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As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and reflect on the year that has passed, those of us who had the fortune to spend time at the Ramah in the Rockies ranch will inevitably recall highlights we experienced at 8000 feet.  We will remember the songs we sang, the trails we biked and the mountains we climbed.  And almost all the chalutzim (campers) will remember the hours they worked on our new mural depicting the seven days of creation. Read more

It had to happen!

Another successful summer at Ramah Outdoor Adventure has come to an end.  All is quiet on the ranch.  Eight of our twenty horses have left.  The Alpacas, goats, chickens and ducks have gone home.  A few hours ago, we said goodbye to the last of our chalutzim (campers).  Our tzevet (staff) are packing away equipment, sweeping the ohalim (tents) and readying the camp for the long nine months of hibernation.  Today is one of the hardest days of the summer.  There is no cheering in the ohel ochel, there are no yelps of joy coming from the chalutzim biking down the single track and there is no one hanging around the table in the middle of the kfar (tent area) playing cards during free time.

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Last night, at Havdallah, a member of each edah spoke about his/her experience at camp.  Each offered moving words.  Below is a piece written by Shanna, who is an inaugural chalutza (camper) in our Tikvah program.  Shanna arrived at camp less than 2 weeks ago, and she and the other chalutzim in the Amitzim edah (the name of the Edah in the Tikvah program) have come together as an amazing group, experiencing all that Ramah has to offer.  These individuals have demonstrated that Ramah Outdoor Adventure can provide a wonderful place for children with developmental issues to spend part of their summer.  We plan to continue to expand our Tikvah program in the coming year with two two week sessions.

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One of the core values of Ramah Outdoor Adventure is that Chalutzim (campers) will feel connected to the land and people of Israel, articulate how their lives are impacted by Israel and its citizens’ choices, and be able to engage in conversations about Israeli society.  We accomplish this goal through a variety of methods: we hire a number of Chevrei Mishlachat (Israeli staff members) to work at camp. We bring Israeli chalutzim to camp. We sing Israeli songs, hang Israeli flags, conduct learning sessions about Israel related topics, and use Israel themes throughout much of our program.

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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.

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Sunday morning:

If I had to choose one word to describe Shabbat at Ramah Outdoor Adventure, it would be “Kehillah”  “[community]”  One feels this sense of Kehillah, when we gather, all recently showered and wearing white clothing, in the Kfar (tent area) for Israeli dancing on erev Shabbat.  One feels this sense of community, when we walk down to the pardes Teffilah for camp-wide services and everyone is singing together to the beat of the drum and the strumming of the guitar.  One feels this sense of community at the singing after dinner on Friday night, which this past Friday night was some of the most spirited I have seen in my summers at Ramah Outdoor Adventure.  One feels this sense of community during Shabbat day when chalutzim (campers) of different ages are hanging out with each other playing gaga.  And one feels this sense of community at the end of Shabbat when the entire camp, gathers in one huge circle to sing Havdallah and bid farewell to Shabbat.

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Our first full day of programming has come to a close.  As I write this, all of our chalutzim (campers/pioneers) are fast asleep in their ohalim (tents).  I, like so many of our chalutzim, have spent most of the year dreaming about being back in camp, and then in a blink of an eye we are here and we have one full day under our belts.  As I walked around our chava (ranch) today, I saw chalutzim riding horses, mountain biking, shooting arrows at the archery range and so much more.  Our orienteering staff built an awesome 3D topographical map using mounds of dirt and piping.  Campers at the farm had a chance to take care of our alpacas and goats and to collect eggs from the chicken coup.  Overall, it was a terrific day.

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It is hard to believe that we have been at the Ramah Ranch for over a week.  Last Thursday a large group of counselors from across the URJ (Reform) & Ramah camping movements arrived for Wilderness First Aid (WFA) and Wilderness First Responder (WFR) training.  During this time, we switched off between intensive first aid training, eating delicious meals together and spending time engaged in ritual practice and Jewish learning.  All in all, it has been a fantastic week.  While almost thirty five individuals have been learning first aid, about ten others have been helping to physically prepare our site for the rest of the camp staff who arrive this Sunday for staff week.

While our first session campers do not arrive for another 12 days (!), if the past week is any indication, the dedication to living according to our core values and creating a wholesome atmosphere, which has been the hallmark of our community here in the Rockies, will once again define us as a summer camp and ensure that we all have a wonderful summer.

