Exploring camp from a different perspective
Going from Ramah director to JTS vice chancellor offered the chance to see summer camps as part of a broader Jewish 'ecosystem'
When I told my daughters last September that, after serving as Camp Ramah in the Poconos’ executive director for over a decade, the previous summer had been my last, they paused for a moment, and then asked, “Does this mean we can take the bus with our friends?”
This set the stage for a year of thoughtful transition, allowing me to say goodbye to a beloved organization while seeking new professional opportunities. After several months of exploring various possibilities, I returned to another cherished institution and my alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), as the vice chancellor for institutional advancement.
This personal change led to a unique summer. Now, as a former camp director, I witnessed camp life from the other side.
On June 27, it all began at the bus stop my children had been dreaming about. Other camp parents teasingly remarked, “You’re among the ‘civilians’!” as we waited for the coach bus to arrive. When it did, my wife and I tearily hugged our kids, told them how proud we were of them, and watched them board the bus. Then, along with the other parents, we departed for work, life, and yes — vacation.
In my new role as JTS’s vice chancellor, I was so happy to find myself at several different Machanot Ramah this past summer, this time wearing a different “kippah.” My goal, this time as a visitor, was to identify and cultivate the next generation of Jewish leadership among campers and staff.
With each visit, and with my guitar in tow, I inspired campers to think spiritually about their world and their lives through musical prayer experiences. I taught a class about the difference between memorizing the words of the Shema and living the words of the Shema. And I was privileged to have many conversations with teens and college-age adults about their aspirations, their futures and their desires to lead meaningful lives with Judaism at the center.
I left these visits truly energized and inspired. I also left with a stunning realization, one that I had not truly appreciated in my decade as a camp director. Camps are truly part of a larger Jewish ecosystem, a natural resource of leadership potential capable of fueling the Jewish tomorrow. Our future is bright, but we must nurture it.
The word “pipeline” has often been used to describe the concern over Jewish leadership continuity, specifically the decreased number of students entering religious seminaries. This is one of the reasons I spent so much of my summer at various Camp Ramahs, to help foster and strengthen this pipeline and pave the way for future Jewish leaders.
Pipeline development doesn’t end with visits to summer camp. JTS is also taking an active role in responding to this current challenge. Recently, Chancellor Shuly Rubin Schwartz established a Cultivation of Religious Leadership taskforce, a committee of JTS professionals, trustees, lay leaders and committed partners to address the issue. Together, this task force is diving into defining the current challenges related to pipeline development and will offer enduring, novel solutions. The task force is looking at all of JTS’ schools, as well as our new certificate and online learning degree-granting programs, with an eye toward attracting and deepening the Jewish continuity pipeline.
Yesterday, all three of my daughters got off that same bus after a long and wonderful summer at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. There were a lot of hugs and kisses, and a family sushi dinner to celebrate our reunion. When we asked our oldest what she learned this summer, she said, “I loved my classes with Moreh Yoni. We learned about ‘radical amazement,’ and how Shabbat is like a palace in time.”
“And do you know who said all that?” I asked, in anxious anticipation.
“Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.”
Fit to burst, I said: “And do you know where he was a professor?”
“At JTS,” she said.
The #jtsramahconnection is strong and our future leaders are out there. As a former camp director and the current JTS vice chancellor, I see it in the faces of our students, and I saw it in the campers I interacted with. May the pipeline continue to grow and prosper, just as my children did this past summer.
Rabbi Joel Selzer is the vice chancellor for institutional advancement at the Jewish Theological Seminary.