In Defense of Camp Ramah
“Are you ready for the summer?” goes the phrase from the Bill Murray comedy “Meatballs.” When asked if the ritzy Camp Mohawk is worth the price, Murray’s character rattles off its unique programs — a roundtable with Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat rapping with the kids and a not-so-P.C. version of sexual awareness week.
If a recent clash between the leaders of IfNotNow (INN) and Camp Ramah is any indication, perhaps it is Murray’s unrealistically uber-diverse camp that INN seeks. The group’s leaders, several of whom are former Camp Ramah campers and staff, recently expressed their disappointment in the Jewish press that Ramah is not sufficiently discussing the plight of the Palestinian people. Ironically, the openness and sensitivity to the other was likely inculcated at the very place they now criticize.
Yes, the lives of many Palestinians are awful, yet is INN open to the reality that decades of Palestinian refusal to accept Israeli legitimacy coupled with their political strategy of relentless terrorism have crippled any hopes for improvement?
To its credit, Ramah, a Zionist summer camp, does not deem it their mission to explain to American Jews that the “Occupation” is a disaster. Ramah listened, yet responded that they will not be changing their curriculum.
Their mission is clear, including a commitment to social justice, openness to a range of religiosity, treating the other with kavod and, finally, “A passionate, unabashed commitment to, and connection with, the renewal of the Jewish people in its homeland.”
I did not grow up at Ramah, and I have no official connection to the camp. Yet my three kids have spent several summers in Ojai. Over the years, I have been privileged to see firsthand the fruits of the Ramah philosophy.
My semester abroad program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem included a large Ramah contingent. My kids have learned from and been inspired by multiple former Ramahniks who are now dedicated professionals at local Jewish institutions. And, just one week ago, I had the privilege to be at Ramah in Ojai as two former campers held a joyous wedding where the ruach reverberated to the hills of Judah and the courtyards of Jerusalem.
Camp Ramah is a shining light in the Jewish World, developing a love for Israel, Jewish education and marrying Jewish.
To what extent should outside influences shape Jewish camping curriculum? Should I voice my concerns to Ramah about teaching my kids the secrets of baseball’s circle change, or supply side economics?
Ramah is clear in its mission regarding Jewish education, and camp should continue to be a safe space, especially regarding divisive topics.
The current toxic political debate is having a negative effect on the cohesiveness of our nation, trickling down to the achdut of our communities and families. Do we want the same at our camps as well?
Ramah may not have a specific focus on the plight of the Palestinians. Yet at the same time, they do not focus on the wanton death and destruction wrought by Palestinian terrorists, or Palestinian leadership’s use of billions of dollars in American aid and support for “reparations” for the families of terrorist martyrs or the funneling of money from schools and hospitals to instead build terror tunnels.
Ramah successfully imbues mutual understanding and a love and support of the other, no matter what race, religion or sexual orientation that entails.
I applaud the strongly worded response from Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director, saying that Camp Ramah will not bow to pressure from IfNotNow.
The focus on the friendly confines of the Jewish camping world represents a disturbing departure for INN and those in the BDS movement. And Jewish camps from across the divide should join in solidarity with Ramah as they are likely not the last to come under such scrutiny.
Dr. Matthew Lefferman is a geriatric physician in private practice who lives in Los Angeles, California. He serves on the boards of Pressman Academy and the Westside JCC, and he is the father of three children who have been involved in multiple Ramah camps and programs.