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Over the past six weeks, our year-round team listened to 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 2022, along with some areas for growth, as we begin planning for 2023.

TWO THUMBS UP: OUR SUCCESSES

Our Approach to COVID

We approached this summer knowing that we were living in a new normal. COVID is a fact of life, and our goal was to keep our community as healthy as possible while also maintaining normal camp functions. Throughout the spring our COVID medical committee emphasized there were only two options: lock down camp, pod & mask, and screen weekly (our 2021 approach) or the route we chose. We heard from SO many parents how much they appreciated our vaccine requirements, pre-camp testing, and handling COVID like any other respiratory disease, treating symptoms as needed and only testing when there was a medical reason to do so. In total, approximately five campers spent more than two consecutive nights in the infirmary due to a respiratory disease (or COVID). Many campers felt cold-like symptoms for a few days, but the camp program continued as planned and few were ever isolated from their peers. We wished we had sent a communication at the end of Session I to families saying to test their children upon arriving home if they were concerned their child contracted COVID at camp. Based on feedback from Session I parents, we did this at the end of Session II. While we do not know what our COVID policies will be for 2023, and likely will not make a decision until January, we assume this new normal is here to stay.

Radical Inclusion

At our core we are a radically inclusive Jewish community. We live this value from the very beginning with camper intakes, staff hiring, and modeling throughout staff training as we renorm our community each summer. We want people to come to camp and be their true selves, celebrate their differences, and explore their Jewish identities. Parents raising their children in large and small Jewish communities shared how camp helped their children explore their relationship to Judaism and made them proud to be Jewish. Parents shared stories about their children struggling in school, being judged for their reading, writing, or math skills, and how camp increased their confidence as they reached new heights on masa or learned to jump from boulder to boulder at base camp. Parents of teenagers shared how they loved and appreciated our emphasis on developing strong group kesharim (connections), both in the ohel (bunk) and edah (age group), without social and academic pressures often found in their schools. One camper returned home and told their parent (who happens to be a rabbi) that “camp was a Jewish community who finally got me”, and another camper said, “at Ramah for the first time ever, I felt like I BELONGED.”

Singing and Dancing

After a 2021 season with limited communal singing and dancing, it was incredible to reinfuse our kehillah (community) with these powerful modalities of community building, spiritual strengthening and pure simcha (joy)! It is hard to overstate the power of our shira (song) team when they led t’filot (prayers), our morning Torah Tidbit ritual, shira sessions in the chadar ochel (dining hall), chuggim (activities), and Havdalah. Campers (and staff) learned their voices were welcomed whether they could sing on key or off, loud or soft. Similarly, anytime there was a moment to dance, be it during chuggim, before/after a meal, at Havdalah or a silent disco, we jumped at the opportunity. The sounds, rhythms, and dance steps have remained with campers and staff almost two months after leaving our ranch. We also received MANY requests for links to our songs and dances. Click here for our music and here for our Spotify rikkud playlist.

MIXED REVIEWS: ROOM FOR GROWTH

Mail, Packing List, & Lost and Found

These three are grouped together because they are all relatively small items with a big impact on the camp program and need to be improved. 

Mail:
  • While we cannot control the USPS delivery schedule, we need to do better with sending outgoing mail and distributing incoming mail to chalutzim daily. This is a right every child deserves. We also were lax with our flat package policy (only accepting flat packages), and the lack of uniform enforcement caused friction in the ohalim where most parents abided by this policy and others did not. 
Packing Lists:
  • We have three packing lists in different locations for people to access; however, none of these lists correspond to the other. All are too technical and overcomplicated. We will consolidate these versions into one, simplify language, and be more specific on what to bring and what camp will provide. We are happy to share that our experiment with weekly laundry worked to limit the amount of clothes needed, and we hope to continue this service next year.
Lost and Found:
  • There are WAY too many items in lost and found. This contributes to a culture where campers go “shopping” for lost items instead of returning them to their rightful owner. Parents shared how their child lost a rain jacket or sweatshirt and then “borrowed” one from lost and found or their child came home without expensive gear or only a portion of their clothing. Untold numbers of water bottles were lost this summer, and too many were “borrowed” from the lost and found! While we will work on a better redistribution system, we also will continue to emphasize to families that every item must be labeled clearly, which will help us perform the mitzvah of hashavat aveida–returning a lost item.
More Choice Chuggim

To enable chalutzim to bond with their ohalim, we tried an experiment this summer where Ilanot-Bogrim rotated by ohel to different chuggim for the first week of camp. Only after their first masa did older chalutzim level into chuggim. Families voiced that, yes, while campers enjoyed being with their bunkmates, their child would prefer to choose their activities because they often felt either under or over challenged by their peers in a specific chug or they did not enjoy doing a particular chug. For next summer, Sollelim and Bogrim will rotate by ohel on the first full day of camp and then level into chuggim for all additional program days at base camp. Ilanot and Metaylim will continue to have a hybrid model of rotating by ohel and leveling individually. 