A few examples from this past week:

  1. On Sunday a group of volunteers arrived at our ranch from the Denver area ready to build tents, to weed the garden and to plant trees.  These volunteers, most of whom will never come to camp as campers (sadly they are too “old”), worked throughout the morning and early afternoon for nothing more than a Thank You, and the knowledge that they were helping to build a Jewish community in the Rockies.  While most of the volunteers were familiar with Ramah in the Rockies, one family joined us because they had heard from the Deputy Sheriff in the area that we are looking to borrow an alpaca for the summer.  This family, who live about 25 miles from camp in the town of Pine, not only have an alpaca to lend, but also wanted to help ready camp for our campers.  They had so much fun that they asked whether they could join us for a Friday night service and perhaps return on a future Sunday to help out again.
  2. This week, a group of our counselors have been at the ranch moving beds, erecting tents, and doing loads of manual labor to ensure that camp is ready to open on June 19th.  One of the largest structures that they assembled was our white tent in front of the art room, which we call the Ohel Eshel (after Abraham’s tent that was also open on all four sides).  At two different points in the construction process, we needed the help of about twenty other people to lift and move the tent.  After a meal, I asked for volunteers, and almost everyone from the URJ camps AND the Ramah camps came to help out.  While it is not surprising that people are willing to lend a hand, it is the positive and happy attitude that they have that ensures that tasks are not only completed, but are finished with a sense of pride and purpose.  Once our Chalutzim (campers) arrive, we will continue to emphasize that communities are strengthened when people help each other.
  3. Just like we will do during the summer, we have  awoken each morning to the booming voice of Juiceboxx and G‑baby (their parents named them Dan and Gabi, but chalutzim refer to them by their camp names) who yell Bo- Bo‑ Bo‑ Boker Tov!  Some of our counselors have already been awake for forty five minutes practicing yoga by the time the shout it heard.  Others have been for a run, and most are just beginning to stir.  Each morning, thirty minutes after our ‘wakeup call’ we gather for teffilot.  It is hard to describe the sense of awe that one feels here each morning.  Because we have been mixed with the URJ participants, we have offered a variety of “alternative” teffilot, from meditation, to nature walks to yoga.  We have also had some more traditional forms such as a musical teffilah yesterday and a traditional Torah reading service today.  A personal highlight was our Reform lead service that took place in the hay loft on Sunday morning.   Although the hour is early, and the temperature cool, we have had inspirational teffilot that I hope will become even more inspirational once the rest of our staff and chalutzim arrive.

Each summer in early June we all feel a sense of nervous excitement.  Will this be a good summer?  Will I like my counselors?  Will I meet new friends?  Will I like the food?  As the camp director, I too am filled with nervous excitement, although my list includes items that campers might not worry about, such as: will the food truck arrive on time?  Will the water pipe leak?  Will the internet keep our phones running?  Thankfully, one week into our summer season, I am pleased to report that almost everything has been running better than expected.  If we can replicate nine more weeks like this past one, we will be in great shape!

Elyssa Hammerman is returning for her fourth summer at Ramah Outdoor Adventure as the director of our inaugural Tikvah program, for children with developmental special needs.  Elyssa wrote the post below:

“Everyone should be able to go to sleep away camp, it’s the most amazing place in the world.” I remember thinking this to myself when I was first a counselor about ten years ago at a camp in Canada.  Since that time, I have tried to find ways to work with children with special needs in a camp setting.

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About a year ago, our then program director, Daniel Buoniauto wrote a blog post entitled “A Camp Built on Good Will.” Dan described his experience spending a day on the ranch preparing for the upcoming camp season, working with a group of dedicated volunteers.

Over the past three years, I have seen time and again how a group of passionate volunteers consistently go above and beyond what is expected of them to make our camp the success it has become.  In the first season, we had volunteers who donned gloves and masks to clean out aging chicken waste from the old chicken coop so that our chickens would have a clean place to live.  Last year, we had groups of people who came up on two Sundays to erect fifteen canvas tents, each weighing several hundred pounds.  When I drove up during the tent building with a truckload of hay that I had hauled from eastern Colorado, three people came running to the hay loft to help unload, and we had it emptied in matter of minutes.

Recently, someone asked me what area of camp I think best encapsulates what we are about at Camp Ramah in Colorado.  I answered the Pardes Teffilah (literally the prayer orchard), where we conduct Friday night services each week.  In 2010, the Chalutzim Hamiyasdim (founding pioneers/campers) told us we needed a large space in which the camp community could gather for prayers and other camp‑wide events.  They chose a spot on the hillside near the ohelim (tents) on which to begin the construction.  But rather than hire an outside construction crew, these campers began work on the project themselves.  This work has been continued by nearly every camper group since.  They found logs on the property to serve as supports and using both new and reclaimed wood constructed benches with their own hands to create our wonderful Pardes Teffilah.  Every time I walk down the path to this space and look out on the hillside, I think about how amazing it is that our main gathering space was built by dedicated campers and staff using only basic tools and materials.

