As Kids Head to Camp, Parents Ask If They’re Having Enough Fun

At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Jewish campers wake up every morning at 7:30 and daven the morning prayers. After some swimming or maybe a Frisbee game, the older kids can, if they want, daven again in the afternoon. And at the end of a day that includes a 45-minute Judaic learning session, well, they can… daven again.

Sound like a fun-filled, carefree summer camp experience?

Some parents don’t think so. Where’s the waterskiing, they ask? And how are their kids supposed to cut loose when they’re spending so much time learning to be observant Jews?

This is the dilemma presented every year when it comes time for parents who want their kids to be involved in Jewish life to choose where their children will spend those memorable summer months. In New York City, the unofficial capital of Jewish life in America, some parents are split between those who say that there can never be enough Jewish education in their children’s lives and those who say that, yes, there most certainly can be — and summer camp is where they draw the line.

“I just want the kids to be kids,” said Barry Posner, a New York attorney who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “They’re very deeply steeped in Jewish values, heritage and learning, so for one or two months a year, let them have a vacation.”

Posner’s 10-year-old son, a student at a Manhattan pluralistic Jewish day school, the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, is just starting his second summer at Ramah in the Berkshires. This year the camp, one of Conservative Jewry’s network of seven North American sleep-away camps, will host 530 kids, ranging from from Orthodox and Conservative day school students to kids who get their Jewish learning a few hours a week at Hebrew school.

Posner, who went to what he called a “sports factory” camp in Maine, is also among a group of parents — both married and divorced — who are at odds over whether to go the Jewish route come July. Posner expressed concern that at a Jewish camp, his son may get short shrift when it comes to athletics. But he said that his former wife, whom he described as more observant, prioritized Jewish learning over a rigorous sports program.

Pearl Beck, a professional social researcher who has enrolled all three of her sons in Jewish day schools — Ariel, 19, graduated from the Ramaz School, an Orthodox high school in Manhattan, while Jonah, 18, graduated from Heschel high school — as well as in Jewish camps, feels that the more Jewish experience they get, the better.

“One of the reasons I send my children to a Jewish summer camp is to firm up their Jewish identity, because at camp they are exposed to Jewish life on a 24/7 basis,” Beck said.

Beck, a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has sent her sons to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, as well as to Camp Yavneh, an independent Jewish camp in southern New Hampshire.

Her youngest son, Gabriel, 13, is spending his fourth summer at Ramah in the Berkshires, where, having reached bar mitzvah age, he will now be able to choose to attend a nonegalitarian prayer group, or minyan. In that minyan, boys and girls worship together, but girls do not lead services.

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, explained that Ramah in the Berkshires is one of a handful of camps that offer nonegalitarian prayer groups. The spectrum of religious options available, he said, depends on the community that the camp serves. In Chicago, New York and Toronto, where there are Conservative Jews who pray in single-sex groups, the nearby camps — Ramah in the Berkshires, situated in Wingdale, N.Y., largely serves the New York metropolitan area — will accommodate the population.

Cohen, founding principal of Westchester County’s Solomon Schechter high school, is adamant about the importance of the Jewish summer camp experience, especially for those kids who already attend day school.

“Families who spend a fortune on day school education and then send their kids to nonreligious programs in the summer in some ways are wasting their investment,” Cohen said. “The kids are getting all the academic knowledge critical for a Jewish education, and then not applying it with friends in a warm, fun atmosphere.”

On average, some 50% of Ramah’s campers attend day schools. At Ramah in the Berkshires, that number — at 60% — is even higher.

In recent years, as the Jewish day school rolls have seen a sharp rise, the function of many Jewish camps has shifted. Founded in the 1940s and ’50s as a way to provide a Jewish immersion experience for American children, who for the most part attended public schools, the camps now serve a population that is far more steeped in Jewish text study the other nine months out of the year.

The first Ramah camp was founded in Wisconsin in 1947. Its function, Cohen said, was to educate a new crop of Jewish American leaders — rabbis, cantors and Jewish professionals. That mission has since expanded to serve thousands — this year, they number 6,500 — of largely Conservative Jewish youths who will pursue careers across a broad spectrum of fields, in both the secular and Jewish worlds.

Despite the rise of day schools, Cohen said, they can never fill quite the same function as a summer camp.

“Day schools do a phenomenal job of education, but it’s school, it’s homework,” he said. “It’s not a fair fight with summer camp, which for many kids is the best experience of their lives.”