Masa

On the one hand, chalutzim and tzevet continued to tell us that masa was the highlight of their camp experience. On the other hand, we heard so much feedback about different aspects of the masa program that can improve:

Routes & Trips:
  • This off-season we will continue to expand the routes available for our trips, develop our wildcraft masa program for older chalutzim, and revamp art masa. We will apply for additional special use permits, with the goal of running additional trips in the National Forest. A select group of Bogrim chalutzim first session participated in a wildcraft masa, which got rave reviews, and we hope to expand our wilderness survival program based on that experience. By 2023 it is our hope for there to be a masa program aspirational arc, so our chalutzim and tzevet understand which routes are available each year of camp, what the goals are for each edah, and how trips differ from year to year. If anyone has ideas of private lands within a three hour drive of camp where we can run trips, we welcome those suggestions too! 
Accommodations:
  • We pride ourselves on being a radically inclusive Jewish community and are able to provide extra resources for chalutzim who need additional support, especially with socioemotional needs. One area of masa we will work on is developing protocols for reasonable accommodations that we can make for campers who can not complete our full backpacking or hiking trips. Similarly, for campers with dietary restrictions, especially our gluten-free friends, we will create a new labeling and packing system so there is no confusion about which foods contain gluten and which do not and we ensure all special diet food goes on the right trip.

 

A ONE TIME SUCCESS

JOLI

This was a tough one! In 2022, due to a variety of reasons, mostly related to a smaller than normal rising 11th grade class, we piloted our first ever six week JOLI program. It was a resounding success, and feedback from the participants and parents was incredible! So many participants shared that their JOLI summer was among the best weeks of their life, and they LOVED being part of this experiment. At the same time, for those of us running camp, having chalutzim at camp who were not on the four week session schedule caused significant challenges around logistics, staffing, and program planning. For the next few years, we foresee having too many rising 11th graders to have all eligible chalutzim return for the same six weeks. Therefore, we plan to return to our “normal” four week JOLI program that combines the best of our base camp and masa programs with specific leadership training opportunities. In the coming weeks, we will be publishing a day-by-day schedule of our anticipated 2023 JOLI program and expect to fill both sessions to our capacity of 18 chalutzim in each.


Thank you!

We feel incredibly privileged that so many families entrust their children to our care each summer. We know the awesome responsibility 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 2023.

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! Our dates and rates are here. Anyone who registers before the end of October receives a Ramah in the Rockies embroidered fleece. We hope to see everyone back at camp for kayitz 2023!

Thank You,

The Ramah in the Rockies Team

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

Kesharim (Connections)

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.

Masa (Excursions)

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.

Joyous Judaism

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.

Environmental Programs

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.


Thank you!

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!

Thank You
The Ramah in the Rockies Team

You Spoke, We Listened

Rabbi Eliav Bock

Eliav headshot

The better part of the past eight weeks or so since leaving the chava (ranch) have been spent reaching out to you, our camper families, to gather your thoughts about us and our camp program this last summer.  We did this by personally calling or emailing each of our over 350 camper families.  We also sought your input via an anonymous survey, which was administered by a third party foundation.  But we didn’t stop there.  We also asked all 90+ staff members for their perspectives as part of their exit interviews at the end of the summer.  And then we requested them to complete a similar survey as well.  

We heard from many of you and cannot thank you enough for your time and responses to our questions.  Now that we have had time to review and evaluate it all, here is what we have learned and our plans for the future.

(I apologize for the length, but firmly believe in sharing as openly with you as you have with us.)

 

TWO THUMBS UP:

Our Community

The geographic and religious diversity of our camp population enhances the warm and nonjudgmental community that we create each summer.  Many of our chalutzim (campers) have “never felt so welcomed”, never felt so accepted for who they are, and “never [felt] so able to pursue [their] own passions without fear of being judged by others.”  There is an overall feeling among those who responded that most people at camp share the same values as they or their children do.

Our Outdoor Programming

While there were a few masaot (excursions) that did not go as planned, this part of the program continues to be the most memorable and impactful aspect of camp.  Our chalutzim who participated in multi-day experiences felt challenged and returned to camp with a great sense of accomplishment. Equally as important as the venues was the peer-to-peer bonding that took place.

Although the weather at the start of summer put a damper on some base camp activities, we received many compliments on the excellent balance between program quality and content, skills instruction, and fun factor.  There were no complaints that our chalutzim had biked, climbed, or rode too much.  (In fact, many would have liked more opportunities to do these.) And while there was high praise for the equipment used at camp, there were also times when there were more chalutzim wanting to participate than the equipment could accommodate at a single time.

Our Quality Staff

Many parents commented, and many of our older chalutzim noticed, that not only was our staff older than they had expected but also how eager and motivated they were to be working at camp and with the campers. While there were some critiques of missed follow-ups, a few poor choices made by staff, and some less-than-ideal counselor pairings, the overall consensus was one of a stellar team running a safe, educational, and inspiring summer for their children.

From the staff side, 100% stated that they were working there to advance the camp’s mission. Nationally, only 80% of Jewish summer camp staff members answer this affirmatively.

