The 2019 National Ramah Winter Leadership Training Conference

by Jared Skoff, National Ramah Program Director

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This year’s National Ramah Winter Leadership Training Conference took place over Shabbat, January 3-6, at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California, and all of our participants felt reinvigorated by the opportunity to spend a weekend with members of their camp community and the greater Ramah community, singing their favorite Ramah Shabbat melodies, experiencing traditions from different Ramah camps, all the while learning from senior leaders from across our movement. (Click here to view the program for the conference.)

We spent 4 days at camp, delving into major topics of camper care, leadership styles, and Jewish learning, gaining perspective from the best practices of 10 different Ramah camps who sent representatives this year.

“It's amazing to be able to have a Ramah Shabbat in the middle of January, where we can experience our favorite traditions and learn new ones from other Ramah camps,” said Paul Horvath, a veteran Ramah Berkshires madrich and Ramah College Network coordinator at Princeton University.

In addition to the informal bonding and intensive Shabbat experience, the four-day conference featured several tracks, including an expanded Bert B. Weinstein Institute for Counselor Training for college freshmen, as well as training for counselors of campers with disabilities (Tikvah), veteran staff (“vatikim”), division heads (rashei edah), and year-round Ramah Service Corps Fellows and Ramah College Network coordinators. The 130 attendees at this year’s conference also included camp directors, assistant directors, and other members of the Ramah year-round team.

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“Being surrounded by 130 leaders who devote their time to Ramah and who strive to bring the magic of camp to their communities year round made me realize the magnitude of Ramah's impact,” said Annie Cannon, a Ramah College Network coordinator at Muhlenberg College.

The Bert B. Weinstein Institute is Ramah’s signature counselor training and leadership program for incoming senior counselors. Participants worked with Ramah leadership and senior staff to hone critical skills, enhance programming, and share best practices from across the Ramah movement. The Bert B. Weinstein Institute constituted the largest contingent of the gathering, with nearly 60 participants representing staff talent from Ramah camps across North America.

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The Weinstein participants were thrilled to learn from Ramah’s National Director Rabbi Mitch Cohen and National Associate Director Amy Skopp Cooper, veteran rashei edah, and members of the Kerem cohort, who helped guide their program track and gave them an insight into the life of young year-round camp professionals. Kerem members are young professionals working primarily as program professionals, representing our different camps.

Weinstein is a chance to return to camp for 4 days in the middle of the year. We get the opportunity to learn from one another and from veteran Ramah experts about how to hone our skills and develop our repertoire as counselors, rashei edah, Service Corps Fellows and College Network coordinators,” said Leah Schatz, Program Director of Ramah Poconos and Kerem member.

Like Leah, many Kerem members gained their first exposure to the impact of the Ramah Camping Movement as Weinstein participants, and decided to pursue full time Ramah work after graduating college. This year, 10 Kerem members attended the conference, leading sessions, developing core components of the Weinstein program, and acting as inspiring mentors to younger Weinstein participants.

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The Leadership Institute for College Sophomores is Ramah’s newest program designed for “vatikim,” experienced senior counselors. Geared toward college sophomores (returning for their third summer as a counselor), this track, now in its second year, focused on more advanced topics of culture-building, staff dynamics, mentorship, and other leadership development skills. They also gained perspective on their own leadership trajectory by hearing advice from a panel of veteran rashei edah.

At the conclusion of the conference in Ojai, the College Sophomores, along with rashei edah and year-round Ramah Fellows, spent Sunday exploring innovative Jewish institutional models in Los Angeles - Beit T’shuvah, an addiction recovery center and congregation, and IKAR, a modern vision of an inclusive synagogue community. On Monday, this group spent the day at a Disneyland Leadership Institute, drawing explicit connections between Disney and Ramah’s shared principles of safety, courtesy, customer service, and interpersonal community building.

The Tikvah (disabilities and inclusion) track was led by Orlee Krass, Tikvah Director of Ramah Poconos and lead trainer for the National Ramah Tikvah Network. Participants for the Tikvah track came from several Ramah camps, and focused on strategies and educational methods relating to building daily routines, nurturing independent living skills, collaboration with families, and strengthening inclusion efforts.

