National Ramah Commission, Inc. - 3080 Broadway, New York, NY 10027   (212) 678-8881  fax: (212) 749-8251

Ramah Wisconsin at 60: Conservative summer camp celebrates a milestone anniversary
by Pauline Dubkin Yearwood

This article first appeared in the Chicago Jewish News, March 2-8, 2007.

Nina Harris was so happy with the four summers she spent as a camper and three as a counselor at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin that she decided she had to return as an adult. Now the Chicago-area woman has spent the last nine summers as the camp social worker, accompanied by her young daughters, who are now, in turn, Ramah campers.

Another former camper and counselor, Dr. Jeff Kopin, likes to joke that medical school interrupted his camp career. But not for long. As soon as he finished his residency he returned to Ramah's beautiful lakeside setting in Conover, Wis. as the camp doctor. He married another former camper-they met when they were both 15 -- and now their children are campers and counselors at Ramah.

These stories aren't unusual. Many Ramahniks, as they like to call themselves, speak of the extraordinary loyalty and awe that the Conservative Jewish day camp inspires in them. The reasons for the phenomenon will no doubt be discussed, chewed over, laughed about, analyzed and celebrated as hundreds of former campers, counselors, staff members, parents, grandparents and supporters gather in Chicago for a festive event March 9 and 10. The occasion: Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

There are now seven Ramah overnight camps and three Ramah day camps throughout North America, serving a total of 6,500 campers each summer, but in the beginning there was just one. Ramah Wisconsin is special, the first, the flagship store in the chain. And from the beginning, it was selling only one item: Judaism, in a warm, fun setting.

The Ramah story began in 1946, a time of flux and introspection for American Jewry. Community leaders and ordinary Jews alike were still trying to come to terms with the enormity of the Holocaust while rejoicing at the promise of the establishment of a Jewish state. It was a time when the American Jewish community, having suffered such a crushing loss, was looking to the next generation of Jews with promise and hope.

Still, if it hadn't been for the fact that Chicago Rabbi Ralph Simon wanted to send his son to camp close to home, Ramah might never have come into existence.

Simon, the rabbi of Chicago's Congregation Rodfei Zedek and a Conservative movement leader, "started the camp because his son Matthew had been going to a Jewish camp in Pennsylvania," according to Mort Steinberg, a Ramah camper during the 1950s and now the president of the National Ramah Commission-and an inexhaustible source of Ramah lore. Simon "thought it was a long way to send his kid to a Jewish camp. He thought, why can't we have one in the Midwest?" Steinberg says.

So Simon and other members of his congregation, particularly those from the Men's Club, soon began exploring the possibility of opening such a camp.

That development coincided with another that was taking place at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement's rabbinic school, where two faculty members had been involved with Jewish camps in New York. They soon began working for the establishment of a similar network of Conservative movement camps, according to a history of the Ramah movement written by Burton I. Cohen.

The Chicago group led by Simon partnered with JTS leaders and in 1947 Camp Ramah opened with 97 campers on the shore of Lake Buckatabon in the north woods of Wisconsin.

At the same time, its leaders formulated a set of guiding principles for the camp, ones that have changed little over the past 60 years. Ramah would provide all the joys of the overnight camping experience, but within a strongly committed Jewish framework. Hebrew would be the official language of the camp, and campers would be required to participate in Hebrew and Judaica classes. All camp activities would be carried out according to halachah or Jewish law. All food would be kosher.

Ramah was such a success in its first year that new camps began opening following its model until now there are seven spread across the United States and Canada.

Rabbi David Soloff, who has been the camp director at Ramah since 1975, longer than anyone else who has held that position, writes in an e-mail interview that "as visionary as they were 60 years ago, when the founding fathers of Camp Ramah bought the property in Conover, Wis., they could not have foretold what their radical idea would become. What began as an eight-week summer program has grown into year-round, Jewish life-affirming experiences not only for children, but for staff and families as well. The Ramah summer is a core experience that links participants to a much larger, intensively Jewish and diverse community and motivates a year-round immersion in Jewish living. It is a partnership with families, synagogues, youth groups, Jewish schools, college campuses, and Israel-based programs."

Indeed, the gravity of the camp experience can be measured by the fact that there were some in the early years who felt that Ramah was "too successful," necessitating changes in the lives of campers' parents and teachers that were not always comfortable.

Cohen, the camp historian, wrote that the experience "often resulted in the creation of tensions between camper and parent, camp and home, and even between camp and synagogue." Frequently campers "would return from Ramah insisting upon traditional Friday-evening home observances or demanding that the Jewish dietary laws be observed in the home" or would find themselves "less than enthusiastic about participating in the decorous Anglicized services which were typical of many Conservative synagogues." These tensions "were the cause of many serious discussions between parent and camp director, or rabbi and camp director," as Cohen tactfully put it in his history, which was published 20 years ago on the occasion of Ramah's 40th anniversary.

