By Rabbi Mitchell Cohen
Mikayla, a rising 11th grader, wasn’t planning to return to Camp Ramah in the Poconos this summer. She was heading into the challenging junior year of high school and already had college on her mind. She thought it was time to start building her resume, to do the typical things that we think impress college admissions officers, like interning at a company or research lab, or volunteering in a faraway country. Then she thought again.
“I realized that I couldn’t miss coming back to camp. I was so incredibly happy all the time and I was free to be me. It was a happiness that I couldn’t get at home, and after a long year of high school, it was exactly what I needed. I also had a family at camp, one I couldn’t go without. I’d spent eight years looking up to Gesher [the oldest camper division] and there was no way I was going to miss my chance,” she told me.
Moreover, Mikayla believed she owed it to Camp Ramah to come back. “Camp has given me so much and I felt that it was my responsibility to give camp a great Gesher,” she explained.
This past June, JTA Israel correspondent Ben Sales argued in a blog post published in The Times of Israel that summer camp is not for building resumes. He is right. Camp shouldn’t be about learning how to give firm handshakes, run a start-up or pitch ideas to investors. But it turns out that Jewish summer camp is actually a great place for teens to gain experiences and skills that will ultimately make them not only more attractive candidates for college and employment, but also better equipped to face so many of life’s major challenges. Teens are discovering that if they follow their hearts back to camp summer after summer (initially as older campers and then as counselors), they’re not just returning to a place of emotional safety and social comfort. They’re also putting themselves in the best position to become successful, committed young Jewish adults.
At a time when the Jewish world is scrambling to find new ways of engaging our youth, the 68-year-old Ramah camping movement has been thriving: we have seen an 11-percent increase in enrollment of eighth through 12th grade campers in the last three years. Eighty-five percent of our oldest campers come back to staff camp for at least one year, and at many of our camps applicants far exceed the number of actual counselor positions available.
The aspirational arc built into Camp Ramah programming is a huge driver of our high retention rates. Younger campers are always looking forward to opportunities and special programming, like major trips and weekly community service activities, enjoyed by the older edot (divisions). The excitement of “what’s next?” keeps kids coming back summer after summer. As great as our senior staff members are, we all know it is the older campers and counselors that the younger kids look up to.
Some may consider camp a bubble that teens live in for eight weeks a year. In a sense, camp is a refuge from today’s incessant pressures to achieve academically. At the same time, camp is a world unto itself in which older teens take on serious responsibility for the wellbeing of others. Where else can teens serve as teachers, caretakers and Jewish role models for younger children?
“There are always going to be opportunities to get jobs in the real world, but you can’t be a counselor forever. Here I learn the fundamentals of responsibility because I am in charge of other people’s children,” first-year counselor Daniel told us about why he went back to Ramah this summer.
In other words, being a camp counselor is a real job, and a demanding one, at that. In fact, it’s one of the best and most rewarding jobs out there, and perhaps the best formula we have for active Jewish teen engagement.
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen assumed the leadership of the National Ramah Commission in 2003 after having served for 11 years as the director of Camp Ramah in Canada. Prior to 2003, he served as the founding principal of the Solomon Schechter High School in Westchester, New York.