Staff members at Ramah Outdoor Adventure (ROA) come with different levels of Jewish knowledge and observance back home. Some staff members’ journeys are less traditional than others, and Zach Usmani is certainly one of those.
Officially Director of Camper Care, Zach is now in his fourth summer with ROA, and is working year-round on camper recruitment, parent outreach, and planning for the summer.
Zach describes his Jewish upbringing in the small town of Twinsburg, Ohio as “ultra-reform.” “Basically we went to synagogue on high holidays—I didn’t know that 90% of the Jewish holidays existed,” he said. Zach’s father was born in Pakistan and raised Muslim, while his mother was born in Nashville and raised in a conservative Jewish household. Neither was particularly observant by the time Zach was born.
Zach attended The Ohio State University, where he studied Sociology. At OSU, he was moderately involved in Hillel, attending Kabbalat Shabbat and Friday night dinner, and occasionally leading the Reform services.
After college, Zach moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to teach pre-school through Teach For America. While in Tulsa, he also began teaching Hebrew school at Congregation B’nai Emunah. It was there that he met Rabbi Bock, who was visiting the synagogue to recruit campers.
Bock realized what an amazing camper care-giver he had found in Zach and hired him to work that summer with Metayalim, ROA’s age group for campers entering fifth and sixth grades.
At ROA, all staff members take part in Jewish education, which was at first a large challenge for Zach. “I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into,”he says. “I didn’t know what Conservative Judaism was.” However, Rabbi Bock feels that having staff with a range of knowledge and experience is actually an asset.
“What we’re looking for in our staff are role models for our kids,” he said. “If I have a staff member who comes from a less religious or observant background, but they are showing an interest in learning, then they may be better able to relate to campers from similar backgrounds than staff who are more observant or knowledgeable coming in to camp.”
Of the many Jewish lessons taught at camp, Jewish environmentalism practiced at camp is what impacted Zach most.
“The most profound impact has been understanding the connection between Judaism and the environment,” Zach said. “I became a vegetarian because of what I learned, and I became so much more conscious of ‘do I really need to print this,’ or ‘can I use reusable products for that.’ My knowledge base has grown, but so have the values that I hold dear.”
In fall 2012, Zach began a Masters in Social Work program at Columbia University in New York. While there, he has been living in The Bayit, a Jewish co-operative living house for students, something he says would not have happened had he not attended ROA. He also now celebrates Shabbat while away from camp, by attending Kabbalat Shabbat services, having Shabbat dinner with his housemates, and trying to avoid doing schoolwork on Shabbat.
“I really appreciate that I have this community that is different from my day to day life. I still don’t understand everything related to Judaism, but I appreciate it,” Zach said.
Zach has a few months left in his Master’s program, after which he would like to be a school counselor. “I’m really interested in removing barriers to learning in low income communities, and freeing up teachers to teach,” he said. “But during the summers, I want to keep working at camp as long as I can.” His presence will always be welcome.