What’s Happening at Ramah
Once a camper...
by Sarah Singer, February 2007
(This article first appeared in the Washington Jewish Week, February 15, 2007.)
If you’ve left a piece of your heart singing rounds in the camp dining room, Jewish camps want you to know they have a place for you, be it sitting around a campfire or a board room table. Camp administrators say that alumni are a source not only of future campers and camp staff, but also of funding and resources as well.
Beneath Potomac businessman Saul Goldfarb’s exterior beats the heart of a camper. This former Ramahnik sends his children to the camp, maintains lifelong friendships with fellow campers and serves as the fund-raising chair on the camp’s board of directors. “Former campers and counselors are incredibly invested in camp,” says Emily Pick, a development associate at Camp Ramah in New England. Now camps are investing in alumni by reaching out to them via Web sites, reunions and other activities.
For families like Goldfarb’s, attending camp is a tradition. In fact, Pick says, some families have sent their children to Ramah for three generations. Daphne Levy, 25, might join their ranks. But, as a 12-year-old, Levy hadn’t wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps. “All my friends were going to other camps and I wanted to be with them,” she explains. Her mother, a Ramah alumna, insisted Levy give the camp a chance. “If I didn’t like it, she told me that I didn’t have to go there again,” she says. So in 1993, Levy left her Westchester, N.Y., home and boarded the bus for New England. She’s never looked back. Levy spent five years as a camper and two as a counselor. Now this New York City resident is busy organizing a 10-year reunion of her division. One of the reunion’s benefits? “It will foster the idea that we should send our own kids to go to camp,” Levy says.
Alumni are a source of staff for Camp Judaea, says Robin Mendelson of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The camp nurse is a former camper, as is the camp doctor’s wife. Mendelson, a former interim camp director, “wants to look at what our alumni have to offer as professionals.” “Alumni could become scholars-in-residence,” she explains. “Artists and musicians can come up to camp … It’s a chance for them to give back.” Many alumni want to contribute to the camps that gave them so much during those youthful summers. They’re a camp’s biggest supporters and stewards. Mendelson is on the camp committee of her Hadassah chapter’s board, as well as the alumni chair.
Danny Weiss lived in Olney and grew up at Capital Camps & Retreat Center in Waynesboro, Pa. He’s now the alumni chair of the camp’s board and in charge of planning the camp’s next reunion. Both Mendelson and Weiss see alumni as key donors. “We want to make sure all kids get the same chance to attend camp that we did,” Weiss explains.
To camp directors like David Phillips, executive director of Capital Camps, though, alumni are more than funders. “Alumni help us to maintain our mission of Jewish identity building,” explains Phillips. “We want to enable Jewish boys to meet Jewish girls and have Jewish children, to ensure the continuity of the Jewish community.” “And when they leave us,” he goes on, “we hope they’ll stay in touch and send their kids back to the camp they love.”
In fact, much of the bump in alumni activity comes from the former campers who remain in love with their camps. While camp administrators are busy building the infrastructures to find alumni, some alumni say their camp friends were never “lost.”Weiss returned from a wedding in November where all the groomsmen were former Capital campers. And he flew to England to attend a wedding of a fellow counselor from Leeds.
To organize her reunion, Levy is e-mailing her own camp friends, who forward her e-mail on to their circles. “It’s been great to get e-mails from people who I haven’t heard from in awhile,” Levy says.
Camps are using technology to help reunion organizers like Levy and Weiss track down the more elusive campers. Using funds from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy, Camp Ramah in New England piloted the creation of an alumni database. “It’s a password-protected database that allows people to search for each other,” explains Pick. Recognizing that a bunkmate’s last name may be the least important thing to an 11-year-old, the database allows searches by year of attendance, by hometown, as well as by last name. The site also allows people to post mazel tov or simcha announcements. Since the creation of the database, the camp has reconnected with a few hundred alumni, Pick says.
Capital Camps plans to create a similar database using funding from the same foundation. The database, explains Phillips, “will be a portal to relationship building.” In the meantime, both camps distribute newsletters and use their Web sites to keep people current.
Still, e-contact can’t replace eyeballing a former bunkmate at a camp reunion. A recent reunion of Capital campers drew 250 alumni to a Rockville skating rink. Last summer, a divisional 10-year reunion drew 30 families back to Camp Ramah in New England.
Mendelson harnessed the goodwill generated at a Camp Judaea reunion to enable one generation of campers to serve another. At an alumni-sponsored welcome orientation, current campers and their families get a chance to meet each other before they leave for camp. The program has grown from a one-room, write-your-own name tag type of occasion to a bustling event with color-coded name tags and a crowd that spills into three hotel conference rooms.
If watching campers bound for camp brings back memories of circle dancing in your Shabbat “whites” or of davening after meals, there’s still a place for you at camp, say these directors and alum — even if you can’t remember all the words to “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”