Camps & education | Ramah fellows extend camp feeling into the school year

Heading back to school in the fall after a fun-filled summer at camp has always been a bit of a letdown for kids. Who hasn’t wished that school were more like summer camp and that teachers were more like camp counselors?

Stephen Feinberg

Now, Camp Ramah, the camping arm of the Conservative movement, is making those wishes come true with a new initiative that brings camp’s experiential learning to synagogue schools and Jewish day schools. Twenty-five college-age Ramah Service Corps fellows are living and working in communities across North America, infusing formal Jewish learning with camp-style activities, serving as Jewish role models for teens and encouraging kids to attend Ramah camps.

The Ramah Service Corps initiative, launched three years ago, has expanded significantly this year thanks to $1.5 million of new funding from a variety of sources.

While the Ramah Service Corps is a single initiative, it plays out differently in various communities. In some cities, each of the fellows — all former Ramah staffers — works with a single Conservative congregation to plan and lead a number of camp-inspired educational activities during the year. In most cases, the fellows are already employed or studying in the community, and their Ramah Service Corps work is an additional piece of their responsibilities.

In the Bay Area, a single fellow is working with a handful of synagogues. Last fall, University of Georgia graduate Stephen “Stevo” Feinberg moved to Berkeley to extend the Ramah experience for kids during the school year.

“I’m reconnecting with kids who are already campers at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California, and at Ramah Outdoor Adventure in Colorado,” Feinberg said. “And I’m also reaching out to new families interested in those camps, plus the new one that will hopefully open soon in Northern California.”

Rabbi Corey Helfand of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City serves as Feinberg’s mentor, helping him connect with local congregations and plan activities.  The 23-year-old fellow plans to focus on developing close relationships with a few institutions during the spring semester. He’ll help lead the junior congregation once a month at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, teach weekly elective classes at the religious school at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, and lead a regional United Synagogue Youth Shabbaton in Sacramento in April. He also expects to work with two additional East Bay Conservative synagogues.

Feinberg believes his role is to bring high energy and positivity to Jewish education. Camp Ramah has been very influential in his life, he explained, and he wants to bring the Ramah experience to the next generation. “Camp Ramah has totally changed the course of my life for the better,” he said, “and it can do the same for others.”

Ramah Service Corps fellow Eli Jacober (far right) with students at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, near Detroit

In the Detroit metropolitan area, the Ramah Service Corps is a full-time job for the three fellows stationed there. Eli Jacober, Darrien Sherman and Hillel Buechler share a house in Royal Oak, Mich., and are a regular presence at six area synagogue schools, two Jewish day schools and Hillel at the University of Michigan, where there are some 150 Ramah alumni.

“It’s kind of like a reality TV show,” Jacober, 23, joked about the three of them living together. “We didn’t know each other coming into this, but thankfully we are all fairly neat. Of course, we each have slightly different ways of loading the dishwasher and taking out the garbage. It could have been bad, but it isn’t.”

Jacober has experience teaching in a day school and was looking for something different to do this year. Buechler, also 23, thought the Ramah Service Corps was a good fit for him as he contemplated what his next move in life would be. Sherman, a 22-year-old Michigan native and University of Michigan graduate, wanted to stay close to home. All three are considered outstanding young Ramah leaders and were chosen by the National Ramah Commission and the senior staff at Camp Ramah in Canada (the nearest Ramah camp) for the intensive fellowship.

In some instances, the fellows collaborate and co-lead classes with teachers, and in others they are completely in charge of the students. Their roles range from leading prayers at weekly student minyans and High Holy Days family services, to holding experiential learning sessions at lunch and helping out at Shabbatons. They have also become regular faces at community events, such as holiday celebrations and camp recruitment fairs.

“They’re at everything going on in the community,” noted Marianne Bloomberg, a mother of two children at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills.

“I’m a huge believer that teenagers make life decisions based on the influence of role models who are slightly older than them, young people in their 20s,” said Rabbi Eric Grossman, head of school at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield. “The Ramah fellows are amazing role models. They’re people leading a life dedicated to Judaism, Torah and youth, and they are taking the time to serve.”

Bloomberg agrees. “Darrien has been a great influence on my daughter,” she said. “She was my daughter’s counselor at Camp Ramah, and we know her family through our synagogue. Now she’s working with my daughter as a Ramah fellow.”

“The kids adore her,” Michael Wolf, who works at both Hillel Day School and Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park, said of Sherman. “She’s a quiet, soft-spoken leader.”

Rabbi Aaron Starr at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield believes this personal connection is key to presenting Ramah as an exciting summer destination for Detroit’s Jewish kids. “Camp Ramah now has a local ‘face’ with which our children and their families can connect, and make Camp Ramah once again a viable option for our families,” he said, referring to the fact that the number of Metro Detroit kids heading north of the border to the closest Conservative summer camp has dropped significantly in recent years.

Everyone seems to agree that there is only an upside to having the Ramah fellows fully integrated into the community. “Right now, we are trying to create more linkages between school and camp,” said Jeff Lasday, director of the Alliance for Jewish Education of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “We’re trying to make more connections between the formal and the informal, so the timing of the fellows’ arrival has been great for us.”

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.