We just added a new page to our website called BEING GREEN. We were inspired to create this page after a conversation with Sybil Sanchez, Director of COEJL. She was musing about the need for every Jewish organization to have a link on their website about ways in which they are taking the enviroment into account in their programs. We will continue to update this page in much greater detail over the coming months and years, but wanted to start somewhere. To check out the new page, click here: To read the content, without the fancy videos and pictures, scroll down:
One of the stated goals of Ramah Outdoor Adventure is to be a “green camp”. Over the years, I have blogged about some of our greening initiatives, from reducing paper use in our year-round office to serving organic milk in the dining hall. We have recently added a section to our website that we will be populating in the coming weeks about these green initiatives and we will continue to update this page as we develop new ways to reduce our carbon footprint and create systems that reduce our impact on the natural environment. Read more
In November of 2008, the Jim Joseph Foundation (JJF) and the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) made a big bet. They awarded the National Ramah Commission (NRC) $1.1 million to create the first outdoor specialty camp in the country with an intensive Jewish focus. Jewish children had been going in droves to numerous secular specialty camps. The JJF, FJC & NRC bet that if a Jewish camp could offer a high level of programming infused with Jewish texts, values and traditions and employ passionate young educators to serve as role models to the campers, then a Jewish Outdoor Adventure camp would not only survive, but actually thrive. And thus Ramah Outdoor Adventure was born.
Four years ago, I sat in our first incubator camp session along with directors of four other Jewish specialty camps dreaming of what our camp would look like. Based on the model of a business incubator, where businesses share resources and knowledge early on to create a new business, the FJC organized a four year program to help five new specialty camps come to market. In that first meeting, the professionals running the camp incubator spoke to us about creating a 501(c)3, articulating a mission and list of values and conducting a SWOT analysis to figure out how we could compete in a crowded marketplace with 190+ other Jewish camps and hundreds of other excellent private camps. Over the ensuing four years, we have continued to gather as a cohort in our incubator sessions five times per year. We have moved from talking about camp as a theoretical idea to serving hundreds of young campers and staff each season. We have moved from talking about our “theory of social change” to implementing programs where we are actually changing children’s lives. We have moved from a group of 20 & 30 somethings with an idea about what an ideal camp could look like to a community with campers age 8-18, over 200 college/ graduate school age staff members and countless enthusiastic fans from parents to teachers to other camp professionals who are copying aspects of our program.
Last week in New York, the directors of all five incubator camps gathered for our final official incubator meeting to celebrate our collective success and welcome the directors of four new specialty camps who are setting out on their own journey to make their own camp dreams a reality. Standing in the room with the other directors, the heads of our respective agencies and many members of the FJC team who have helped bring us to this point, I could not help but feel a sense of collective pride in the thousands of Jewish children who have attended our five camps, many of whom would not have gone to a Jewish camp without the introduction of these incubator camps to the broader Jewish Camp marketplace.
And as I sit here, four years later, I think the three most important lessons I have learned are as follows:
- Always stay true to your mission and values, even if it means losing some sales. In the long term the dedication to our core values are what has made Ramah Outdoor Adventure such a special place and continues to guide each of our decisions about how we continue to improve our program.
- Hiring passionate, dedicated staff members who come to camp because of their love for the outdoors and their desire to advance our mission ensures the success of the program each summer. Our facility is one of the most rustic in the Jewish camping world and few children come to camp for our basketball but I have no doubt that our staff is among the absolute top in the entire camping industry.
- Many children want to be challenged, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Ramah Outdoor Adventure is a place with a clear “aspirational arc” in each of our program areas. At each stage of the program, campers are able to aspire to a new level. Whether this is in the teffilah program where we offer different prayer options to different age groups, or the archery range, where we have a traditional range with round targets and a 3D range for more advanced shooters, or our masa program where younger campers go for day trips and short overnights and our older campers head out for 4-6 days on the trail, at each stage we celebrate where a camper is, and show him/her where s/he can continue going.
