Extending the Ramah Mission: 7 Years of Remarkable Growth

Reshet Ramah Hanukkah Party 2016; courtesy.

By Amy Skopp Cooper

In 2010, as part of a strategic planning process, the National Ramah Commission determined that one of its objectives would be to further leverage the Ramah camping movement brand and extend the Ramah mission beyond the scope of summer camps. Action steps included:

  • increased year-round programming;
  • more young adult engagement opportunities;
  • investment in additional staff leadership programs; and
  • stronger partnerships with local camp communities, synagogues, and schools.

We are pleased that this objective continues to be met, redefined, and re-articulated. Thanks to over 11 million dollars in foundation support, we have been able to launch new programs, engage thousands of current and former Ramahniks, establish Ramah programs in over 50 communities, and increase the scope of the projects we offer. Programs such as the Ramah Service Corps, Davidson Ramah Fellows, Reshet Ramah, and Gesher Ramah are all products of this amazing growth period. Their success makes it seem as though they have been part of the Ramah lexicon for several decades.

Along the way, we have learned and developed a number of principles that guide our work and inform our decision making, as follows:

1. Movementwide programs work best with national vision and local expression.

We first learned this lesson in the early years of our work with the Ramah Service Corps (2010-2012), and it informed our strategy when we introduced Gesher Ramah and restructured the Reshet Ramah model in 2016.

Ramah Service Corps Fellows and Davidson Ramah Fellows (RSCF) are young adult alumni who work for Ramah part-time. They infuse synagogues, schools, and other communal settings with Ramah spirit, organize Ramah-style programs, immerse themselves in the life of their communities, and meet with prospective Ramah families. Our first RSCF cohort of 10 Fellows worked with our National office and were mentored and supervised by National Ramah staff. As we begin year seven, with 60 Ramah Service Corps Fellows and 100 RSCF alumni, we’ve learned that our regional Ramah camps and local community partners must be actively involved in structuring the Fellows’ experience, customizing the Fellowship to meet the needs of their community, and providing the local support and mentorship that emerging Jewish educators require.

Local leaders know which sites are able to accommodate RSC Fellows, the nuances of particular workplaces, the communal calendar, and community culture; they are aware of what has worked previously and how to provide necessary resources to their Fellows. For instance, while building a Ramah Service Corps synagogue farm and chicken coop worked (beautifully!) in one community, another Fellow was advised that zoning laws would prevent him from doing something similar. In some areas, RSCF Kabbalat Shabbat events will draw over two hundred people, while other RSCF sites attract large crowds for havdalah Israeli dance parties. Gesher Ramah, which is designed to create strong partnerships with local synagogues and drive camper enrollment, operates in a similar way and benefits from active local Ramah leadership. During its first year, almost every Gesher Ramah synagogue increased its Ramah enrollment by over 10%.

The National office, on the other hand, is able to articulate a vision for these programs, provide opportunities for cohort learning and sharing, maintain a shared program bank that now houses over 500 program ideas and resources, organize annual retreats, support marketing and branding, and manage budgets, including the distribution of over half a million dollars in scholarship funds to campers from these sites.

Reshet Ramah, our alumni and community engagement initiative, has also evolved into a national brand with local expression and implementation. During our first four years, most Reshet Ramah programming was nationally driven. In some ways, this was a necessary first step as we created the Reshet brand and experimented with different types of programs. But last year, during an internal evaluation, we decided that in order to grow Reshet Ramah, it would be far more effective to place alumni program coordinators in key communities. Here too, National Ramah continues to provide vision, create nationally-branded events, and manage all marketing and registration platforms. Programs such as Shabbat Across Ramah, Outrageous Adar (a month-long series of Purim events), Ha’Dor Yizkor (intimate conversations with Shoah survivors), and Open Sukkah are all examples of this effort. Local coordinators and stakeholders determined when to schedule these programs, what would work best in their communities and which market segments to invite. And the results are excellent: in just seven months, Reshet Ramah tripled the number of events offered and was able to attract an additional two thousand Ramah alumni and friends of Ramah to its events.

2. Form partnerships with organizations that share your values.

By collaborating with United Synagogue Youth (USY), The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), PJ Library, Repair the World, Moishe House Without Walls, OneTable, Nefesh B’Nefesh, and campus Hillels, we’ve been able to expand our professional network, attract a broader audience, share resources, and ensure that we are coordinating with, and not duplicating, other efforts in specific communities. For example, we have:

  • Worked with local synagogues to run a Ramah Passover Day Camp in the Metro Detroit area;
  • Created local partnerships with various organizations for Reshet Ramah’s Yom Maasim Tovim (day of social service);
  • Collaborated with USY and JTS in organizing a major NYC Chanukah event;
  • Co-sponsored PJ library programs for families with young children; and
  • Identified partner synagogues and other Jewish settings to house many of our young adult learning hub events, Ramah minyanim, and young adult Shabbat dinners.

Equally important, we realize that Jewish communal collaboration will continue to be imperative and that we need to model this to our staff alumni.

3. Grow and invest in young adult leadership cohorts.

Above all, as we widen our circle of impact and extend the Ramah mission, we’ve recognized that the need for ongoing training of our young Jewish leaders – training that prepares them for future lives as Jewish educators and leaders – is critical to this success. As an example, the Bert B. Weinstein Institute for Staff Training, once a program designed primarily for young counselors, now offers multiple tracks designed for special needs educators, senior counselors, returning rashei edah (division heads), Ramah Service Corps Fellows, and Ramah College Network coordinators. And the Songleader Boot Camp National Conference (SLBC), designed to train shirah and tefillah leaders, now has an SLBC Ramah Shabbat program and SLBC Ramah track. We continue to create new professional cohorts and provide resources to allow them to come together.

4. Communicating the key accomplishments is important; so too is sharing the stories of the connections created among Ramah camper and staff alumni.

Each of the foundations we work with requires detailed documentation and reporting, and demands that we measure our success and impact using appropriate metrics. However, it is just as important that we share with our funders and the broader Jewish community the stories that show the impact of the creation of Ramah connections. For example:

  • The 1967 Ramah Israel Seminar 50th reunion took place in Jerusalem in October 2017. Though the group had lost touch over the five decades, over 40 Seminar alumni attended the 50th reunion, including six of the group’s counselors and three former Ramah Seminar directors. The group shared poignant reflections of being in Jerusalem just one month after the Six Day War.
  • On a local level, a newcomer to San Diego responded that she would love to be hosted at a Shabbat Across Ramah dinner. Immediately, a former staff member from Ramah Darom (having relocated to California only a few years earlier), reached out with an invitation.
  • When Ben Platt won a Tony Award for his leading role in Dear Evan Hansen and credited Ramah with so much of his success, a single item about him posted to the Reshet Ramah Facebook page reached thousands of people in just a few hours.

Finding the forums and identifying the platforms for sharing these stories keep our stakeholders engaged and hopefully serve as a strong motivation for current Ramah campers and staff.

All of our work directly supports the Ramah mission of inspiring and educating new generations of young Jews to engage with their Jewish heritage as active and involved partners in the building of Jewish community. This work also serves the purpose of creating a strong pipeline for our camps as well as for the communities whose synagogues, schools, and families send children to Ramah and other Jewish camps. It is our hope that by extending our mission, Ramah is both a national and local partner in strengthening Jewish community, implementing our vision of an even more vibrant Jewish life.

Amy Skopp Cooper has served as the associate director of the National Ramah Commission since 2004. She is also the executive director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, where she served as director for 20 years.