Since returning to the office after Rosh Hashanah, our year-round team has heard from hundreds of parents, chalutzim (campers), and tzevet (staff) about their experiences at Ramah in the Rockies. We appreciate the honest feedback offered by all. Below are a few highlights of lessons learned from Kayitz 2021, along with some areas for growth as we begin planning for 2022.
TWO THUMBS UP: OUR SUCCESSES
A core value of our camp is to create kesharim between young Jews. After almost sixteen months of social isolation, chalutzim and tzevet came to camp eager to be in community. Our camp program enabled them to form new friendships with campers from across the country and Israel. We heard time and again about the importance of informal conversations between tzevet and chalutzim and how they shaped the summer experience. We also heard from many of our older chalutzim how much they enjoyed living in the upper tent circle, hanging out together and staying up later than in years past. Having a higher percentage of four-week chalutzim than in previous years also deepened the connections within the edot (age groups). Upon returning home, a few of our youngest chalutzim informed their parents that they too would one day be staff members at Ramah in the Rockies. It is amazing that so many chalutzim see themselves continuing on the aspirational arc of the camp program, and we certainly hope that returning to camp as tzevet enables their growth for years to come.
A core part of camp is built around the masa program and the transformational aspect of going on a journey into the Colorado wilderness. This summer we better articulated the goals of the masa program to our tzevet, which allowed masa’ot to serve as profound leadership training experiences. We trained our staff to focus on key elements of a masa, such preparation, outdoors skills, and spiritual development, among others. Chalutzim bonded as a group on the trail and returned more aware of their own strength and character. Campers appreciated improved masa meals, increased quantities of food packed out, and newly purchased gear such as improved sleeping pads, youth-sized internal frame backpacks, and tents. We will continue to invest in quality gear next year. We will likely discontinue using tarps altogether until perhaps early August, as climate change has made mosquitos a reality even in the high Rocky Mountains. We will continue to refine our backcountry menus based on the feedback we’ve received.
Perhaps the most frequent comment across the feedback was the joy of Jewish living at camp. The camp educational experience is so powerful because we create a plausibility structure in which living in an observant community committed to prayer, ritual, and mitzvot is the norm. We play Hebrew music in the chadar ochel (dining hall), dance to Israeli songs after Havdalah, and engage in prayer experiences ranging from solitary conversations with The Divine to exuberant communal singing accompanied by musical instruments of all shapes and sizes. We celebrated B’nai Mitzvah as well as a staff member’s conversion to Judaism; we stood in solidarity with those in our community reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. Parents shared how their children came home singing camp melodies and dancing to camp music. So many parents, chalutzim, and tzevet commented on the sheer joy of celebrating Shabbat together and wondered how to recreate that feeling back home. As Jewish educators, it is hard to overstate how uplifting it is to know that campers eagerly anticipate the magic of Shabbat each week. Along the same lines, a wonderful critique to hear was that some younger chalutzim did not appreciate having to go to bed earlier than those in older edot on Saturday night as they wished they could stay longer to dance after Havdalah.
MIXED REVIEWS: ROOM FOR GROWTH
Travel Days–Opening Day
We changed our opening-day procedures this year to allow for distancing and outdoor gathering at the airport. We encouraged more families to drive to camp but requested that parents stay in their cars. While most understood why we made these decisions, we should have better communicated before opening day what to expect at both camp and the airport. We heard feedback about our airport procedures and are committed to improving them so that wait times for camp buses are shortened, new campers receive extra care and attention, and that all snacks and lunches are abundant. We hope we can return to using vans to transport chalutzim to camp and plan to implement a better airport check-in system which will include the distribution of name tags and edah bracelets. We will coordinate with the Denver Airport authorities about setting a better meeting place and will also work with our programming staff to ensure that chalutzim meet and bond with each other while waiting to board vans. We expect to announce more details by March of 2022.
We are a nature-based camp, and chalutzim certainly leave our camp with a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the natural world around them. However, we have an opportunity to improve our environmental science education throughout camp. We need to better use our ranch to teach earth sciences, conservation, and nature stewardship. We did not compost this summer and were not able to emphasize waste reduction in the chadar ochel the way we usually do. While we had hoped to implement a new earth science program, including setting up a weather station, adding observation areas, and measuring water flows, ultimately we had to prioritize other programs. In the off-season, we will work to create a set of educational objectives for our nature-based programs, and will hire at least two tzevet members next summer to turn those objectives into concrete programs that will integrate environmental science into our curriculum.
Mental Health and Inclusion
We pride ourselves on being a radically inclusive Jewish community. This past summer we encountered increased mental health issues among our tzevet and chalutzim. For years, we have run a small inclusion program in which we provide extra resources for those chalutzim who need additional help, especially with social-emotional health. While many parents of inclusion campers reach out for help in developing individualized plans ahead of time, we learned that some parents of those campers requiring support do not ask for it. This might be because parents expect the camp environment to be less stressful than school, or because certain needs only emerge after campers arrive. While camp is a fun and informal environment, being away from home and living in community with peers can present its own challenges. While we keep some spaces open in our inclusion program for those campers for whose needs only become manifest at camp, we were not prepared to handle the volume or intensity of the needs that existed this summer.
We have already refined our camper application to better assess social-emotional health, understand school-year supports, and anticipate needs for all campers. We reworked our intake process to increase communication with families about individual needs, and plan to better define our inclusion program and better articulate whom we can and can not support. We plan to hire a new Director of Inclusion who will work as part of the Camp Wellness Team and oversee the individualized plans of each camper in the inclusion program. We also plan to provide more training sessions about mental health for our tzevet, clearer instructions on who to turn to for help and when to ask for assistance.
We feel incredibly privileged that so many families entrust their children to our care each summer. We know the awesome responsibility that this entails and are aware that a child’s experience at camp can have a profound impact throughout life. We constantly seek to improve and fully realize the values that guide us throughout our summer. We also know that there will be times when we fall short of expectations, and cannot thank our parents, chalutzim, and tzevet enough for continuing to push us to make our camp better and stronger! If you have not had a chance to share feedback, or you have additional thoughts in the future, please be in touch with us. Our improvement is a continuous process, and we would love to hear from you as we plan for 2022.
We are two months into our 10 month masa away from camp, and we look forward to welcoming 550+ Jewish youth back to our ranch in eight more months. Early registration is open and we look forward to welcoming everyone back to camp in June 2022!
The Ramah in the Rockies Team