacking trips, Shulman believes that the JOLI experience is transformational for the participants. “Whether you’re an outdoor leader or not, being able to draw on that perspective, and reset things in the wisdom of nature and the wilderness is an incredibly strong tool to have in your life,” she said. “My hope is that they internalize the models they’re introduced to, as well as the skills, and are able to trust in their ability to overcome fears.”

    As we ponder Moses, overcoming his speech impediment to lead his people to freedom, or the Israelites leaving all they’ve ever known to go into the wilderness, these are lessons we might all remember.

Archives