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How a Winter Fire Burned Down the Walls Between a Jewish Summer Camp and Its Neighbors

To get to Camp Ramah Darom in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you drive up Interstate 85, North, out of Atlanta, the nearest big city, for almost an hour. Just a little past Peachtree Corners, you turn onto old U.S. Route 23. From there it’s 35 minutes or so, deep into the mountains, until you get to Clayton, Georgia, population 2,234. Then, go just 8 miles west on Highway 76 before turning north on Persimmon Road.

Seven more miles on a winding, steep road up the side of a mountain, and you’ll see the sign for the camp on your left.

It’s a remote location for a Jewish summer camp. But from November 14 until December 5, Camp Ramah Darom, which is affiliated with the Conservative Judaism movement, was a cosmopolitan melting pot of rugged Mexican immigrants, Native Americans, whites from the Pacific Northwest and volunteers from local Christian Churches.

A recent huge outbreak of forest fires in these backwoods drew firefighters from all over the country to battle the huge blazes. And Camp Ramah Darom, near ground zero for this battle, played host to these contingents, who made the Jewish institution their temporary home. In doing so, the firefighters forfeited their morning bacon, among other things, to observe the laws of kashrut. Sleeping in bunks that were too small for them, they even haggled over who got top and who got bottom. And they befriended the camp’s staff; many have connected on Facebook and have hunting trips and reunions planned for the near future.

“It felt a little bit like the movie ‘Independence Day.’ Here we were, all these people, standing in common to fight this enemy,” said Fred Levick, Ramah Darom’s CEO. “I looked around, and I saw this melting pot of America.”

For years, Camp Ramah Darom’s summer camp competitors have lampooned it as “Spa Ramah.” Campers sleep in quaint cabins outfitted with dryers and screened-in-porches. It’s also a year-round retreat center and has 57 air-conditioned hotel rooms, a state-of-the-art gym, a yoga studio, an alpine tower, a heated swimming pool, a 100-foot waterfall and a crystal-clear lake. In normal times, the focus is on Judaism. Mezuzas line every door, and the rooms are given Hebrew names. The dining hall, for example, is the Chadar Ochel.

The facility is constantly in use for weddings, corporate retreats and other group activities when summer camp is not in session. But the 350 firefighters from more than 20 states who traveled down South to put out the dangerous wildfires were something new.

Prior to this, many of these guests had never set foot on a Jewish property; not even the volunteers who came from the local churches down the street.

“I met neighbors who have been literally a few doors down from me for 14 years,” said Scott Cates, the pastor at nearby Liberty Baptist Church. Cates visited Ramah in November for the first time, along with his congregants to help prepare food for the firefighters. “One lady said: ‘I watched your kids grow up, I feel like their grandmother.’ I had never met her before in my life.”

By the time the firefighters left, the fires were 95% contained. Local forces took over the task of putting out what was left. Everyone emerged, injury-free. But the 21 days the firefighters were there changed the community forever.

Since Camp Ramah Darom’s founding in 1997 it largely operated in a bubble, co-existing but not collaborating with the wider non-Jewish world around it. “I always felt like we were kind of an island,” said Todd Jones, Ramah’s executive chef and food and beverage manager, who has been working there on and off since 2008. But the fires changed this reality. “It felt isolated, but I don’t think it’s like that anymore. This was a great thing for Ramah and the town of Clayton… we are all working together now.”

Cates was also elated. “There were no barriers, there were no walls; everyone just came together to take really good care of the community,” he said. “The relationship with the camp will be ongoing. There is no doubt about that.”

The fires began on November 9, on the banks of the Tallulah River, a mere 3.5 miles from Ramah. While investigations are still underway, the National Wildlife Coordinating Group, a federal interagency task force, believes that arson caused the blaze.

It was one day after the presidential election, and the country was fiercely divided. Wanting to do something good, the camp’s leaders came, individually, to the same conclusion about how to help.

“We literally chased down one of the forestry guys who was in charge, and took him to camp and showed him around and said, ‘We want the fighters to stay here,’” said the general manager, Anthony Franklin. Ramah officials signed a land use agreement with government authorities that paid the camp for the cost of housing the firefighters. Ramah used some of its own funds to provide additional supplies and to underwrite some of the cost of feeding them.

The first group—an engine crew with fire trucks—arrived five days after the fire started. Donald Jones, from Miles City, Montana, was shocked that he and the other firefighters weren’t sleeping in tents like they usually do on the job. He nicknamed his cabin “the penthouse suite” because it was the highest in camp and came with warm blankets, comfortable mattresses and showers.

That day the smoke was so thick, it was hard to see across the camp’s lake, and cars were covered in ashes. “The camp was really, really lucky, being so close to the fire,” said Amanda Grubb, a base camp manager responsible for the firefighters’ well-being. “It could have changed any second and come right towards the camp.” As things turned out, the camp itself was not damaged.

Rabbi Analia Bortz was at Ramah that day, leading a women’s retreat for 70 participants. “There was a shocking moment when I saw a fire truck inside the camp where the volleyball area is, next to the basketball courts,” she said. “But we never felt unsafe; it was the opposite.” The women were given a choice to cancel their retreat because of the smoke, but they decided they wanted to keep their plans and help with the effort. They ended up making baked goods for the firefighters and helping to serve meals. Other upcoming retreats were rescheduled.

