Mentor Relationships Provide Calm During the COVID-19 Storm

Courtesy Camp Ramah in Northern California

By Rabbi Sarah Shulman

When Camp Ramah in Northern California made the same painful decision as other Jewish camps around the country to cancel our 2020 camp season, we knew that our anticipated vision of campers running into the arms of old friends and, by the end of the summer, putting their arms around new friends, would be lost.

We also knew that campers would miss out on being embraced all summer long by staff and madrichim. In addition to keeping our camp running like a well-oiled machine, our staff – from song leaders to bunk supervisors to those who prepare our food each day – serve as role models to our youngsters and teens.

That’s where our Harga’ah program comes in. Harga’ah is Camp Ramah’s evening ritual that happens every night through communal stories, conversations, music, prayers, and ritual, often led by invited staff, visiting rabbis, and guest mentors. The word “harga’ah” means “calming,” and for our camp community, it has proven to be a soothing and holy relational and reflective moment that our teens hunger for and that they, our staff, and our greater community needed more than ever as we all faced the growing realities of COVID-19 – from having to pivot to virtual schooling to loss of peer interactions to families experiencing economic challenges – all of which created unforeseen and unprecedented levels of stress.

Using the beloved in-person, high touch Harga’ah program as a springboard, we partnered with our region’s New Frontier USY chapter, blending the virtual camp programs that Camp Ramah had begun offering during COVID-19 with USY’s social and educational engagement programs. We also worked with our Camp Ramah teen leadership group of 10th and 11th graders and USY Regional Board Members, who shared their ideas and helped to shape the program.

Open to all interested teens, our virtual Harga’ah program connected campers to mentors of their choosing. During 24 15-minute Facebook and YouTube sessions streamed Monday-Thursday, campers and mentors engaged in meaningful conversation and ritual that reflected Jewish values, culture, and learning – all while having fun!

My partner in this endeavor, Danit Rothstein, Director of Engagement for USY Pinwheel, New Frontier, and Far West Regions, shared, “In a very unanticipated way, we turned the challenges of the pandemic – the lost ability to be together in meaningful ways – into an opportunity to collaborate and to give teens from USY and Ramah a platform to bond in a special way.”

Selected mentors included rabbis, cantors, parents, and camp leaders from our Northern California community that includes many parts of the Bay area and beyond. The camper-mentor duos talked about everything from Emoji Storytelling, Challah Braiding, and Navigating Uncertainty, to Breast Cancer and Judaism, Behind the Scenes of Performing Arts, Sharing Our Israel Experiences, Comedy and Music, Sports & Judaism, and Inclusion.

Incorporating lessons of resiliency, connectivity, and a host of other critical life skills, our goal was to continue creating opportunities for mentorship as a catalyst for leadership development, informal Jewish education, and relationships that last a lifetime. That’s exactly what happened, according to our teens.

Hannah Finkel, one of our 11th-grade Harga’ah leaders reflected, “During a time like this, mentors are especially vital because there is so much uncertainty around us and hearing another person’s perspective helps us understand things in a different way and lightens what can otherwise be a scary situation.”

Through this program, we noticed the barriers between teens and mentors, whether rabbi, cantor, rosh edah, or others, were lessened. Teens realized their mentors cared about them, made themselves available to them, and that they treasured having one-on-one conversations with them – our teens mattered. For a young person navigating the world today, before, during, and after COVID-19, nothing could be more powerful.

Rabbi Sarah Shulman is the Executive Director of Camp Ramah in Northern California. The Harga’ah program was implemented through The Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative, a project of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund with generous support from The Jim Joseph Foundation and local funders.