Grassroots Alumni Basketball League Celebrates 20 Years of Nurturing the Camp Community Year-Round

Ramah Basketball Association, 4th Annual Eric Steinthal z"l Memorial Championship Games; photo courtesy Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.
Ramah Basketball Association, 4th Annual Eric Steinthal z”l Memorial Championship Games; photo courtesy Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.

By Rabbi Paul Resnick

In 1996, before alumni engagement was a buzz phrase in the philanthropy industry, a group of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires young alumni (recent college graduates) sought a place to play basketball with their camp friends. For many of them, playing on the courts in camp was one of their favorite memories as a camper and as a staff member. Without realizing it, this group of four teams of ten established the Ramah Berkshires Alumni Association’s basketball league – known as the RBA.

But they weren’t in camp anymore. In fact, they were all post college. All were either in graduate school or working. All were advancing themselves professionally and socially, in different ways. All were still strongly connected to Ramah, to basketball, and to each other.

The league started as a Ramah Berkshires group. Then in 2004, as the numbers grew, the volunteer commissioners welcomed alumni from six other Ramah camps to play, to be captains, and to be fully integrated into the RBA. This Berkshires-driven enterprise became a significant engagement point for alumni from all of the Ramah camps in North America. It was one of the factors inspiring the idea to create Reshet Ramah, the Ramah movement-wide alumni and community engagement initiative.

Twenty years later, the league consistently attracts around 70 members annually. The players have created a space where they can once again have fun with their camp friends, reminisce about their summers, and act as though they were back in Gesher, the oldest age division.

What were we doing? What was the Ramah Berkshires administration doing? We nurtured the growth of the RBA and helped – and continue to help – support it financially, but the driving force was always alumni. This grassroots endeavor was formed by alumni who wanted it. It was alumni who made it happen. This organic structure was totally created by alumni.

We were engaging alumni a decade or more before the two words “alumni” and “engagement” were even used together. No one promoted engagement of alumni in most of the Jewish camp world. Colleges did it. Camps did not.

The RBA was born out of a desire to be with camp friends. RBA engages people who are now sending their children to camp as campers. RBA engages people who are in their 20’s, some right out of college. RBA engages people who want to connect with other Ramahniks – not only peers – but just other folks who have that camp connection, a connection that is difficult to understand if one doesn’t understand the importance of camp. This engagement has turned out to be a source of financial support too, from alumni, as we generated team sponsorships.

Four years ago, in March 2012, Eric Steinthal, z”l, tragically passed away. Eric was a key influential force in the RBA. He played. He led. He kept score. He encouraged peers to participate. He managed. He was Mr. RBA. In his memory, again driven by alumni and nurtured by the camp leadership, two ideas were brought to fruition. His friends wanted to re-name and improve the basketball court at camp on which Eric and his buddies played back when they were campers, and now, when they come to camp for the annual Labor Day Alumni Weekend. Within a month, the campaign partnering with Eric’s friends and family and the broader camp leadership raised $75,000 for the project. The new court and bleachers stand in testimony to the power of nurturing camp’s alumni.

Ramah Berkshires also established the Eric Steinthal Memorial Scholarship Fund. The fund was created by camp to perpetuate Eric’s name, with the strong and active engagement of his friends and family. Funds are distributed to a camper each year who attends public school from New Jersey.

Plans have been percolating about creating additional engagement opportunities for the Ramah community focused on sports. Frisbee and volleyball are amongst two popular ideas. It is engaging with a ball or disc; yet, is it is so much more!

On April 10, we celebrated the 19th Annual RBA Championship Game. The recently established RBA Eric Steinthal award was given to two deserving alumni who have nurtured the RBA. This is another example of helping cultivate connections with each other and to camp. One honoree said he talked about his RBA experience with his co-workers, referring to it as “Jew ball.” He would often arrive at work on Monday tired and achy, and his colleagues would say, “Didn’t you say that you play with a bunch of Jewish guys?” He would respond, “Yeah, it is Jew ball but so much more.”

Every Sunday night from December through April, one can hear the balls dribbling and laughter ringing from Chelsea Piers. Spouses come. Now children come. In fact, some families have become Ramah families based on involvement with the RBA! If one closes one’s eyes, one can almost think that the basketball game is being played on Ramah Berkshires stadium court in Wingdale, NY.

What began as a few folks getting together to play ball has evolved into a powerful component of the camp experience. The camp experience and camp community don’t end when campers and staff graduate. Rather, it flourishes with engagement like the RBA.

Rabbi Paul Resnick is Director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.