Hillel goes to camp



May 26, 2016

This week, I had the great pleasure of attending the Camp Ramah national spring training conference at beautiful Ramah Darom just outside Atlanta. I was there to teach their 2016 summer camp staff about experiential Jewish education at Hillel, and to tell our colleagues at Ramah all about the Ezra Fellowship at Hillel International. Recently, we took a look at where our most successful Ezra fellows got their start, and there was an amazing commonality – camp! So I had to go and find out for myself what makes camp, and Ramah especially, such a great environment for nurturing future Hillel professionals.

But first, I have to make a confession. I never went to camp as a kid. I grew up in the U.K., and the summer camp culture just doesn’t exist there like it does here in the U.S. I did marry into a Ramah family though, and from my husband and in-laws I’d heard tales of bug juice, color wars, and endless hours of capture the flag. So off I went to the hills of Atlanta armed with bug spray, face paint, and a union jack, determined to see what all the fuss was about.

At Ramah Darom I met new and returning camp staff from all over the country, from the newest Ramah camp opening this summer in Northern California, to the first ever Ramah in Wisconsin. They came from diverse backgrounds and families, but they overwhelmingly had one characteristic in common – they loved camp. They threw themselves into everything with a boundless energy, from belting out Birkat HaMazon (blessings after a meal) in the Cheder Ochel (dining hall), to leading daily prayer services, to busting out some moves to Israeli hip hop tracks.

Teaching such enthusiastic young professionals was a delight. I met with Daber fellows, staff who take on the special task of infusing Hebrew language into camp, and led an introduction to experiential Jewish education. Together, we thought about incorporating sense experience, choreographing lesson plans to engage diverse learners, and fusing Jewish content into group experiences. Later on, I met with veteran Rashei Edah (unit heads) to lead them in a session on community organizing. I’m proud to say that there are now a bunch of new Ramahniks who know all about relationship based engagement strategies through Hillel!

Though I spent a significant amount of time teaching the fellows, they also taught me a lot too. Principally, I left Ramah Darom with a renewed sense of appreciation for what can be achieved when we create immersive environments for Jewish life and learning to flourish. At camp, these talented young professionals lived, breathed, spoke, prayed and danced their enthusiasm for Judaism. As I return to Hillel, I’m going to be spending time thinking about how we can integrate these lessons from camp, and make our Hillels truly immersive environments for Jewish life to flourish as well.

Dr. Laura Yares is the director of educational research and innovation at Hillel International.