Connecting with Jewish roots through the Ramah Animals
At the beginning of each camp season, a herd of horses and a number of farm animals are delivered to our ranch for us to use in our camp program. For nine weeks, our tzevet (staff) and chalutzim (campers) care for these animals as their own pets. They learn the value of tzar baalei hayim (taking care of animals) as well as the work ethic involved in raising farm animals.
Finding animals for camp is one of the more interesting aspects of my job as director and rabbi of Ramah Outdoor Adventure. After years of living in Boston, New York, Palo Alto and Jerusalem, my experience with farm animals was very limited before starting this job. My understanding of how the rental market for horses & chickens in the West works was even more limited.
After two years of renting our horses from one of the largest rental herds in Wyoming (there are two major rental companies in the Mountain West), this year we had to find a new source of horses. The owner of the Wyoming herd had told us in January that she would no longer deliver their horses to our ranch. (“We will drop them in Denver for you, but no farther south!”) A few calls later to the other large provider of horses in the region, and we had a verbal commitment to twenty new horses for the summer. Unfortunately, everything changed in late March when the owner of the newherd called to say that he had miscounted his contracts and he would not be able to provide us with more than two or three horses. Panic set in. Camp was opening in three months, and we needed twenty horses!
I searched online and found a listing of barns in Colorado. I began to call each one asking whether anyone knew of someone with 10-20 horses to rent (it is best to get your horses from one or two herds at most). One person mentioned that he knew of someone named Sherry McColkin who lived near Colorado Springs who he had heard might have some extra horses to rent. Going only on this mispronounced name, I found such a person with a similar looking name who was a truck driver living an hour south of Colorado Springs. Having nothing to lose, I gave her a call. “Hi, this is Eliav. I have a random question; do you have any horses to rent?”
As it turns out, Sherry owns about thirty horses. She used to be a truck driver before going back to school to train as a registered nurse. She continues to raise horses as a hobby, while working as a home hospice nurse, and rents out her “kids” to hunting camps during the summer and fall. Because she has had the same clients rent from her for many years, she has never had to advertise her herd. This past winter, however, only weeks before I called, she learned that one of her clients had closed their ranch and would not be using her in the future. Our timing was perfect!
Once it became clear that we would be working together this summer, I explained to Sherry that we were a Jewish camp with a strong emphasis on religion. She was beside herself with joy upon learning that each horse would receive a Hebrew name while at camp. As it turns out, Sherry had recently learned that her maternal grandmother was born a Jew in Czechoslovakia who had a last name of Rubenstein. Upon moving to the States, she took on the name Raz and converted to Catholicism to marry her maternal grandfather. This was a well-kept family secret until a few years ago. Sherry had been spending some of her free time trying to learn about her family roots and her Jewish heritage. My call came in the middle of her search.
Sherry and her husband, Clyde, joined us a few weeks ago at camp for a Friday night service and a Shabbat dinner. They have been wonderful to work with, and a pleasure to host for Shabbat. We hope that her horses, now with Hebrew names, will be able to join us on the chava (ranch) for years to come!
If the story of our animals with Jewish ancestry ended here, it would certainly be a good one; but this is only the beginning. We also were in need of goats, alpacas, chickens, and turkeys this year.
Each year on Mother’s day, one of the local sheriffs, Deputy Mike, comes to camp to wish our caretaker, Miki, a happy Mother’s day. In May, when he asked Miki what he could do to help her this year, she said that we were looking for some farm animals for our agriculture program. He promised to find a solution. Upon leaving the ranch, he drove his squad car to the home of a family in Pine, CO (about 20 miles away). They had recently moved to the area, but did not have their fences set up for their animals. He told this family that a Jewish camp up the road was looking to adopt some animals for the summer. The following week, Amber, the mother, came to camp with her three children to check out the living conditions for her animals.
While here, she mentioned that this was a wonderful coincidence, because in January she learned that her Christian husband from South America actually has Jewish roots. For the past five months they have been practicing Jewish customs at home, including celebrating Friday night dinner and studying from the Torah. She had recently purchased a shofar and a Tallit, but was told that only men could wear the Tallit.
Amber and her family have also joined us for Shabbat services and dinner. They volunteered on our ranch with planting in the garden and planting new trees as well as coming to visit their animals. Amber has asked some amazing questions about Judaism and theology while showing a keen interest in learning more about her family’s heritage.
When we started Camp Ramah a few years ago, we guessed that we were the first Jewish community to be established in this area of Colorado. Little did we know that through our relationship with our neighbors and vendors, we would become a magnet for people who were reconnecting with their Jewish ancestry.