The volunteer spirit that has built our camp and the service our chalutzim offer each week to the camp community & the surrounding forest is at the foundation of who we are as a community.  While we rely on professionals for the heavy lifting (like the one ton boulder we had to move from the tent area last year) and the skilled labor we need in constructing structures like our new dining deck, we continue to rely on volunteers to do basic tasks.  Our volunteers love being able to help build a community in the Rockies, and we have met so many interesting people, many of whom might never have had a chance to connect with Ramah in Colorado had it not been through this experience.

For this reason, we once again want to invite friends in Colorado to join us at the ranch on Sunday May 20th and Sunday June 3rd from 10:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. to help us prepare for the upcoming season.  Some of the projects we hope to complete on these days include: planting a garden, erecting our three new camper tents, erecting our Ohel Eshel, planting 100 trees and more.  If you are able to join us on either or both days, please email info[at]ramahoutdoors [dot] org.  We will have a group coming from Denver and are always looking to arrange for carpools.  We ask you to bring a picnic lunch for May 20th as our kitchen will not be open yet, but will be serving a hot lunch on June 3rd to everyone who is helping us that day.

Core Values revisited

In the winter of 2008‑2009, a full eighteen months before we were scheduled to welcome our first chalutzim (campers/pioneers) to Ramah Outdoor Adventure, a group of us spent many weeks articulating a set of Jewish core values that we would use as our guiding principles when creating the camp program.  We used Dr. Ismar Schorch’s Sacred Clusters as the basis for our principles, written in 1995 by the then‑Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in an attempt to articulate the principles of Conservative Judaism.  By beginning our planning process around our Jewish values, and not the activities we hoped to offer, we were able to ensure that everything we developed for camp from that point forward would be influenced by these values.  Each year, we begin our staff training with a program articulating our Jewish core values.  Anyone who enters our Chadar Ohel (dining hall) knows that these values are displayed in large print on the walls of the dining hall, as a constant reminder of why we come together each summer as a Kehillah Kedosha (a holy community).

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Four years ago, I was sitting in my living room in Israel, where I was spending my fourth year of Rabbinical school studying at Machon Schechter, when I received the email.  It was from Rabbi Mitch Cohen, the National Ramah director.  It read “Call me; I have big plans for you.”  I picked up the phone and called Rabbi Mitch.  He told me that the National Ramah Commission was going to apply for a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp & the Jim Joseph Foundation through a new program called the Specialty Camp Incubator.  These foundations were looking to seed five new Jewish specialty camps to attract Jewish children who were either not going to camp, or attending non-Jewish specialty camps.  Rabbi Mitch asked me to help craft the grant.  Working with a team of exceptionally talented individuals, we put together a winning proposal and were awarded an incubator grant in the fall of 2008.  Shortly after, I became the director of this new camp, Ramah Outdoor Adventure, and commenced work to implement our 2009 staff training program and our 2010 inaugural summer camp program.

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Today marks our 75 day countdown until we welcome our first Chalutzim (pioneers/campers) to the Ramah Ranch.  In this time of Pesach, when we think about 4 cups of wine, 3 matzot and the numbers in “Who Knows One”, I wanted to reflect on a few of the key numbers we are thinking about as we prepare for our upcoming camp session

300         Gallons of milk we anticipate using this summer—most from a local organic supplier

250         Campers currently registered for the 2012 summer season

140         Campers who are coming to Ramah Outdoor Adventure in 2011 for the first time

130         Maximum number of campers at camp at any one time

50           Program staff members who are working in camp this year

40           Additional campers we are hoping to enroll before opening day

20           Horses coming to “work” at camp this summer

18           Number of shower stalls in our renovated shower-house.

13           Number of campers coming from the State of Oklahoma

8              Hens who will be laying eggs at camp this summer

7              Dogs we will have living with us on the ranch (they all belong to older

staff members and do not live in camper tents)

2              Goats coming to camp this summer (on loan from a local goat farmer)

1           Currently registered camper from each of the following states: Wyoming, Wisconsin and

Tennessee, plus 1 camper coming from the Dominican Republic (our 4th country represented at Ramah Outdoor Adventure).

[Written on erev Shabbat, posted on Sunday)

My work week began this week, at 6:00am on Sunday morning in Denver, on my way to catch a flight to Laguardia Airport for a week of meetings and conferences in the tri-state area.  No sooner had the cab pulled away from my house and merged onto the main road, did I realize that I had forgotten an important item at home: my reusable coffee mug.  When I leave the house for a meeting or trip, I try to remember to bring a reusable cup and a reusable water-bottle.  I have found that by carrying these two items in my bag, when I am attending meetings, I am able to reduce the amount of waste I produce because rather than reaching for a disposable cup or bottle, I reach for my reusable bottle or cup.

