Reshet Ramah’s mission is to use the power and passion of the existing Ramah alumni network to increase adult Jewish engagement and create stronger, more vibrant Jewish communities. (Reshet in Hebrew means “network.”) Funded by a grant from The AVI CHAI Foundation and the Maimonides Fund, with additional support from the Jim Joseph Foundation and a number of local funders in various cities, it is a grand experiment, one that stands to make a real impact on the fabric of the Conservative movement and the North American Jewish community as a whole.
It is a bold step for the 68 -year-old Ramah system. Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism, boasts eight overnight camps, five day camps, the Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY) high school semester in Israel, the Ramah Seminar summer experience in Israel, and the Ramah Israel Institute travel program for schools, synagogues and family groups. Last summer more than 10,500 individuals (counting both campers and staff) participated in Ramah programs. This number is on the upswing: Camp Ramah in New England recently added two new bunks to accommodate increased demand, Camp Ramah in California will add a new edah (age division) next summer, Camp Ramah in the Rockies has grown to full capacity after only five years of operation, and the newest Ramah overnight camp is set to open next summer in northern California.
Clearly Ramah knows how to run great camps. However, what does that have to do with stepping into the current trend of Jewish engagement work?
We estimate that there are approximately 250,000 “Ramahniks,” as alumni like to call themselves. When the 2013 Pew Survey of Jewish Americans was published and quantified what every rabbi and Jewish educator could have told you – that affiliation rates are plummeting, that millennials don’t want to belong to institutions built by previous generations, that only 33 percent of American Jews between the ages of 18 to 29 state that being Jewish is “very important” to them – the time seemed ripe for Ramah to leverage the positive emotional impact of its brand and augment the good work being done by synagogues and so many in the community.
To be sure, Reshet Ramah is still in the entrepreneurial, experimental stage, and its mission is not limited solely to millennials. As Joel Einleger, Director of Strategy, Camp Programs, at The AVI CHAI Foundation observed when the project was announced, “Reshet Ramah will seize the opportunity to build a stronger movement from the huge numbers of alumni of the Ramah camps across North America…that will in effect extend the experience begun in a Ramah camp years or even decades earlier.” In other words, the bonds built at camp really do last a lifetime, and the hope is that through Reshet Ramah those bonds will be nurtured at various stages of life beyond the camper years.
The initial start-up phase was about building infrastructure, such as the creation of the Find Alumni Directory, and the Reshet Ramah website, with stories of alumni marriages, reflections, accounts from olim, and news of upcoming events. The camps needed time to think through the impact of a national-level alumni initiative and how their own individual alumni associations would connect to that. And then there were people to galvanize, a board to establish, and programs to begin to imagine and build. Two years into the endeavor, we feel that Reshet Ramah is starting to see real traction.
What we are finding is that there is nothing cookie-cutter about this work. As we seed garinim, councils of alumni in cities across North America and Israel, each group is empowered to create its own programs with its own ideas. In San Francisco, the garin has leaned toward “boutique” events: Shabbat dinner at an art gallery, a kosher wine tour. In Washington, DC, the kick-off was a Chanukah party at someone’s home. In New York, the garin has created a mix of social and religious programming. For example, last Purim, 120 people attended a Reshet Ramah megillah reading and open mic night at a stand-up comedy club, and the following Saturday night 240 turned out for a Purim-themed costume party at a club downtown.
Read more at CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism