CAMPS: Raising the Next Jewish Leaders

by Alanna Berman February 4, 2014


By Alanna Berman

Photo Courtesy Camp Ramah in California

For Rabbi Joe Menashe, an effective camp experience doesn’t stop at summer’s end. The Executive Director of Camp Ramah in California, the national camp’s Western location; working to ensure the health of the established camp and cultivating camp programs to develop the next Jewish leaders is all in a day’s work.

“In addition to happy campers and happy families, [the camp experience] is a product that we are giving them, and the choices they are making later; professionally, environmentally, through service to the community and connection to Israel; are all impacted by a Ramah trajectory,” he says. “For a young Jewish person who goes through years as a camper and continues up the aspirational arc through the staff years, it is an incredible balance of challenge and support that cultivates their resilience and skills to be a leader.”

Numerous camp programs focus on leadership skills and development of character at Ramah. The Barnhard Mador Leadership Program, for example, asks incoming high school seniors to take on real responsibility at camp. Program participants do everything, from teaching in the art room and swimming to being a group madrich or counselor to a group of younger campers. In addition, participants spend about 10 hours each week at camp learning intensive leadership and counseling skills through a Jewish lens.

“We [at Ramah] are not ashamed to say that 17 year-olds should see themselves as leaders,” Menashe says of the program. “I think that’s important – that Jewish leadership isn’t seen as something that you have to wait [to be a part of] until you become older, or until you have the ability to give back monetarily; our approach is that Jewish leaders can begin once they can be an exemplar for another Jewish person, and that starts at a very young age, and there is no better place for that than at camp.”

Each summer, about 300 staff members serve 1300 campers at Ramah. In addition to executive leadership, head counselors, typically 21-22 year-old prior campers, manage their own group of 20-30 high school students who are responsible for anywhere from 80-100 younger campers.

“Even though this is camp, it’s a real responsibility to have the Jewish soul and physical welfare of someone else’s child on your shoulders,” Menashe says.

This responsibility, he says, gives young people the confidence they need to be leaders in every facet of life. It’s why so many Ramah alumni have gone on to become the next great leaders in the worlds of Jewish camping and the greater Jewish community.

“There is a very natural progression for Ramah alumni, who have touched and felt the trajectory of Jewish life at camp, to then realize how effective this Jewish educational model is, and to be able to impact more Jewish lives in a broader way as adults,” Menashe says.


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