For the second time, our winter conference featured training for two tracks of year-round Ramah Fellowship cohorts. Ramah College Network (RCN) coordinators work part-time to develop Ramah community events on their campuses under the guidance and coordination of Reshet Ramah. During the conference, coordinators worked with Ariel Goodman, National Ramah Program Associate and coordinator of the RCN fellowship, to focus on leadership styles, expanding their networks for increased event participation, and thinking outside the box to plan new and exciting events. Naomi Pitkoff, a junior at Temple University, will be starting her first semester as a coordinator. “Since I am new to the position, it was nice to hear what everyone has done with this position so far and tips I can take back to my campus,” she said. For Randi Traison, a junior at Binghamton University, the ability to come together as a cohort was extremely useful. “Meeting the other Ramah College Network coordinators was really beneficial because now I have a strong network to reach out to for new ideas,” she said.

Ramah Service Corps (RSC) Fellows work part-time in Jewish educational institutions throughout North America to bring Ramah spirit and energy through experiential programs. RSC Fellows also work with staff in regional Ramah camp offices to assist with local recruitment efforts. In preparation for the conference, each RSC Fellow created a presentation to explain their accomplishments, best practices, and constructive strategies as a spark for further conversation with the other members of the RSC track.

The conference was marked by exceptional teaching and learning opportunities. Our participants enjoyed an opening Thursday night session with Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Senior Rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom and former Executive Director of Ramah California. Rabbi Feinstein charged the young leaders with the task of inventing a new Judaism for the next generation of campers, telling madrichim, “We are here to recruit you!”

On Friday, conference participants from all program tracks specialized in areas of interest through a Yom Iyun (a day of intensive study), lasting multiple hours. Electives for the Yom Iyun included: leadership & conflict resolution, interactive tefilot, experiential programming, inclusion, and camper care & mental health. During each of these intensives, participants gained insight, advice, and mentorship from Ramah’s year-round professional team and senior directors, representing many of our Ramah camps’ leadership.

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Our Yom Iyun intensive in interactive tefilot was led by Josh Warshawsky, Jewish musician, songleader, and composer who has spent 18 summers at Ramah Wisconsin. In addition to leading this session, Josh beautified our tefilot and melodies throughout Weinstein and especially over Shabbat, when we experienced both nostalgic and innovative tunes for kabbalat shabbat and seudah shlishit, and a group of “Ramah-capella” singers.

Participants in the different tracks also had the opportunity to experience elective sessions together. Elective session topics included “Israel Education at Ramah” led by Rabbi Mitch Cohen, “Ramah Pride,” focusing on creating a more inclusive space for LGBTQ members of the Ramah community, led by Rabbi Ariella Rosen, director of admissions at the JTS Rabbinical & Cantorial Schools, and a session on “Ramah Behind The Scenes: The Business Of Camp” led by Rabbi Joe Menashe & Rabbi Ethan Linden, directors of Ramah California and Ramah Berkshires, respectively.

“I am very pleased to have been brought into a discussion that could have just as easily been decided by the leaders of Ramah without my input as a madrich, and I believe these topics are important to hear about from the tzevet perspective and thoroughly address,” said Sammy Fishman, Ramah Nyack madrich and “Rosh Rikud” at Weinstein, commenting on these open discussions regarding Ramah policies.

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Both formally during sessions and informally during unstructured times, madrichim from across our camps appreciated the opportunity to connect with Ramah leadership over the course of the weekend.

“One of my highlight moments from the weekend was our camp oneg. When else do we have the opportunity to sit with the leaders of our camp and discuss what we want to see improve in our kehilah? It was great to see our directors in a more casual setting and it felt so reassuring hearing them consider and prioritize our opinions about camp,” said Maya Klareich, a Weinstein Institute participant from Ramah California.

Participants also enjoyed coming together and enjoying new camp activities that they are excited to bring back to Ramah this summer. The entire group played a spirited, high-stakes game of Ramah Jeopardy on the first night of the conference, forming teams of people from across the many camps and learning about each camp’s unique traditions, edot, well-known alumni, and geographical details. On Shabbat afternoon, participants were excited to play Code Names, a popular board game adapted with Ramah vocabulary words. Many were excited to introduce this updated version of the game to their chanichim and fellow tzevet members this summer.

For many of our participants, Weinstein contextualized their role as members of a larger movement, and helped people connect their own camp experience to a community that exists year-round. “I really enjoyed being able to come together with different camps and really connect and learn from each other,” said Talia Feldman, veteran madricha from Ramah Poconos. “It is such a special opportunity to experience Ramah during the year as well as see Ramah as a much bigger picture, not just my own camp.”

We are thrilled with the success of 2019 National Ramah Winter Leadership Training Conference, and we look forward to our next Ramah leadership training.

Nancy ScheffComment