Wed. Jun 27, 2007

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Rabbi Jason Miller said:

The opening paragraph of this article is misleading. Rebecca Spence writes, "At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Jewish campers wake up every morning at 7:30 and daven the morning prayers. After some swimming or maybe a Frisbee game, the older kids can, if they want, daven again in the afternoon. And at the end of a day that includes a 45-minute Judaic learning session, well, they can… daven again." Add up the time spent in prayer services (even including the "optional" afternoon and evening minyanim), the 45-minute class, and mealtime and these campers are still left with many hours of typical camp activities.

Rabbi Mitch Cohen makes a bold (but true) statement in this article, explaining, "Families who spend a fortune on day school education and then send their kids to nonreligious programs in the summer in some ways are wasting their investment."

The trick of course is to create summer camping experiences that emphasize Jewish living 24/7 with prayer services, learning opportunities, and Shabbat observance while also offering serious summer activities like sports. Having served as a staff member at three of the Ramah camps (Wisconsin, Nyack, and Canada), I can honestly say that they are successful at this synergy.

For three summers I served as the director of the Ropes Challenge Course at Camp Ramah in Nyack and was always cognizant of the synergy between Jewish education and outdoor camp fun. In that vein, I published a curriculum that was used at Ramah to teach Jewish values, Hebrew, and Torah to the campers while they were participating in the Ropes course and climbing wall.

I'm optimistic that the Foundation for Jewish Camping will work to ensure that Jewish summer camps where Judaism is a focus will be able to provide top-notch extra-curricular programs like sports taught by instructors one would find at the best sports camps in the country, as well as outdoor adventure activities that rival any secular camp.

Thu. Jun 28, 2007

Eliezer Diamond said:

This will be my eleventh year serving as one of the scholars-in-residence at Ramah in the Berkshires. In my view Ramah is the best thing that the Conservative movement does. It is the one context in which Conservative Judaism creates a true sense of communal Jewish living - something that needs to take place to a much greater extent in Conservative congregations if the movement is to survive and flourish.

Regarding the opening paragraph of the article: It is sad that, given the opportunity to enlighten her readers about Camp Ramah, Rebecca Spence chose to open with a wildly distorted presentation of the Ramah experience. Maybe this is what sells papers, but it is a disservice to the Jewish community that I assume Spence and the Forward wish to serve, and it is a classic example of lashon harah - presenting information that is essentially accurate in a manner designed to cast someone or something in a negative light. After being misquoted and misrepresented every time that I spoke to the media I have stopped granting interviews of any kind; it is articles like this one, unfortunately, that confirm for me the rightness of my decision.

Thu. Jun 28, 2007

Rosanne Litwak said:

Kudos to Camp Ramah. There is never enough Jewish education and clearly those parents who feel their kids "need a break" are sending those kids a message, and it's not a positive one at that. Is Jewish learning really a 10 month a year process? Nonsense! Camp Ramah and other fine Jewish camps are among the very best Jewish educational tools. Too bad they're only operative during the summer. One can only wish that kids could have camp experiences all year. And kudos as well to the Heschel School. While the AJH parent is complaining Heschel is clearly a force in the child's camp attendance. The child apparently is happy to go to Ramah.

Thu. Jun 28, 2007

Steve Brizel said:

Although the article addressed the Ramah camps, one can easily argue that camps serving the Orthodox community across its spectrum of affiliation and emphasis, also work on help students enjoy the summer while concretizing many values that seem like slogans and empty words during the school year. If one sees the parking lot on a visiting day at any of these camps, you will see a range of cars from the newest models to relatively old models and parents of children whose income brackets may be decidedly different. Yet, in the course of a summer, the campers have learned the meaning of unity, teamwork and other ideals while furthering their relationship to God via prayer and study in a way that seems so vague and without an awful lot of energy during the school year. For so many students, summer camp is a necessity that translates the lessons of a school year into reality.

Thu. Jun 28, 2007

Rachel Gross said:

I attended both Jewish day school and Camp Ramah. While much of my Jewish knowledge came from day school my strong connections to and love of Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people came from my summers at Camp Ramah. At camp Judaism is "fun" and "cool" and celebrated with your peers in a way that rarely (if ever) happens "in the city."

Thu. Jun 28, 2007

Dr. Stephen Simons said:

Some parents complain that Day School or Congregational School - should be more like camp. Now some parents criticize Jewish camps for being too Jewish education and observance oriented. Is it no wonder that many choose not to enter Jewish educational careers?

