Machane on My Mind: A Message from Ethan

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*Note this is a rather long e-mail.  I hope you will read it, because I think it’s nice. (But of course, I would say that!)  If you want to skip to the last few paragraphs, you will get a sense of some exciting programmatic innovations we are working on for this summer.  Then, when you’ve done that, you should still go back and read the whole thing. (But of course, I would say that!)

What I Did on My Summer Vacation 

One of the first things I asked the Board of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires to do after they hired me was to put me on the payroll and pay me a salary not to be at camp for the summer.  Admittedly, this was an odd—and perhaps even chutzpadic—request.  But I had the benefit of not needing to run the camp last summer, and it seemed important to me to get started in my directorate, even if starting meant being many places other than Wingdale, New York.  The Board agreed to my rather odd proposal, and so began what I have come to think of as Ethan’s Summer of Listening and Learning.  Instead of running a summer camp, I spent my first summer as the director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires traveling the country to fifteen different overnight camps, meeting with educators and rabbis in our community, and listening to parents, campers, and staff.  I want to tell you a little about what I learned and what I heard.

First and foremost: we have a community that loves Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.  Campers, parents, alumni and staff could not stop telling me how much they loved the place, the people, and the spirit of Ramah.  Alumni who had been in Camp forty years before could still recall the friends they had made, the Torah they had learned, and the staff members who had changed their lives.  Current staff and campers made sure to find me when I visited this summer just to tell me about all the things that should never, ever change, because to meddle with certain things would do irreparable harm to a place they loved.  Parents recounted stories of their children coming home inspired by the Jewish experience they had received, and telling them, before any other words were spoken, “I am going back.”  This summer, I heard and saw a great and deep and profound love of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, and it was thrilling to think that I was becoming a part of such a special community.

But.  I heard some concerns as well.  I had the opportunity to see the results of our parent surveys from the past few summers, and more recently from this summer, and the results of those surveys mirror many of the comments I heard this summer as I listened and learned.  Nearly all of these more critical comments come from a place of love for Camp, and are motivated by a desire to help Camp Ramah in the Berkshires continue to be a place that provides an indelible experience for its community.  In addition, some of the great things I saw at other camps got me thinking about ways in which our camp could grow and prosper over the next few years.  From time to time this year I will write about these areas where we have work to do, and I will reflect on how what I heard and saw this summer is being processed among our off-season team.

If you are skipping down, start reading here

Today, for a moment, I would like to focus on our program.  We have many wonderful program areas at Camp and, during any given moment of the day, one can find an exceptional moment of outdoor education happening next to a field where kids are learning great skills in soccer right across from a raging (but well-controlled) fire where kids are having a great time learning about outdoor cooking.  To list all of our successes in the area of programming would be cumbersome, and I would inevitably leave out something great.  But I did hear many concerns about our programming as well, and I want you to know what we’re working on for this summer to make our programming better.

The most important change we are making is this: we have hired an amazing camp professional named Laura Hanft to be our full-time Program Director.  Laura comes to us from the JCC in New Orleans, where she was the Director of Youth and Camping.  In fact, the JCC Day Camp, which Laura ran, has been selected as the Best Day Camp in New Orleans for three consecutive years.  Laura has a BA from Emory University and a Master’s Degree from Bar Ilan in Curriculum Development.  She is extremely talented, and her full time job is to help us improve our programming across the board: from peulot erev (evening programs) to trips to sports to arts.  Laura comes to us with fresh ideas, tremendous energy, and an innovative spirit.  We are lucky to have her, and I think campers, parents and staff will see the results from the first day of kayitz 2017.

One consistent theme that I have heard from our current campers and parents is that our programming on Machane Bet (the older side of camp) can, at times, be repetitive, and that we do not give campers enough leeway to determine the course of their programming day.  To address this concern, we are currently working to re-imagine the scheduling of electives to provide both more choice and more time for the chosen areas so that campers have the opportunity to really develop skills and complete projects.  We are still working out the details of this new idea for Machane Bet programming, but I think campers (and their parents) will like the results of this innovation.  We are aware that campers sometimes feel as though they “never” get their first, or even second, choice of elective options, and we hope that this new block scheduling will alleviate those concerns as well.

Finally, for both our younger and older campers, we are working on ways to stabilize the camp routine. One of the concerns I have heard from parents, campers and staff is that it can be hard to know what is going on at Camp on a given day and, therefore, hard to make a coherent plan. The special days are a lot of fun—after all, what would Camp be without Yom Sport (color war)?—but routine is important for our campers and for staff.  Again, the details of this effort have yet to be entirely fleshed out, but the direction, at least, is clear: more “normal” days at Camp will allow for greater depth in our program areas and will also help the “special” days feel more special.

Of course, I have to put “normal” and “special” in quotations, because anyone who has ever been at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires knows that there is no “normal” day.  Every day is special, and that is the beauty of the place.  My hope is that enhancements I have outlined above in the area of programming make each day and each moment even more special, even more impactful and even more elevated.

I want the rabbis and educators of our community to know that I appreciate the time you took with me to talk about Ramah. I want our parents who filled out the survey to know that we heard you. I want the many people who have given me precious minutes and hours to share both their love of Camp and their critiques that come from that love to know: I heard you.  And I thank you for your feedback.  It will make us better.  The Camp Ramah in the Berkshires team is comprised of people who care deeply about Camp and who are dedicated to the pursuit of excellence.  We are working hard, and we look forward to sharing more of that hard work with you.  Please do not hesitate to be in touch with me about anything in this letter, or anything at all about Camp. The Listening Tour began on my “summer vacation.”  As long as I am the Director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, it will never end.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ethan Linden