That week, more teams arrived in groups of 20. There were hand crews, who created protective lines to stop fires, and those who brought in water trucks. There were meteorologists, commanders and folks responsible for making contingency plans. “You can’t really conceive of what it takes to fight a fire,” Levick said. “It’s like calling together an army of men and women and equipment.”

A routine quickly took hold. Breakfast was served at 5:30 a.m. so that the firefighters could start their 12 to 16 hours of heavy labor. The terrain is steep in Georgia, and each firefighter had to carry backpacks weighing up to 70 pounds. They all would return to camp at night, exhausted, to eat dinner, take a shower and sleep.

“I did them everything from brisket tacos, a meatloaf, chicken cacciatore, you name it,” Jones said. “We made them nice, hearty meals, because these guys burn three or four times the calories we do.”

Every morning, the volunteers from the local churches, camp alumni and staff from Atlanta arrived to help prepare and serve meals. Members of the Liberty Baptist Church put together 4,790 care packages, containing socks, carbs to eat on the job, toothbrushes and little gifts for the fighters. “For the most part we get that at other fires,” Grubb said. “But there were handwritten notes from the community and the kids; it really changed people.”

Without anyone fully realizing it, the members of this haphazard group started influencing one another. For many of the firefighters, learning about Judaism was a new experience. Roberto Ceja Ochoa, a 42-year-old firefighter from Stayton, Oregon, went home and told his family what he learned. “They told me they don’t eat pork,” he said. “And they celebrate Christmas, but it’s not really Christmas, and it’s next month and lasts eight days.”

Franklin laughed as he remembered trying to explain kosher law to the firefighters. “I had to dig into Leviticus and say, ‘This is the reason we can’t mix meat and dairy, and this is the reason we can’t have pork, and it’s all laid out here in the Bible, the Torah,’” he said. Other firefighters had questions for Geoff Menkowitz, the camp director, when he was lighting Sabbath candles as evening approached on Friday.

Grubb, who hails from Fort Morgan, Colorado, said she started feeling protective of her temporary home. People in town would say, “Oh, the Jewish camp,” when she told them where she was staying; she would tell them how Zen it was up there. “People are so closed-minded even if they don’t mean to be,” she said. “What happens in my world” is all that interests them, she said.

The effort to understand went both ways. Jones made the firefighters their favorite meals. For one, he created a gumbo with kosher sausages. For others, a nacho chile picante salsa with smoked peppers. Camp housekeepers didn’t think twice when Grubb put up Christmas lights in her hotel room at the welcome center.

The 21 days spent fighting the fire also brought together Ramah and Clayton neighbors. Previously, locals had worked at the camp. And a few older campers had volunteered with local churches in the summer. But there was a kind of wariness. No one could quite pinpoint why the groups hadn’t fully collaborated.

Franklin guessed it had something to do with security. “After 9/11, Ramah felt like it had to do its due diligence,” he said. The camp recruited Israeli staff members who had served in the Israel Defense Forces to patrol the property alongside professionals from the sheriff’s office, and security firms to watch over the camp. “Maybe people thought in their mind it was secretive or they weren’t welcome, or we don’t care about you or you aren’t Jewish or whatever?” Franklin said.

To kick-start this new relationship, camp staff and locals have planned to gather together in mid-January to reflect on what happened and give thanks. “It’s the end of one thing, and the beginning of something else,” Levick said. The camp is already asking firefighters and forest service personnel to return to Ramah this summer and teach campers about how to protect the environment.

On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, the situation was still dire. If the winds changed direction, the camp itself would be in the wildfire’s direct path.

Camp Cut-Ups: Todd Jones, Ramah Darom’s executive chef, instructs volunteers Dan Siegler (left) and Bruce Goldstein on cutting turkeys for the Thanksgiving meal. Image by Fred Levick

To mark the holiday, even amid this concern, the camp decorated the dining hall with holiday-themed paper goods and centerpieces. Staff members from Atlanta picked up 20 12-to-14-pound kosher turkeys. Jones cooked up a feast of green bean casseroles, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy and pecan pie. “It’s not that they didn’t like it, but they didn’t understand the Southern sweet potato casserole,” he said, laughing.

Franklin turned on the WiFi so that firefighters could FaceTime with their loved ones back home. But many turned their attention to their new temporary families. “It was the best meal I’ve ever had,” Grubb said. “There were some people who I had been on fires with this summer whom I had never met before.”

What struck Levick was the thought that this might be the most diverse group in America sitting together that day for this particular Thanksgiving.

It was two weeks after the election. But no one discussed politics or which candidate he or she supported, or feelings about the result. There wasn’t a single argument or nasty word. Instead, the group members shared stores about their families, their jobs and the people they had met from all over the country while fighting the fires.

“For us, people were just people trying to do good. It restored my faith in humanity,” Levick said.

“We just concentrate on putting out the fire and helping people and saving lives,” Ochoa said. “We don’t worry about other people fighting about power; we don’t do that.”

Contact Alyson Krueger at [email protected]

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