Check out our video, Mining at Ramah!

A group of chalutzim (campers) walk along a ditch, eyes glued to the ground. They call out eerily profound advice to each other. “You can’t be looking for it if you want to find it,” says one to the others.” “It doesn’t matter if it’s topaz or not, as long as you think it looks cool,” says a second. What has produced this level of wisdom in these chalutzim? Rock-hounding.

Rock-hounding (looking for rocks near the surface of the earth) is one of the most popular peulot (activities) at Ramah Outdoor Adventure. Rafi , 13, has done rock-hounding all three summers he’s been at camp. “You get to find cool rocks, learn what they are, and once you memorize the different kinds, you can tell other people what they found,” Rafi said.

Situated on the outskirts of the Pike’s Peak batholith, the region around Ramah Outdoor Adventure has a long history of mining. Since the 1850s, prospectors have come through looking for gold and silver. They found a little metal, but mostly they found topaz, a semi-precious gemstone, and quartz.

Rock-hounding is led by Juliana Kern, a fixture at camp since it opened. Rocks are in Juliana’s blood. Her mother was the only woman studying among 1000 men at the School of Mines in Golden, CO, in the late 1940s, and went on to work for the United States Geological Survey and as a photocrographist. She also taught mining to adults at the Denver Free University, where a young Juliana sat in on classes. Juliana’s brother owns a claim on Crystal Creek (also in Colorado) that has been mined for close to 120 years.

Juliana herself worked in nursing for many years, and as a grocery stocker, always continuing to collect rocks as a hobby. After she hurt her leg in 2003, she began looking for rocks more as a form of physical therapy. Now she enjoys sharing her passion for rocks and minerals with children. “I love kids, and I love it when they first find something and they’re so amazed at the beauty of it,” Kern said.

Rock-hounding also led Juliana to a spiritual experience. “Finding something beautiful in Utah is what brought me closer to Hashem,” she said. She tries to bring in religious teaching to her activities with campers. “I try to tell them about the perfect laws of nature that they talk about in the torah, that nothing is added or taken away from God’s creation, and how cool it is for God to have put something here for us to find billions of years later,” she said.

Finding shiny rocks is also a great chance to talk about the perils of materialism, according to Juliana. Campers often want to know how much their finds are worth, but Juliana says, “I tell them, ‘If you like it, it has a sentimental value that money can’t be placed on,’ and about how people place claims and get greedy and harass each other until it’s no fun anymore.” Campers can keep anything they find at camp except for Native American artifacts.

While intensive mining can be environmentally destructive, Kern says that the rock-hounding she does with campers has a minimal impact, and actually provides an opportunity to discuss environmental stewardship. “I teach them to only dig it up if they’re sure it’s there, and I try to foster that love of nature. I tell them that they’re visitors here, and it’s more the spider’s home than it is theirs.” In the hands of Kern, rock-hounding becomes an opportunity to teach Jewish values, environmental ethics and life-lessons. Not bad for digging in the dirt.