Part I: Maintaining a positive community

How do we maintain a close‑knit camp community where we all know each other but where there are no cliques, even as we grow enrollment by 75% in one year?  This is an issue we are dealing with in the off‑season as we gear up for our second summer with chalutzim (pioneers/campers) at Ramah Outdoor Adventure and our inaugural summer for the Jewish Outdoor Leadership Institute.

Last summer, all of our chalutzim were new to camp.  While some came with a friend or aquaintance, over half of our chalutzim arrived not knowing a single other camper.  Everyone at camp, from the chalutzim to the tzevet (staff members), came ready to build a new community.  The newness of the community created a positive atmosphere with few cliques and where we all knew eachother’s name within the first few days. One of my favorite compliments we received at the end of the summer was from a mother of a fifteen year old who wrote a letter saying that this was the first time her daughter had been in a summer camp “without any drama.”

Our “dramaless” community did not happen by accident.  It was the result of careful planning in the off‑season and intensive staff training.  Our staff created an atmosphere where differences were celebrated, where chalutzim competed against himself/herself, and where everyone was welcome regardless of his/her physical abilities and social maturity.  Outdoor adventure by its very nature fosters a culture where one has to rely on others not because of the clothes s/he wears, and not because of the way s/he brushes his/her hair, but because of the way that s/he can help one achieve one’s goals.  For example: rock climbing requires you to have total faith in the person belaying; horseback riding requires youto be aware of the riders in front and behind to ensure that you maintain the proper speed and distance from each other; and even gardening requires you to work with others in the group to get the job done, be it weeding, planting or watering.  While these all might appear to be solo activities, they are in fact team building exercises, where you must be comfortable emphasizing individual autonomy at the same time as you are looking out for the broader team.

While our guiding principle of “challenge by choice” is still central to our educational philosophy, this year we must work hard to ensure that our camp community continues to be an open environment devoid of cliques.  To date, about 40% of our chalutzim are returning chalutzim and about 60% are new to Ramah Outdoor Adventure.  While most people at camp will still not know anyone else on day 1, we will have a sizable minority who have already been part of our community and who already know at least a few people.

And so, our challenge and opportunity is to continue to build upon last summer’s open environment given that 40% of our chalutzim are already veterans.

Which leads to the part II of this blog post: Bunk assignments

I have been asked many times in the past few months whether chalutzim can request to be placed in a tent with a friend from home, or a friend from last summer.  The answer, much to people’s surprise is “no.”  While it is common in many camps to allow for such bunking requests, we have decided not to allow them because we want to foster an environment where everyone has an equal opportunity to get to know the other campers in the tent, and not rely on friends they know from home or last year.  (For 3rd/4th & 5th/6th graders this is a moot point, as we only have one boys’ and one girls’ tent in each edah [age group]).  But for the older edot, we will be picking names out of a hat around June 1st to make bunk assignments.  There might be cases where two friends from last year are placed in the same tent, or where two girls from the same school in New York are placed in the same tent, but it also might happen that two boys coming from the same school in Denver, who have been friends for six years are now in separate tents.  I have been trying to reassure parents & chalutzim that this latter occurrence is not a punishment but a chance for additional growth.

While there are  times during the day that one spends you  with your tent mates, in the older grades these times are primarily limited to meals and sleeping, and in the younger grades to some of the elective activities.  Even more important than tent dynamics are the larger camp dynamics, and for this we want everyone to integrate with the entire community, and not be limited by the pre-existing friends with whom you come to camp.

As our 2010 chalutzim can attest, Ramah Outdoor Adventure is not like any other camp community.   We live with less technology than most other camps, we wake up and go to sleep earlier than most other camps and we engage in activities not found in many other camps.  And even this year with our projected growth, we will continue to be much smaller than most other camps.  For those new to our community, we are delighted that you will be joining.  I know I speak for our entire staff when I say that we want nothing more than for you to have a safe, enjoyable, and meaningful summer at Camp Ramah.  And while it may seem scary to know that you might not be sleeping in the same tent as your friend(s) from home or from last summer, I can assure you that we will help all of our chalutizm settle in to their assigned tents.  Our camp mom/dad, our counselors and our administrators want our chalutzim to have one of the best experiences of their life.  Part of the way we can ensure that this happens is by creating a community where everyone wants to make new friends and where everyone is welcoming of everyone else in camp.