Jewish camps are uniquely poised to excel at alumni engagement. The emotional bonds with a beloved camp are strong and deep, and the desire to reconnect later in life is real.
By Rabbi Abigail Treu
[This piece is a response to the series highlighting the community case studies featured in the Alumni Playbook, an online resource from the Schusterman Family Foundation designed to help community initiators build robust alumni networks.]
The recent publication by the Schusterman Family Foundation of the Alumni Playbook is a terrific addition to the field of alumni engagement. Writing from the helm of Reshet Ramah, the National Ramah Commission’s alumni engagement initiative, I would like to share about my experiences in this arena. I hope it might be informative to others looking to build their alumni networks.
Jewish camps are uniquely poised to excel at alumni engagement. The emotional bonds with a beloved camp are strong and deep, and the desire to reconnect later in life is real. Nostalgia for years gone by, moments shared with friends, experiences that cannot be recreated but can be passed on to future generations – these provide the bedrock on which a camp’s alumni engagement endeavor is built. Many maintain close friendships with their camp friends well into adulthood.
That is why, nearly three years ago, the AVI CHAI Foundation and The Maimonides Fund made a seed grant to enable us to establish the Reshet Ramah alumni initiative. Since then, other foundations and donors have invested in aspects of this alumni engagement initiative. Reshet Ramah, together with our local camp alumni associations, are engaging thousands of individuals in programs ranging from social networking to learning programs, from Shabbat services and dinners to adult trips to Poland and Israel.
Ramah’s mission is to inspire commitment to and engagement in Jewish life. Engaging our alumni and their friends extends that mission beyond the camp years, strengthening the community at all stages of life.
If Jewish camps are well-poised alumni engagement engines, we also face challenges that make us distinct from the efforts of organizations like Moishe House, ROI Community, or JDC Entwine, whose alumni come to them as adults. Some “Ramahniks,” as our alumni like to call themselves, are enrolled in day camp as early as kindergarten. They stay through the overnight camp experience until Ramah Seminar in Israel prior to their senior year of high school. An estimated 85% of Ramah campers even stay through adolescence and early adulthood as staff. Others spend only a few summers at camp. All of these are our alumni, whether someone was 13 or 23 when they last spent time at camp. Another challenge is that Ramah alumni come from eight (soon to be nine) different overnight camps. How do you include and connect people whose emotional attachment to camp – to the trees, the hills, that spot right behind the hadar ohel – have much in common, but also differ in so many ways?
We have found that what helps us bridge these challenges is not only the emotional connection to camp, but also the connection to a core set of shared values that binds the community beyond the camp experience. When we gather our young adult leaders in various cities to hear their ideas and needs, among the first requests is invariably Friday night Shabbat programming. This is a hallmark of the Ramah camp experience. But more than nostalgia, this request of our millennial alumni is a wish for the emotional/communal experience that camp once provided. Through a robust alumni engagement program, we can continue to provide this for and with our alumni.
Our role is to ask: What can Ramah do for you now, at this stage of your life, now that camp is over? The programming that results has included Purim megillah readings and Tisha b’Av services, along with Shabbat dinners, havdalah programs, and text study programs. Seven Reshet Ramah Chanukah parties (spanning the globe from Jerusalem to Boston to Toronto to San Francisco) at lounges and bars had no religious content. Young alumni in Washington, DC have gone to baseball games and the theater together. Happy hour networking events are popular and have been the first Reshet programs in cities like Dallas and Atlanta. We support alumni of all ages and stages in ways that are meaningful to them.
We have learned several lessons from this work. First, the most successful efforts begin locally. Reshet Ramah’s most successful programs are built by alumni who love their own Ramah camp and are emerging leaders of their camp’s localized alumni efforts. The national community-building effort therefore goes hand in hand with local camps’ work, each strengthening the other. Second, we find it is key for the millennial generation in particular to open our programs’ invitation to “Ramah alumni and friends.” Ramah alumni want to bring friends to Ramah events who did not attend Ramah, and may not be affiliated with the organized Jewish community in any way. Those individuals might seek what Ramah has to offer at this stage of their lives, even if they never went to camp. Nearly 50% of the participants of our millennial programs and events are in this “friends of Ramah” category. Capitalizing on these two lessons, what begins with each Ramah camp building its own alumni programs is woven by Reshet Ramah into a movement-wide effort that reaches beyond the Ramah alumni circles to engage a wide swath of the Jewish community.
In conclusion, what we have found is that the Ramah camp experience, a finite period of a person’s life, really lasts a lifetime through the core values Ramah embodies and passes on. Our work is to leverage those core values to create a national network that engages our former campers – and beyond.
Rabbi Abigail Treu is Director of Strategic Advancement and Reshet Ramah.