In a different Jewish atmosphere, tensions over these issues sound quaint today, but the discussions on other issues are no doubt still going on. The Ramah camps have been avatars for change in the Conservative movement and in American Jewry in general. Mixed seating at religious services was the norm at the camp from the beginning, but wasn't adopted by the JTS until 1984, and women were leading prayers, reading from the Torah and being allowed to participate fully in minyans at Ramah years before these practices were adopted by the Conservative movement in general.

But none of this is what Ramah campers remember the most.

For Mort Steinberg, today a senior partner in a large Chicago law firm, memories of Ramah begin with the 10-hour train ride he had to take to get to the camp's remote location, 350 miles from Chicago. It was 1955, and he was 10 years old. His family's rabbi "told my parents, you have to send your kid to Ramah," and so he went.

"It was a long train ride and I didn't know anyone, and the camp was very isolated," he says. "But very quickly you fell in love with the place.

"The key thing that stays in everyone's mind is the friendships of the people in your cabin, the amazing-in retrospect-intellectual quality of the counselors and the staff," he says. "We were greatly influenced by it but I didn't realize it when I was a camper. The feelings I had as a camper were about the very close friendships I made." Even today, he says, "my best friends are the people I met and went to camp with 50 years ago." It's a sentiment echoed by many former Ramahniks.

After seven years of being a camper, Steinberg returned as a counselor and later a waterfront director. He also participated in the first Ramah seminar in Israel, a yearly event that brings high school seniors from all the Ramah camps together for a summer program in the Jewish state.

"I remember in the early years, on Shabbat, everyone wore white," Steinberg says. "It was beautiful. We would have services overlooking the lake and watch the sunset, welcoming Shabbos that way. It was very very moving." In today's more casual era campers don't wear white for Shabbat but, Steinberg notes, the outdoor services are just as beautiful and emotional.

He credits Ramah, too, with shaping numerous leaders both of the Jewish and the general community, from the chief rabbi of Stockholm to the president of the Carnegie Foundation to academics at a host of prestigious universities to Chicago mega-developer Sam Zell to Dell Computers' Michael Dell to most of today's leaders of the Conservative movement.

"I'm convinced that 90 percent of them would not be in the positions they're in if it weren't for Ramah Wisconsin," he says.

One of the Jewish leaders Steinberg cites is Betsy Dolgin Katz, the Chicago-based director of the North American Office of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, a nationwide program of courses on Jewish religion and culture. Katz herself credits Ramah for indirectly launching her career-and for being directly responsible for her marriage.

She met her husband-to-be, Michael Katz, at camp at age 17 when both were counselors. They are among a number of couples who met at Ramah. Though Katz was from Chicago and Michael from Omaha, Neb., "we found we had a huge amount in common," she says. "People who go (to Ramah) have a tremendous amount in common-ways of discovering answers to the important questions when growing up together."

Discussions at camp about such subjects as kashrut and Shabbat "lead you into (thinking about) a home environment," Katz says. "Those were the things that bonded us, along with the love of kids and the work we were doing with the children" as counselors. Not surprisingly, years later the couple's own children attended Ramah, too.

Her camp experience had another momentous consequence for her, Katz says. She first learned about the Melton Mini-Schools from a camp staff member, but even more importantly, "I had wonderful teachers there who inspired me, people who made me feel I had something to contribute, who supported me," she says. "I may not have gone into Jewish education if it hadn't been for Camp Ramah. The connections I made there took me into my career."

Soloff, the camp director, agrees that "Ramah is an experience that resonates for life." He writes in an e-mail that earlier this month he participated in a 60th anniversary celebration in Jerusalem for alumni living in Israel who attended Ramah Wisconsin from 1947 to 1960.

"More than 50 alumni came to the home of Harriet Fineberg Elazar. Chicago natives such as Dr. Ronnie Ban, Ricky Aaron, Ora Rivlin Kaplan, Lisa Spertus Gross, Sue Spertus Larkey, Ruth Abell Ben Yehuda, Morissa Kotzin Amitai shared Ramah memories and described the profound impact their Ramah experiences had in shaping their Jewish identities. Israel is benefiting from the talent and expertise of these Ramah alumni in law, medicine, education and business," he writes.

In addition, he notes, "Ramah Wisconsin currently has more than 25 young American staff members spending this year in Israel. Some are doing semester undergraduate abroad programs. Interestingly, most have chosen volunteer programs out of a deep commitment to service to the Jewish people. Others are doing graduate programs to prepare themselves for Jewish communal leadership back in the States."

He continues: "Each summer we bring more than 30 Israeli university-age post-army shlichim (Israel cultural exchange staff). More and more are interested in returning to Ramah for multiple seasons. These Israelis express a profound interest in being part of the pluralistic religious and educational environment of Ramah. They often describe how their Ramah experience has helped them rediscover an appreciation for their Jewish heritage away from the politicization of religion as they experienced growing up in Israel."

Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, the original Ramah continues to grow, now serving 500 campers from entering fifth through 11th grades at the Wisconsin overnight facility. (That's in addition to 265 kindergarten through sixth grade campers at the Ramah Day Camp in Wheeling and some 25 campers who participate in the Tikvah program for children with special needs, begun in 1973.) And more than 65 high school seniors participate in the Ramah Israel Seminar each season.

In the last three years the camp has established a professional theater, Northwoods Ramah Theater, which brings young Jewish professional actors and directors for a two-week residency. The camp has also expanded its performing arts program to include dramatic presentations of weekly Torah portions as well as Broadway musicals performed in Hebrew, along with drama workshops and drama ensemble groups.

Also new is a vocational program for high school graduates from the Tikvah program for adolescents with Aspergers syndrome; a new leadership program modeled after the challenge course at the Biblical Nature Preserve in Israel; an intensive tennis program in conjunction with the Israel Tennis Center; a Hebrew ulpan program for campers coming from supplementary Hebrew schools; an intensive Beit Midrash program for campers wanting to intensify their Judaica study; and an intensive visual arts program in painting and ceramics.

Soloff adds that Ramah is "no longer a simple fishing resort: Recently we have renovated our performing arts center, added a new theater space, added a new, fully digitalized radio station, expanded our waterfront teaching areas, rebuilt our sports fields, and this summer will be adding lights to our softball field. We have also added new staff housing."

But it isn't so much the physical facilities that campers remember, but more intangible things.

"I grew up in camp; I'm a product of Camp Ramah as a Conservative Jew," says Nina Harris, the former camper who now returns every summer as a social worker. "I really found my connection to Judaism as an adolescent in a camp setting. All the things that felt comfortable for me about being Jewish, I found them to be true in the camp community."

Harris missed having that connection when her children were very young, so she decided that "it was time for me to stay connected, to give back to the camp community so much of what I had gotten as a camper. As a parent, I wanted to be able to give my kids that same setting, the Jewish setting." Her children, now 11 and 13, have been involved in that setting for nine years, and that's just the way Harris wanted it.

"I grew up in Minneapolis and went to public school; my kids are growing up in Chicago and going to Jewish day school, so they are getting more Jewish experience year-round. But camp is just as valuable for them," she says, noting especially "the high level of programming, the huge group of Israelis who come every summer, the presence of adults-doctors, nurses, rabbis, educators, cantors. It's important for kids to feel that presence," she says. "There is something really magical about the Camp Ramah experience."

"A magical Jewish place" is also the way Dr. Jeff Kopin describes his beloved Ramah. His history with the camp, he says, is "almost my whole life." He spent five years as a camper in the mid-1970s, then came back as a counselor and a unit head, even returning while he was in medical school.

"The joke is that I went to med school because it was the only way to figure out how to go to Ramah summer after summer," Kopin says. He has been the camp doctor for 14 years and is also the current president of the Ramah Wisconsin board. He and his wife, Beth, met there when they were both 15. All three of their children attended as campers; the two oldest are staff members and the youngest will serve that function next summer.

"I have a profound interest in the place," Kopin says. "It's amazing that we create almost an ideal Jewish community every summer in Conover, Wisconsin." Campers "grow as Jews and people" and as adults "go out into the world and are incredibly involved citizens wherever they live, leaders in the Jewish community or in the world beyond the Jewish community," he says.

The RSVPs coming in for the march 9 event are proof of Ramahniks' attachments to their camp experience, Kopin says. "We have literally hundreds of people coming from all over the world, and the single biggest contingent is from the first decade, the '40s and '50s. These are people in their 70s or early 80s, shlepping back to Chicago from wherever they are to be with their camp friends 70 years later," he says.

The event itself will include "a Ramah-style Shabbat," promises Linda Hoffenberg, development director for the camp. "We will bring the Ramah spirit to the hotel with singing, and about eight different teachers who are all involved with Ramah from different eras."

The event takes place Friday and Saturday, March 9 and 10, at the Wyndham O'Hare Hotel. For more information call (312) 606-9316 Ext. 21.

The celebration itself, which will begin when Shabbat ends, will include a film that was made for the occasion and musical performances by campers. The film, Hoffenberg says, "blends footage from the '50s with current footage. You can see that the core of the camp is still the same-young Jewish people in a beautiful place enjoying friendship and activities and being part of a vibrant Jewish community."

Kopin, the camp doctor, says there's even more to the Ramah experience-the camp, he believes, impacts on nothing less than the future of the Jewish people.

"Anecdotally we've known for many years that in terms of creating Jews there's nothing better than Jewish overnight camp," he says. "We now have real data from sociological studies that Jewish residential camping achieves what we've all known from our own experience that it does."

And he has a message for Jewish communal leaders: "When the community is looking for places to invest its resources to continue to raise generations of committed Jews, the place to look is places like Ramah."


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