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The following is a Dvar Torah I gave this past Shabbat at the Hebrew Educational Alliance (HEA) in Denver Colorado.  HEA is the largest Conservative Shul in Colorado.  Their clergy, staff and lay leaders have been some of the most ardent supporters of Camp Ramah in Colorado.

It is a sound I am privileged to hear numerous times throughout the summer.   It is the sound of squealing, chanting and shouting of excited campers as they return to camp from their various excursions.  Some were away for only twenty-four hours and hiked five miles while running through mud puddles.  Others were away for five days having biked over 120 miles up and down alpine dirt roads.

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January 1st marks the beginning of the secular new year, and even though I am a Jewish camp director who feels much more connected to the Jewish new year, I could not help but take a few moments this past weekend to reflect on the year that had passed and the year ahead.  I found myself “Googling” Ramah Outdoor Adventure and came across many of the writings and videos I have posted over the past three years as well as the various articles that have been written about this new camp.  My secular new year turned into a trip down memory lane.

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On most mornings, I begin my day with a few minutes of davening (prayers) while looking out of the picture window.  Usually, I am joined in the living room by my twenty month old son Matan, who dons his own tallit (“feefeet” as he call it) and sits next to me holding a small blue siddur.  I treasure these moments together because I know that they are helping to forge his own Jewish identity, and because they are a constant reminder of the responsibility I have as a parent to set a good example, as he mimics my actions.  While I wish I could say that I have deep religious experiences on most mornings, more often than not, my prayers are said by rote with only a little more kavanah (intention) than I would have if I were reading the New York Times.  Inevitably, after a few minutes Matan becomes bored sitting next to me and motions that he wants to head to the kitchen to eat.  I usually hurry through the rest of my teffilot and move on with my day.

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Dear Blog readers:  While many of you might have seen this press release through another avenue, we wanted to distribute it as widely as possible.  Please feel free to forward this to any families whom you think would be interested in learning more about the program.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: ELYSSA HAMMERMAN

INFO@RAMAHOUTDOORS.ORG 303 261 8214

Special Needs Program

Launches at Ramah Outdoor Adventure

DENVER – November 15, 2011

Ramah Outdoor Adventure at Ramah in the Rockies, the only Kosher Outdoor Adventure camp in North America with an intensive Jewish educational program, is launching a new initiative for campers with special needs called: The Tikvah Program. This two-week program will serve adolescents ages 11-15 with mild to moderate intellectual and developmental disabilities, including Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism Disorder.

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At Ramah Outdoor Adventure, we pride ourselves on creating a counseling team made up of some of the finest counselors in the camping industry.  For the past three summers (we began staff training in 2009) we have assembled a group of relatively older counselors who are able to execute our camp’s mission and build intensive Jewish programming that relates to our camp’s core values.  After each of the past two summers, the compliment I heard most often from our chalutzim and parents was just how amazing our staff is and how they created a magical atmosphere where our chalutzim were able to thrive.  As we grow, we are committed to maintaining this extraordinary level of staffing and to hire only the most motivated and passionate of college and post college age counselors.

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This past week, I have had the pleasure of sitting in my Sukkah that I built using wood and hardware from Home Depot, topped with a bamboo mat that arrived via Fedex from a warehouse in Brooklyn.  A Sukkah is supposed to be a place that is less comfortable than one’s house and is built as a temporary structure in the outdoors.  My Sukkah, fits this description while also being a halachically acceptable.

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This was a letter sent to all parents today.  Our email crashed while sending the letter, so many people might not have received it.

As we enter the Sukkoth holiday later this week, when we move outdoors to eat our meals in the sukkah, I am reminded of the incredible experiences I shared this summer with your children and our incredible staff.  While enrollment for 2012 is well underway (we have close to 50 campers already registered!) we are still evaluating lessons learned from last season and are considering how we are going to improve and expand the camp program for 2012.

I want to thank all the parents who provided us feedback on the customer satisfaction survey, which was administered by a third party organization to ensure anonymity.  The first 25 pages can be read here.  As you can see, we have made improvements in most key areas and continue to rank higher than the national average in many categories.   We are especially pleased that so many campers said they would highly recommend this camp to their friends.

If you do not have time to read all 25 slides here are the “headlines” from the results:

We made huge improvements in all areas related to Spiritual, Cultural and Religious life.

We received improved ratings on cabins/tent accommodations.

We received twice as many “excellent” scores for the bathroom/shower facilities compared to 2010.

We scored very strong ratings on all areas related to cost.

Our campers’ ratings up across the board compared to 2010.

That being said, we know that we must continue to improve our program and will be working throughout the off season to ensure that summer 2012 is even better than our initial two seasons.

As always, please do not hesitate to be in touch with any questions or comments.

Chag Samaiach.

Rabbi Eliav