AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Remarks by Joel Einleger at Ramah Leadership Convening

Posted by: Joel Einleger

March 26, 2019

It’s wonderful to be here.  I’ve met some of the people in the room over the years, especially the directors, and had the pleasure of visiting almost every Ramah.  I’m delighted to tell you why AVI CHAI was an enthusiastic supporter of the Ramah movement, but I’d first like to tell you a little about how AVI CHAI entered the camping field.
By the late 1990s, AVI CHAI had begun to invest heavily in Jewish day schools based on research we commissioned that found that 9 or more years in a Jewish day school was a predictor of long-term Jewish engagement.  Recognizing that day schools were only going to attract a relatively small portion of Jewish families, we looked for other fields that could offer a similarly strong impact.  We explored whether colleges could provide an effective way to reach young Jewish adults, but were dissuaded to try to work on campus because there was little consistency across them, making the programming or support that we might offer complex.  There were also a number of Jewish organizations already working on campus, and it wasn’t clear how we might bring additional value.
When we looked next at Jewish summer camps, we learned that even though there were many camps, they hadn’t yet been organized as a field.  Conveniently, a new organization, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, had recently been founded, and FJC aspired to become the central advocacy agency for Jewish camps, offering AVI CHAI a potential operating partner for some of the programs we might fund.  In addition, there already existed a number of religious and Zionist camp movements – including the National Ramah Commission – and the JCCA, and collectively about a third of the camps were affiliated to one of these organizations, offering channels to reach out to their constituencies.
In 2000 we commissioned research by Professors Len Saxe and Amy Sales from Brandeis to study Jewish camps and suggest some initial programmatic opportunities.  This study was published in 2002 as “Limud by the Lake” and later expanded into a book, “How Goodly Are Thy Tents.” In some ways, the research wasn’t truly necessary to justify that camps were a fertile area for investment.  Periodic research had shown – and lots of personal stories we regularly hear confirm – that for many, summers at camp offer the most powerful Jewish experiences.  Plus, the creation called “overnight camp” – a 24/7 opportunity to control every aspect of the camper experience where the outside world rarely intrudes, done within an exciting environment that encourages learning new things – is a Jewish educator’s dream.
Shortly after AVI CHAI began to fund our first camping programs, the field was attracting philanthropic interest from other national foundations.  The Jim Joseph and Grinspoon foundations were also investing in camps, and because their interests spread across some of the broader needs of the field, it allowed AVI CHAI to focus on two primary goals: expanding the number of children who might have an opportunity to go to an overnight Jewish camp, and enhancing the quality of the Jewish experience delivered at these camps, regardless of their institutional affiliation or Jewish values.
So, back to my opening question… why did we invest so heavily in Ramah?  In the words of Arthur Fried, our board chair at the time, supporting Ramah was “an easy lay-up.”  The mission statement on our website notes that “The AVI CHAI Foundation in North America seeks to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people through what we affectionately term “LRP”: Fostering high levels of Jewish Literacy; Deepening Religious Purposefulness (“Intentionality”); and Promoting advocacy for Jewish Peoplehood and Israel.  AVI CHAI’s goal in North America is to advance and sustain LRP education in Jewish day schools and summer camps for the purpose of creating the foundation for an energizing nucleus of youth with the values, commitments, motivation and skills to lead the Jewish People intellectually, spiritually, communally, and politically in the 21st century.”
“An Energizing Nucleus.”  Maybe you would choose different words in describing the goals and product of your camps.  But, Ramah not only aspires to create a powerful mix of Jewish affiliation and leadership, I believe it does it very effectively.  I see it regularly in my involvement in the Jewish community, where Ramah alumni regularly stand out.  Just a few days ago I was speaking with Professor Joe Reimer from Brandeis, who is publishing a book (with AVI CHAI’s support) to help camps shape their Shabbat experience.  In the book’s opening paragraph, Joe writes about attending Kabbalat Shabbat the first summer he went to an overnight camp, and describes it as the moment he found his Jewish spiritual home.  I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the camp was Ramah Berkshires.
