Last Sunday night, 220 people gathered in Denver to honor Don Skupsky and to celebrate our Camp Ramah.

Here are the brief thoughts I shared with everyone that evening.  Also, if you have not yet seen it, check out our new fundraising video here.

The question is, what do the following people have in common?

A day school student from Denver Jewish Day School who is involved in the Boy Scouts, loves to camp but had not found a place where his passion for the outdoors and his love of the natural world to come together as one until this past summer?

A child from Boulder CO who moved to the area with her family who were searching for a spiritual community to call home.  Her parents decided to send her to summer camp where she became friends with other Boulder kids, and as a result the entire family has become active synagogue members because of their child’s relationships.

A teenager from a small town in Florida who is one of about 5 Jewish children in her High School.  Although she is the one who encourages her parents to engage Jewishly, she never has a community of peers during the school year.  She has found such a home, where Judaism is lived, breathed and celebrated by young people, here in Colorado.

A child who is on the autism spectrum, and is in a school for children with special needs.  Her family had been unable to find a local Jewish camp for her to attend in the summers.  This summer she came to camp, and was welcomed with open arms by the other children in her bunk and the rest of the camp community.  During our pre Shabbat Israeli dance sessions, when we sometimes do complicated line dances, a few kids would often take her into a circle so that she could dance with others in circle dances.  She felt included in all camp activities and at home in the community.

So what do all four of these kids have in common?  You probably guessed it: — These are profiles of just three of our campers who call Ramah in Colorado their home.  They are representative of the extraordinary community we build each summer here in the Rockies.

The work we do during the summer pays dividends far after the summer ends.   Staff and campers take these lessons with them to their synagogues, youth groups and college campuses.   One need only look around at the leadership of JSUs, Hillels and other Jewish youth groups.  Ramah staff and campers are disproportionately represented.  One need only look on a Shabbat morning at which kids are in shul more often than their peers, and again, one will find Ramah campers disproportionately represented.  We are proud of the fact that our staff and campers realize that while camp only last 2 or 4 weeks, their Jewish engagement needs to be 52 weeks in length.

We all are looking for great returns on our investments.  This is as true for our business investments as much as it is our philanthropic gifts.  I think it is quite telling that those national foundations who care deeply about the future of the Jewish community are investing to heavily not just in summer camping, but in Ramah camping specifically.  And within the Ramah family of camps, we have stood out for our achievements as the first Jewish outdoor specialty camp.  The Grinspoon Foundation, The Gottesman Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation and most recently the Covenant Foundation have looked to the work we are doing here as models for how camps can continue to innovate to remain a vital force in the broader Jewish community in the 21st century.

As I stand here, 7 months before we are scheduled to open for 2013, I am pleased to say that we continue to grow at a breakneck speed.  We have over 160 campers registered for 2013—about 20% more than this time last year  and for the first time in our history 75% of these kids are registered for four weeks or longer!  Yes, folks, if we have our way, we will make 4 week camping the norm in Colorado—at least for older campers!  We had a waiting list for second session last year, and we anticipate filling once again this year.  While we started as a camp for high school students, we now have expanded to include programing for children as young as 8 years old and as old as 17.  We also began a program for children with special needs last summer and expect to double in size this next year.  We continue to dream of beginning an adult camp, and might even have a trial run this summer for a week.

Our incredible growth and success could not be achieved without some amazing support from so many.  While I will not list everyone here, let me give special mention to a few people.  First of all, to everyone in this room.  We are a not for profit camp, and have children from across the socio-economic spectrum.  We can only complete our mission because of generous donors who help us with capital improvements and scholarship funds.  So thank you for coming and supporting Ramah tonight!

I also want to thank Amy Toppelson, Shari Goldstein and Shira Zimmerman who worked tirelessly to put this dinner together.

I want to thank the amazing group of people with whom I work throughout the year.  Tammy Dollin, Matt Levitt, Douglas Wolf, Sandra Yaron among many others who work throughout the year to ensure that we are ready to open each summer.

About three years ago, I happened to sit next to Joan Nathan at a dinner at the Hazon food conference.  We have stayed in touch ever since, and I am so appreciative of all the culinary help you have given us at camp not to mention your visit this summer, which was a highlight for so many of us.  Thank you for being here tonight and for the words you shared.

And finally: Don Skupsky.  We are here to not only celebrate Ramah in the Rockies, but also to honor the man who brought us this far.  You will be hearing much more about Don in the next few minutes, but suffice it to say that without Don, we would still be dreaming about brining Ramah camping to Colorado.  Without Don, the toilets probably would not flush correctly, the tents would have already fallen down, and we would likely be eating standing up in our old dining hall, kiddish style, because no one other than Don could have figured out how to create a seating area for 250 people by simply pouring a concrete slab into a hillside.  Don, Thank you for everything you have done and continue to do to making Ramah in Colorado such a success.