With days left in our super-early bird registration, we have more campers registered for camp today than at this point in any previous year. In fact, we have more campers enrolled today than who came to camp in our opening summer only three years ago. It truly has been a fantastic ride, and I know that we are only at the beginning of ensuring that Ramah Outdoor Adventure continues to be a place where Jewish children come to spend their summers for years to come!
This summer, we doubled the size of our JOLI (Jewish Outdoor Leadership Institute) program for rising 11th and 12th graders. From the feedback we have received thus far from the JOLI participants, it was a terrific success. In the coming weeks we will share a few of the letters/ write ups we received about this program. We are expanding our 2013 JOLI program to include up to 20 participants each session (we capped it at 11 last summer) and are expecting the program to fill. JOLI participants will become certified in Wilderness First aid, have the option to apprentice in specialty areas at camp and have the option to go on 6 day massaot, and spend each shabbat in camp. The second masa, which is optional, is an extended adventure race that will require participants to use the skills obtained throughout their Ramah Outdoor Adventure experience to complete daily challenges that range from evacuating an “injured” hiker to navigating for a few miles off trail. This past year, the six day JOLI adventure challenge was a highlight of the program!
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.
And just like that, our 2012 masa (excursion) season has come to an end. A few minutes ago, our last masa rolled back into camp. This past week we had groups hiking, biking, spelunking, and climbing in the back country. Our Ilanot (3rd/4th graders) slept out on our ranch and then had a day hike up Givat Ilanot (Hill of Trees); last night, they had the first ever Ramah Space Station overnight (see the link on Facebook for more info)! Amitzim chalutzim (campers with special needs) had a horse overnight and went to a wolf preserve today. This week we ran a new masa for a group of Bogrim chalutzim (9/10th graders). They left on Sunday and spent the entire week horseback riding with an outfitter near the Wyoming border, from the initial report, this new masa was a galloping success (pun intended).
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.
Our first full day of camp has drawn to a close. Chalutzim (pioneers/campers) were rock climbing, painting, playing Frisbee and so much more. While our oldest chalutzim chose their activities according to their interests, our younger ones went around as an ohel (tent) for most of the day. From the smiles on their faces, it seems that most of the chalutzim are making an easy transition into our community. Our meals today were also scrumptious, consisting of yogurt and homemade granola for breakfast, an extensive salad bar (with homegrown lettuce) and enchilada casserole for lunch, and salad and tuna casserole for dinner. Of course, while we try to serve healthy meals, the culinary highlight of the day was the homemade fudge soynut butter brownies!
Throughout this month, in these shorter blog posts, I hope to feature different programmatic aspects of our camp program. Tonight’s thoughts are on the newest addition to our camp program: Step Aerobics. In the fall, one of our returning mishlachat (Israeli embassador) members, Or G, asked whether she could introduce aerobics into the camp program this summer. Not wanting to every say no to a good idea, I told her that she was welcome to try it. Or, who is a certified aerobics instructor in Israel, gave a list of items she would need for the program, including steps, small carpets (to pad the floor) and a wall of mirrors.
Being an environmental camp can mean so many things. Certainly it refers to how we live in concert with nature, according to the cycles of the sun. It also means eating a healthy diet with an awareness of what we are putting into our bodies. But it also means being mindful in the procurement of materials and often buying used items that would otherwise be thrown away. Our Step Aerobics program is comprised of 100% recycled materials: The steps came from a gym in in Denver that was no longer offering aerobics, the mats came from a company called www.recycledfloormats.com, and the mirrors were bought at a foreclosure auction of a nightclub.
For a camp program to be successful, it not only needs an excellent teacher and appropriate materials, but also chalutzim who want to participate. In the case of step aerobics, its popularity has surpassed our expectations and has become one of the most subscribed offerings at camp for the older chalutzim. Last session, about 12 chalutzim, males and females, participated in the program. This session it is closer to 20 chalutzim, and a cadre of staff. Each comes because of the intense workout, the excellent Israeli music, and the fun nature of the class.
