Sunday, July 31, 2011

Jewish Camping and my shabbat at Ramah Palmer

Dear Friends,

Jewish summer camping has a long tradition. A hundred years ago, immigrant families, often living in crowded cities, sent their children "to the country" for the summer to enjoy the sun and fresh air and advance the process of becoming real Americans. By the 1940s the emphasis of Jewish camping had shifted and now included fostering Jewish identity through camps that emphasized Yiddish, Hebrew and Zionism, and in some cases, love of Jewish learning, prayer skills and the observance of kashrut. In the post-war era, some camps, like the growing Ramah system sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary, became an elite training ground for future leaders trained by the best of the Conservative movement's academics and educators.

This past weekend, Lori and I had the opportunity to visit the Ramah camp in Palmer, MA, the Conservative movement camp for our region, and a year round retreat center. Miskhan Tefila used the camp last spring for a family shabbaton (an experience we hope to repeat this coming May). Some of you also know Ramah - Palmer as the site of the FJMC Laymen's Institute. The guest facilities are gracious, the porch overlooking the lake is beautiful, the sports facilities are diverse and up to date (rock climbing, ropes, alpine tower, fields, tennis courts, and on and on).

Ramah New England is a bustling village and Shabbat at camp is a uniquely moving experience. This Shabbat was Tikvah Shabbat where children who are developmentally challenged were welcomed as leaders throughout the Shabbat davening. Not only their staff, but the entire camp, applauded their leadership and the campers led with comfort - an inspiring success story.

At Ramah, students experience the fullness of Shabbat observance in an atmosphere where the prayer service is engaging and participatory, the melodies are sung with spirit and accompanied by dance (especially Friday night). Meals over Shabbat are accompanied by zemirot and at the conclusion of the Shabbat evening meal especially soulful versions of the grace after meals and of other table songs create an atmosphere of saying goodbye to Shabbat. The teachings we heard over Shabbat from campers and staff focused on the meaning of the torah and haftorah readings with special emphasis on the contemporary Jewish situation and the connections being formed to the State of Israel. The presence of young Israelis sent to the camp on shlichut (as emissaries) was felt everywhere.

At Mishkan Tefila we send our children and grandchildren to a wide variety of camps, Jewish and secular and this year we have only one camper at Ramah. I want to encourage our families to think about Ramah and visit their website or visit the camp to learn more about the program, the plans for growth, scholarship opportunities, programs for children with special needs, and the lasting impact of a Ramah experience. For more information go to: The director, Rabbi Ed Gelb, will be glad to answer any questions you may have.

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