Thu. Jun 28, 2007

Rabbi Jason A. Miller said:

Ms. Spence's exaggerated first paragraph sounds a lot like some of the complaints one hears from Ramah campers during the summer who feel like all they do is daven (pray), study, and eat. But it's interesting that these same kids always cry their eyes out on the final day of camp and then count the days until the next summer begins. Why? Because the Camp Ramah experience works. I agree with Rabbi Eliezer Diamond's comment above that Ramah is the best thing the Conservative Movement does. It creates serious Jews and therefore families that are serious about their Judaism and Jewish education.

Thu. Jun 28, 2007

Mandy Garver said:

My daughter, a day school student, attended a Ramah camp from about age 10 on, then became a counselor. The friends she made at Ramah are her best friends now at age 23. She lived to get back to camp each summer, and I was constantly amazed at the depth of her feeling for the Ramah experience, davening and all! I'm convinced that the investment in Ramah, maybe even more than her dayschool education, has paid dividends in her being the committed Jew she is today. While Ramah isn't for every child (my son attended Young Judaea summer camps after trying Ramah), I don't believe that the benefits of the Jewish summer camp experience can be replicated any other way.

Fri. Jun 29, 2007

Toby Klein Greenwald said:

I went to Camp Moshava in Wisconsin (of the Orthodox B'nei Akiva movement), not Ramah, both as a camper and later as a counselor, and I can say unequivocally that the religious aspects of the camp, including the way tefila (prayer) is experienced at camp as opposed to in the city, had a far great influence on my love of and bonding with religion than anything I experienced in the city. There is nothing at all to compare with davening in the city, to davening in a rustic shul or outside shul, among nature, feeling closer to God.

Fri. Jun 29, 2007

Bill Seligman, Los Angeles said:

Parents who give the message that it's ok to "turn off" Judaism for the summer are sending a dangerous message. Too many people treat their Judaism as something that is "compartmentalized", rather than a part of their life. As a former Abraham Joshua Heschel School of NYC parent myself, I know that the Heschel School teaches that Judaism can be part of all that we do - from our business ethics as adults to the sportsmanship we use in playing games as kids - even if not in the formal context of prayer and text study.

Just as no car, school or music is perfect for everyone, no camp is perfect for everyone either. As the parent of 2 Ramah campers, and as a former Jewish camper myself, I know that most Jewish camps - and especially the Ramah system - offer a wide range of arts, music, theater and athletics. But I'm willing to bet that for every Jewish kid who attends a sports camp that makes a real difference in his or her life, there will be dozens of kids having life-changing experiences at a Ramah, Yavneh/NCSY, NFTY or unaffiliated Jewish camp. It's ok for a 10-year old to want to be the next Derek Jeter -- but parents need to be realistic.

Fri. Jun 29, 2007

Meredith Kesner said:

I encourage you all to read a post at which debunks some of the "information" in this article:

Fri. Jun 29, 2007

Stewart Merkin said:

If you're a parent that doesn't think it is a fun-filled, carefree summer camp experience, don't send your kid to Ramah in the Berkshires. It's fine for those that want it. There are other Jewish camps. That's why we have choices in life.

Fri. Jun 29, 2007

Sonia Sugarman said:

In July, 1950, I went to Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. It was the best Jewish experience of my life. It served as a basis for my present love of Judaism and my ability to presently lead the davening at morning minyan in the temple where I go everyday. I will be forever grateful for my Jewish education and my summer at Yavneh.

Sat. Jun 30, 2007

Laura Shaw Frank said:

I went to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires for ten glorious summers in the late 1970's and 1980's. One of the greatest beauties of Ramah is that tefillah IS fun-filled and carefree. The memories that remain with me the most vividly about camp are not the hours on the tennis court or the art projects I made, but the heart-swelling beauty of Kabbalat Shabbat in Beit Am Bet -- when all the campers and staff, dressed so beautifully, ushered in shabbat with full souls, the awe of reading Eicha on the basketball courts surrounded by lit candles, and yes, the daily beloved melodies of morning Shacharit. Just hearing those melodies today conjures up the coolness of a Berkshires morning, sitting on a wooden bench, surrounded by beloved friends and singing our hearts out together.

One last thought -- when I was a Gesher counselor in 1988, I remember most vividly two of my campers in tears because, for some reason, we did not do Anim Zmirot at the end of tefillot one Shabbat morning. They would not rest until we went back into the our "makom tefillah" (place of prayer) and did it ourselves. These girls were not particularly religious, and as I recall one of them did not attend day school. Yet, the tefillah experience at Ramah touched their souls this deeply.

So, if you want waterskiing, go someplace else -- but if you want warm and beautiful Jewish memories that will continue to touch your children's souls decades after they leave camp, choose Camp Ramah. To me, the latter trumps waterskiing any day.

Tue. Jul 03, 2007