At the moment, step is only being offered to our Bogrim chalutzim (9/10th graders). The younger chalutzim have an option for gymnastics, and we thought that this would be a suitable substitute. However, given the popularity of the step program, it is possible that we will revisit this decision for session IIB when all the chugim (classes) will be changing in any case.
The initial success of our step program suggests that while chalutzim choose to come to Ramah in Colorado for the outdoor sports, there is also a desire for regular athletic programs that provide additional physical challenges. Step aerobics requires a level of stamina similar to mountain biking, but an amount of grace and coordination of dancing. Seeing as it is only offered during the last perek (period), is a perfect way to end the day at Ramah Outdoor Adventure, and something that will hopefully remain part of our program for years to come.
Note: We were waiting to post this until our session slide show was ready with a hyperlink. Due to copyright issues, we are not able to post the session slide show on Youtube at the moment.
Our session I chalutzim have left the chava(ranch). Our Madrichim are preparing for our session II chalutzim who will be arriving in less than 24 hours. Beds are being moved, bikes are being fixed and the dining tent is being scrubbed. And just like that we have drawn the curtain on our largest first session ever at Ramah Outdoor Adventure.
The past four weeks have been a terrific success. We biked, climbed, visited wolves, witnessed fantastic rainbows, crossed snowy mountain passes and bathed in refreshing Colorado streams. We laughed and we cried, we hugged and we played. We shared scrumptious meals in the back country and set Shabbat tables in our new dining tent. We learned and we taught. And perhaps most importantly, we all grew spiritually, emotionally and physically through the weeks together at our alpine ranch. While there is no way to adequately capture a month of excitement in a few words or pictures, given that most parents and supporters of camp never have a chance to experience the Ramah Outdoor Adventure excitement, I will offer a few vignettes on this session.
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.
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.
As I have written many times on our camp blog, the secret behind the success of Ramah Outdoor Adventure is the unbelievable group of passionate & talented staff members who come to our ranch each summer to create a magical experience for our chalutzim (campers/pioneers). As we move into the final few weeks before opening our doors in 2012, I can assure you that this year’s staff is another incredible group. Twenty staff members from last summer are being joined at camp by almost forty new individuals. Each of these people are committed to ensuring that our chalutzim have a transformative experience, where they are able to challenge themselves emotionally & physically and where they will bond with other members of the community. If we do our job correctly, our chalutzim will leave more engaged in their own Jewish lives and ready to take on new challenges at home and in school.
This summer, we will be joined during the second month by a recent Duke graduate, and fourth year staff member (yes she was at our training in 2009), Risa Isard. Risa was one of the founders of our duathelon program, and has spent her time at Ramah Outdoor Adventure helping to ensure that every child in the duathelon program and her own bunk really understands what it means to live according to our motto “challenge by choice.” Risa recently published an article on ESPN.com about being an amateur athlete. I will paste the entirety of the article below, but if you would like to see some pictures of Risa, including one shot at Ramah Outdoor adventure, then click here.
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).
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.
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.
For this week’s blog post, I wanted to post an essay written by Adin K, who was a JOLI participant during our our inaugural JOLI program in the 2011 season.
Based on the success of last years four week program, we have decided to run two four week sessions of JOLI this upcoming summer. Both sessions are nearly full, so if you are hoping to join us this summer, please register ASAP. At the moment, we still have room for boys and girls in session I of JOLI and for one male and two females in session II of JOLI
——- Read more
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.
Over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting the writings of some of our former chalutzim and some of our own staff members. This week, I will share a write-up from one of our counselors, Hannah Samet who, along with Jordan Anderson, attended a weeklong training for over Ramah staff members (from all our camps) that takes place annually in Ojai CA. Hannah is returning to Ramah Outdoor Adventure this summer as a counselor and Rosh Edah for our youngest Chalutzim.