Camp Ramah New England; courtesy Foundation for Jewish Camp

By Arnold M. Eisen

The great sociological theorist Peter Berger passed away earlier this summer, just as thousands of Jewish kids were heading off to immersive camp experiences that build and sustain identity in ways that Berger’s ideas brilliantly help to explain. Visiting Camp Ramah New England right after reading the obituary for Berger in the Times, I could not help reflecting through the lens of his theory on the magic taking place before my eyes. At summer’s end – with the memories of several visits to camp still vivid in my mind, along with the disturbing images of Charlottesville and Hurricane Harvey that have left their mark on all of us – I offer these thoughts on what makes summer camps like Ramah essential to contemporary Jewish life – and what we need to do to ensure they remain successful.

Berger’s first key contribution to our thinking on this matter came in The Sacred Canopy (1967). Before the modern period, he explained, most people lived inside all-encompassing  frameworks of meaning constructed with the help of religion. Sacred orders of belief and observance worked to convince people that the organization of society, economy, politics, and daily life was built into the very nature of reality. For Jews (I extrapolate from Berger’s theory using the insights of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, longtime head of JTS’s Teachers Institute and a major inspiration for Camp Ramah), the sacred canopy was an all-inclusive order that set Jews apart from the surrounding society and culture, via commandments they believed had been  ordained by the Creator of the universe.

All this changed with the onset of modernity. Individuals became subject to what Berger called The Heretical Imperative (1979) – to think for themselves, choose from among multiple options, and navigate among a plurality of worldviews. Jews, like others, benefited from the opening of doors to opportunities and participation in the larger society, but suffered the loss or weakening of integral communities. For better and for worse, most Jews today make their way in the world as autonomous individuals neither guided nor constrained by a sacred canopy of meaning. If we are to persuade them to choose a minority identity such as Judaism, Berger argued, “plausibility structures” are required: collective experiences that render plausible the claims made upon the individuals undergoing those experiences together.

Think about it: no claim about how things are or should be will be seen as compelling in contemporary North America unless it is first rendered plausible. The larger society and culture – as ubiquitous in our lives as advertising and as close to us as the cell phones in our pockets – wield overwhelming persuasive power. But why should a Jew of any age – and especially a tween or teen, waking up to a world of seemingly limitless possibilities – be persuaded by the claims of a tradition adhered to by a tiny percentage of the world’s billions? Why is it plausible to cast your lot with a community comprising less than 2 percent of America, a group of great achievement to be sure, but still marginal to so much that seems important? Why credit the values, basic to Judaism of any sort, that life is serious despite the evils of nature and history, that we have obligations to help those in need, that the world can be made better – and that we are called to be part of the effort to make it so?

Only attractive and powerful plausibility structures can and do ensure that the case for Judaism will be taken seriously. Immersive summer camps perform this work as well as any Jewish setting I know. (High-quality day schools are a close second.) Consider these memories from this summer’s visits to Ramah.

I’m sitting in the dining room at Camp Ramah Wisconsin. The oldest cohort at camp is engaged with their counselors in boisterous singing of Hebrew melodies both secular and sacred (thereby sustaining one another’s conviction that this is a worthwhile thing for teens and college students to do). Some of the younger campers have been invited to join them. One counselor dances around the room with a camper on his shoulders. Jewish community has been made real to everyone present, and plausibility enacted.

I chat at Shabbat dinner with a married couple who met at camp 60 (!) years ago, and are en route to visit friends they met there as well. We agree that the greatest argument for Shabbat at camp is not the words or melodies of the tefillot we have just uttered by the lake, but the fact that counselors and staff are observing these rituals with the campers, who are in turn joyfully inhabiting this Jewish time and space with their friends. Heschel’s book on the Sabbath, for all its beauty, cannot compete with the weekly experience of doing Shabbat in this way.

The basketball and swimming that I observe at Camp Ramah New England likewise take place in Jewish space and time. The budding romances and intimate conversations of which I catch glimpses are Jewish, too. So are the experiences of fun and friendship that Tikvah program campers with disabilities share with others. Text study and tefillah, both standard at camp, are different than they are elsewhere because here they take place in the context of all the rest of what is Jewish. So too the use of Hebrew. The Jewish community of North America does not have the billions to spend on selling Judaism that retailers routinely expend on advertising. What we can do, though, is provide experiences of community and meaning, one person at a time, summer after summer.

Recent research by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen shows that the lessons learned at Ramah greatly matter to the Jewish lives of its alumni. The impact of one camp on its campers, staff, families, and supporters was visible this summer in the response of the Ramah Rockies community to a nighttime fire that caused evacuation to a neighboring JCC camp. The discipline, caring, responsibility, and good spirit shown were remarkable.

The most impressive aspect of Camp Ramah to me has always been the quality and devotion of its staff. Year after year, I ask staff (as I did at Nyack a few weeks ago) why they have chosen to work at camp. Invariably the answer is something like, “I come back each summer because I love it here. My friends are here. I have never found another community like this one. I want to give the campers an experience of Jewish wholeness like the one I’ve had here.” The Israelis on staff consistently tell me that they had not been aware before Ramah that its kind of Judaism existed in North America – or anywhere else. They marveled at the fact of pluralistic observance: a community united in its practice but diverse in its background, attitudes, and thinking. In response I share Kaplan’s notion of “Judaism as evolving religious civilization,” which underlay JTS’s creation of Ramah 70 years ago, and explains the value to Jews in North America of experiencing public Jewish time and space, 24/7 – something Israelis take for granted.

The formula seems to be working. Over 11,000 young people attended Ramah this summer as campers or staff, the largest number in history and an increase of 40 percent over the past decade. Over 3,000 individuals attended Ramah alumni programs this year. A 10th overnight camp is scheduled to open in 2018. I’d be the last to argue that things could not be improved – but every camp I visit furnishes added reason for pride that Ramah is sponsored by JTS. I believe that Jewish summer camps in North America will continue to enjoy this kind of success, and merit the generous support of the larger Jewish community – as long as they make the case for serious Jewish living plausible by enabling campers and staff to experience it. That means excellence in facilities, programming, and personnel; it means a uniformly high quality of personal relationships; it means, more than anything, constructing a Jewish time and space filled by Jews who demonstrate real love for the community they build together, the tradition that inspires them, and for one another.

In such a place, Jewish young people can ask the hard “why” questions about things like Charlottesville and Harvey and receive the kind of answers that last a lifetime. Those answers come in the assurance that life is good and worthwhile – that Jewish life is good and worthwhile – because it contains experiences like those one has at camp, with friends and mentors like those one has at camp, as part of a people and a tradition that have changed the world for many centuries and will do so, God willing, for many more.

Arnold M. Eisen is Chancellor and President of the Faculties: Professor of Jewish Thought at JTS.

Originally posted on “On My Mind,” Chancellor Eisen’s blog; reprinted with permission.