MIXED REVIEWS (& WHERE WE CAN IMPROVE)

Our Food

Overall, we received the most comments about the food at camp.  Some loved it, others wanted more meat, some wanted nuts, and others wished for more menu variety.  Our food program is an integral part of our camp’s mission.  At the same time, we know that little else matters if our chalutzim are hungry or wondering about the menu for the next meal.  During the off season we continue to refine our menus, replacing less popular choices with new options, integrating more mainstream plant-based proteins, and improving our between-meal snack variety.  This past summer we learned that while some campers were aware of readily available snacks, many of our younger campers did not know that they could grab something from the Ohel Ochel (dining tent) whenever they were hungry.

Improving our communication to campers about snacks is an easily accomplished goal.  Other menu challenges, particularly meat availability, have multiple variables involved.  Each year, a farm family in upstate New York raises free-range (organic) chickens for our summer needs.  We made the switch to free-range chickens in 2012  after receiving negative feedback about serving factory farmed meat that did not fit in with the values we are living by as a community. In 2015, however,  due to the unusually colder winter and spring in the northeast, the chickens were not of eating size and not schechted (ritually slaughtered) until late June, delaying meat on the camp menu until early July.

Acquiring additional organic chicken and meat from other sources and making it more often would answer that need, but would ignore the reality of our available facilities.  Quite simply, we do not have a suitable meat kitchen at camp.  Until we are able to build a new, $3+ million dining hall/commercial kitchen, we do what we are able which means that our only method to cook meat is on an open grill.  And while we use the main kitchen to keep things warm (double wrapped in the dairy warmers) and to prepare parve side dishes, meat meals require us to shut down most of the regular kitchen and cover it in plastic for much of the day resulting in simplified dishes served for breakfast and lunch on those days.

While the shortage of meat/chicken is not readily fixed, we continue to offer eggs at most breakfasts and include protein options during the week as part of the salad bar.  Meanwhile we continue to review our menus with a nutritionist to ensure that our community’s nutritional needs are met.  We realize that this situation is not ideal, but hope our clarity helps explain why our meat situation is the way it is.

Our Younger Camper Experiences

Each year we continue to grow our camp programs for all our edot (groups), however, this summer it was clear that our younger campers needed us to rework their schedule to accommodate more of the popular base camp activities and incorporate additional outdoor adventure experiences particularly for our Ilanot chalutzim.  The wet start to the summer did not help their adventure opportunities!

To address these issues, starting kayitz (summer) 2016, we are:

  •  Forgoing most day trips, which will enable our younger campers to participate in more base camp activities including horseback riding, mountain biking, and rock climbing.
  •  Conducting more outdoor-based overnight experiences that are age-appropriate to take advantage of our ranch and surrounding national forest, leading to an increased appreciation for all nature has to offer.
  •  Ensuring that any additional equipment needed for our youngest campers are available BEFORE any campers arrive.
  •  Aspiring higher in each of our program areas, ensuring that our younger campers are learning the basic skills needed as foundations for their progress in the current summer and future seasons.

Our Interpersonal Connections

Jewish summer camp works as an educational medium in large part because campers develop close, personal connections with their counselors and friends.  This summer we noticed that, especially among our two-week participants, these connections did not take root as we hoped they would.  For many of these chalutzim they had fun activities but not emotionally memorable experiences.  Although we have had four-week campers in tents with mixed 2-week and 4-week campers, the transition of saying goodbye to one set of friends and welcoming another proved more difficult than in years past.

Moving forward, we will improve our staff training to ensure that social connections are being made within the ohelim (tents) and require counselors to complete regular socio-grams to aid them in identifying and encouraging healthy group dynamics.  We will also encourage more  activities that foster positive early connections and adapt our scheduling to include more bunk-specific bonding activities are all being worked into the programming vision for summer.  Our goal is for each ohel, when they are in base camp, to have a minimum of one peulat erev (evening activity) just to themselves and then other activities with the broader edah (age group) or entire camp.  Plus we will be adding more ohel time on Shabbat before havdallah.

Two-week programming will continue to be available to our edot through their Bogrim summer for 2016.  However, we are evaluating the feasibility of requiring our Bogrim chalutzim to register for four weeks starting with the 2017 season.  While we continue to believe that it is possible to create memorable and impactful experiences for our younger campers within two weeks, independent research has proved that longer sessions result in greater impact, deeper relationships, and additional personal growth.  For our older chalutzim we may need to make this change to fully realize the outcomes we strive to achieve in our program.

With the exception of our first-time Ilanot-Sollelim campers, we will continue to encourage families to consider the four week options over two-week sessions.  No matter how incredible we make our two week program, it simply cannot live up to the magic experienced over four weeks.

We feel incredibly privileged that so many families have entrusted us to care for their children each summer.  We know the awesome responsibility that this entails and are aware that a child’s experience at camp can influence decisions throughout life.  We are constantly seeking to improve our camp and to 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 make our camp better and stronger!