In rural camp setting, adults learn how to run synagogues

NEW YORK — Munching happily on fish sticks and french fries, the diners seated in a sun-filled corner of the dining room at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires made a surprising bunch of campers.

Indeed, the 19 adults had come to the Conservative movement's camp in upstate New York for serious summer pursuits. Among them: learning how to run a synagogue service, how to chant Torah and haftarah portions and how to write and deliver a d'var Torah, or biblical commentary.

Since 1991, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has run the IMUN Program, a training institute for lay religious leadership in smaller Jewish communities.

"It used to be that the old-timers who ran the store downtown" would lead synagogue services, said Rabbi David Blumenfeld, IMUN's program director and the head of outreach to several hundred small congregations affiliated with United Synagogue.

As those community leaders age, concerns are growing over who will take up leadership roles and prevent the basics of Jewish ritual from seeping away. At the same time, many small and isolated Jewish communities are witnessing a dearth of pulpit rabbis.

United Synagogue responded with a nine-day immersion in Jewish liturgy and Torah reading. The program also focuses on Jewish lifecycle rituals and holidays, synagogue schools and youth programs, Jewish law and practice, and the whys and hows of the Conservative movement.

Rabbis, cantors and lecturers from the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City lead many of the courses.

The program costs $850, but Blumenfeld said United Synagogue hasn't had any trouble filling the 20 slots open each session.

IMUN's organizers had originally considered holding the retreats in upscale urban facilities, but Ramah's rural scenery and its Jewish character attracted the group.

"We're just their hosts, but we make it able to happen in a very good setting," said Paul Resnick, the director of the camp.

"Here they wake up and hear four minyanim" or prayer services, Resnick said.

The IMUN program also runs during the winter at Camp Ramah in California, located in Ojai. Candiates must be members of a United Synagogue congregation and recommended by the synagogue's rabbi or president. They must also be able to read Hebrew phonetically, committed to Jewish learning and prepared to take what they learn home — and use it.

The object of the program, Blumenfeld said, is for participants to build a "powerful nucleus" of lay leaders and to serve as "the driving force behind spirituality in their home congregations.

"It's not a para-rabbinic course. It's not Torah instruction, although, of course, they do learn. But it's not for the purpose of just learning.

"It's training," he said, explaining that the program's title — emblazoned on his blue T-shirt along with a design depicting a yellow flame — means just that in Hebrew.

Temple Shalom of Auburn, Maine, which has about 90 families, sent several members to the program — including Sherry Olstein, a 44-year-old nurse who is "mostly a mom" these days.

The synagogue's rabbi got his congregants involved in IMUN "so it wasn't a one-person show," Olstein said.

The rabbi has since left the pulpit, but Temple Shalom now has better-educated lay leaders to keep up its religious activities.

"Will we be doing it perfectly? No," Olstein said of her colleagues at Camp Ramah. "But at least we'll know what we're doing wrong."