I see it in my family, where my daughter Leora lives a Ramah-inspired life.  She was a camper at Nyack and Berkshires and then a counselor there for two more years.  The leadership skills she learned and honed there have helped her become an active Jewish leader on her campus today and a Shabbat regular at the campus Conservative minyan.
From the start, our board was impressed by the clarity of your Jewish mission, and by your understanding of the need to invest in your staff’s Jewish growth, not just your campers.  As a result, AVI CHAI made enthusiastic investments in the Ramah movement.  To develop programs in support of Ramah, Mitch and Amy have been exceptional partners, highlighting specific Ramah needs and opportunities to strengthen both the camps and the entire movement.  So our Trustees were eager to help Ramah expand the daily usage of Hebrew across the camps through Daber, and later to introduce Hebrew Immersion at Nyack through the Sha’ar program; to train specialty staff to bring more Jewish content into their programming through Kivun; to knit together regional Ramah camps and their local congregations more closely through Gesher Ramah; to develop the skills and resources necessary to attract unaffiliated Jewish families to a Ramah experience through Open Door; and to develop Reshet Ramah programming that engages and inspires Ramah alumni and keeps them connected in their local communities.
Beyond the Ramah-focused programs, our Trustees were delighted that many of your camps and leadership could take advantage of programs that AVI CHAI developed or funded for the entire field, including Cornerstone, which teaches better programming skills to experienced counselors; Yitro professional development for assistant directors; and Onward Israel to encourage work internship experiences in Israel for your counselors.  Many Ramah camps renovated or expanded their facilities with help from our interest-free building loan program.  We were also thrilled to help you open Ramah Galim and Ramah Sports Academy with financial support from AVI CHAI as well as the Jim Joseph Foundation.
I think all camps today are challenged to make Judaism meaningful and relevant to a more diverse clientele who bring with them complex identities, and to provide an experience that is accessible and meaningful.  Surely none of this sounds new to you.  And I am not without sympathy: the “I“ generation chooses how it will affiliate, if they will at all.  Which is all the reason that I marvel how Ramah swims against the tide in an age of declining affiliation.  People touched by a Ramah experience wear it on their sleeve.  And the success of Ramah can be measured not by that first summer’s encounter, or even the collective value of multiple summers in camp.  It is by the long-term impact on those who had a Ramah experience, and how that shapes the Jewish lives they live today.
In operating Ramah’s camps, you continue to push to create a safe space for Jewish learning and exploration, one that can tune out the digital noise and encourage deeper personal relationships within a Jewish community.  Ramah’s impact beyond the camper years can be inspirational to other camps, to show they don’t have to compromise their values to succeed.  Ramah’s focus and success presents a standard that I hope other camps can learn from. I deeply appreciate that Amy and Mitch are always ready to help colleagues from other movements learn from Ramah’s experience, and I admire that Ramah has partnered with other movements on joint initiatives when all might benefit.
So, what’s next for Jewish camps, and specifically, Ramah?  It’s true AVI CHAI will not be here to support these programs, so you should continue to demonstrate how they are making an important impact in your work.  Funders today often dream of programs with potential for large scale and simplicity.  That’s not so easy to provide through a camping experience that has many moving parts, so you will need to be creative and teach your philanthropic partners the things that help you succeed.   But the cumulative impact that your camps provide is well-recognized by the philanthropic community, who are eager for your success to continue.
There are other reasons to be optimistic.  More financial resources are coming into the field through Jewish philanthropy, and interest in camping remains strong.  And in a world of many labels, Ramah is a recognized brand within the field, one that stands for Jewish values and learning, often leading to Jewish engagement for life.  That is exactly what many funders dream about.
So I hope each of you can step back periodically from your daily focus on staff and camper recruitment…on developing safety measures…on effective and engaging programming…on inspirational staff training…on successful fundraising, and so much more, and really feel the power of what you are creating and achieving.  Sometimes I think about your work from a 40,000 foot perspective, and sometimes I see it at ground level, when I visit your camps in the summer.  From all heights, it’s really a beautiful thing.

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