by Rabbi Eliav Bock
Last year, while recruiting our first cohort of campers to the county’s only Kosher outdoor adventure camp, Ramah Outdoor Adventure, someone forwarded me a funny video titled Jews Don’t Camp (see above). While clearly intended as some light humor, there is an element of truth in this video. American Jews, as a whole, are not known for their rustic “outdoors-y” nature. Although we are a people whose ancient texts and traditions emerged from an agrarian society, most American Jews live in urban settings with minimal daily contact with the broader natural world. And worse, perhaps, is the fact that our children are constantly connected to technology. What parent among us does not regret that?
The holiday of Tu B’Shvat is intended to make us stop and consider our relationship to the earth. At a Tu B’shvat seder, we sit with friends, sing songs about nature, eat special fruits that represent an element within nature, drink hues of wine that represents the changing seasons and discuss how we can protect our natural environment. In recent years, with the rising awareness of humanity’s deleterious impact on the natural world, Tu B’shvat sedarim seem to be ever more popular.
And while celebrating this holiday is a good start, as a camp director, I know that we can take the lessons of Tu B’shvat and apply them to our summer camp lives. At Ramah Outdoor Adventure, we have created a program with the specific goal of reconnecting our youth with the natural world around them. We have made environmental living an integral part of the summer program. From waking up with the sun, to living in a technology free zone with limited electricity, to eating sustainable food at meals, our goal at camp is to spend a few weeks living intentionally in the natural world.
Our program seeks to engage campers in environmental programming. This might be an exploration through the surrounding forest to search for mushrooms or a specific type of tree. It might be a discussion about our own carbon footprint each time we fly to camp or drive three hours to go on a four day hike. But other times our environmental education is embedded within the broader camp program. For example, by spending extended time camping in the backcountry, our campers are able to gain a deeper appreciation about how to use nature for their own good while also leaving it undisturbed for other humans and animals to enjoy. Similarly, by adjusting our internal clocks to wake up at sunrise and go to sleep when dark, campers not only gain an appreciation for living according to the natural rhythms of the day, but they also see that one can survive in a world without electricity.
Throughout, we never lose sight of the fact that Jewish camp works as an educational enterprise because it creates a model community disconnected from the “real world.” Educators have been using camp to impart the importance of living in a deeply connected Jewish community for over 100 years. Because of this, countless campers have spent ten months of the year yearning to return to their camp community. As research now shows, immersive Jewish experiences at camp are a good predictor for life-long engagement in Jewish life. Ramah has long recognized the fact that in every activity and circumstance – and now in the daily routine of Ramah’s first specialty camp – the emphasis on Jewish life and learning remains a critical ingredient. Our environmental learning and outdoor experiences would not be nearly as impactful without grounding in Jewish text learning and the context of Jewish tradition and ritual.
At Ramah Outdoor Adventure, we build upon the success of Jewish camping by creating an immersive Jewish community with an additional layer which makes us unique in the North American Jewish camping world. We have created a program that places equal emphasis on how our community relates to the natural world around us. This means we engage our campers in the choices of food we eat; we spend days at a time sleeping on the ground in tents and under tarps; we walk around at night guided only by moonlight; and we perform weekly service projects to beautify our ranch and to take care of the natural landscape around us. In addition to having our own working garden on the ranch, we contract with a local organic farm to source much of our food. Our older campers have a chance to spend five days living with the farmers and cultivating the land, and return to camp with boxes of fresh produce for us to eat the following week.
We do not want camp’s lessons to remain behind in the Rocky Mountains when campers go home. Rather, we want our campers to return to their regular lives not only with a deeper sense of their own Jewish identity but also with a deeper commitment to protecting and preserving the natural world around us. By marking Tu B’shvat within their home communities, they and we are reminded, as winter wanes, of the imperative to engage more deeply with the natural world and live Jewish lives imbued with wonder at the beauty, bounty, and fragility of the natural world.
Rabbi Eliav Bock is the Director of Ramah Outdoor Adventure.