Camp Ramah Is My Pulpit |

What Synagogues Can Learn From Jewish Camp

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In a famous essay written by Rabbi David Mogilner z"l, former director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, Camp Ramah in the Poconos, and former director of National Ramah, he describes his attempts to allay his mother’s concerns that her "nice Jewish boy" was but a mere camp director, explaining, "Ma, Ramah is my pulpit."

Close to 40 years after his passing, I sit, quite literally sometimes, in Mogilner's seat and wonder what would he would say about “his pulpit” in 2013, and, in an era of unprecedented trial and tumult for the synagogues of America, what might the “other” pulpits of the world possibly learn from the model of Ramah and other Jewish camps.

As the rabbi and director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, let me tell you about my ”shul.” My shul is a mid-sized congregation of approximately 500 congregants. Our median age is about 14, which makes us quite unusual by most standards. What also makes us stand out from other congregations of our size is our attendance at daily minyan. We have 100 percent attendance at our daily minyanim, something that makes us extremely proud. We are also thrilled with the Shabbat culture of our community. Not only do we gather together as a whole for Friday night services, but, quite remarkably, we also manage to sit together in one room and share a Shabbat meal, replete with singing, dancing, and Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals).

On Saturday mornings, we offer six “alternative minyanim,” each according to the level and ability of our congregants. In fact, quite often you can hear an enlightening d'var Torah from any number of rabbis, cantors, or educators who frequent our community. On Shabbat afternoons, our Minchah (afternoon service) attendance drops off a bit – to about 150 attendees - but things pick up again for Maariv (evening service) and Havdalah (a separation service, marking the end of a sacred day), where again the entire community comes together to say goodbye to the Sabbath in the same way we greeted her; with love and with reverence.

But, my shul, like all shuls is not perfect. In fact, we never get anyone to join us for the High Holy Days; even on Yom Kippur our shul is a ghost town. The same is true for Sukkot, Simchat Torah and Hanukkah. You can't even find a seder in our community come Passover time, and unless Shavuot is really, really late, we can barely get a minyan.

So no, our “shul” is not perfect; it is bound by both time and space, something no synagogue was ever really meant to be. Our camp exists, quite intentionally, in the bubble of an eiruv, separating us from the rural community that surrounds us, the Jewish community we call our homes during the year, and yes, from the stresses, the challenges, and the complications of living in the “real world.”

But, in light of the recent Pew Report detailing the erosion of affiliated Jewish America, I think back to Mogilner and to the success of Ramah throughout the generations, and I wonder - what can today's shuls learn from the “shul” that is Ramah, that is Jewish camp?

1. As often as possible, pray outside. Nature is a constant source of spiritual inspiration and yet most shuls focus inward on their sanctuaries and chapels instead of turning outward to God's spiritual sanctuary, the world that surrounds us. If your shul is in an urban area - find a roof deck! What could be more inspiring than a skyline at sunset? If your shul is in a suburban area - then hold services in the public park adjacent to your parking lot.

2. Strive to create meaningful and intimate friendships in the synagogue environment. Don't just become a welcoming synagogue, but rather create opportunities for chavurot, small friendship circles, to come together. Better yet, create a Shabbaton, a retreat, because one of the most profound lessons of camp is the realization that sharing space with one another leads to sharing lives with one another.

3. Teach Hebrew. Another little secret of Ramah and many other Jewish camps is the goal of giving all our campers a serviceable Hebrew vocabulary. We do so not to make our campers fluent, but rather to make their transitions into their Jewish tradition fluid and seamless. Unless we are teaching Hebrew, we cannot expect the Hebrew words of our siddur (prayer book) to ever come to life on their own.

4. Have fun! Make sure there is active, dynamic, and participatory programming in your synagogue. And while – just like camp – this programming should always have Jewish educational content, it must also encourage the freedom of the spirit, elicit a widening smile, a belly laugh, encourage physical exertion, and of course, it must not be afraid to be enticingly goofy.

So, although my “pulpit” only lasts for eight weeks each summer, I know that the combination of the above pedagogic philosophies creates a meaningful Jewish experience that lasts a lifetime. And just like Rabbi Mogilner before me, I am profoundly inspired by his simple, but lasting mission that he so clearly articulated: "Ramah makes Jews."

But I am also committed to sharing this unique approach, this theory, this experiment of Jewish living with our wider Jewish world. Because, nothing less than the very future of our Judaism and our shuls, is at stake.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish summer camp experience under the educational auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Illustration: Children jump into a pool at summer camp.Credit: Courtesy: ECamp

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