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Camp Trains Synagogue Lay Leaders in How to Keep Jewish Rituals Alive

Munching happily on fish sticks and french fries, the diners seated in a sun-filled corner of the dining room at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires made a surprising bunch or campers.

Indeed, the 19 adults had come to the Conservative movement’s camp in upstate New York for serious summer pursuits. Among them: learning how to run a synagogue service, how to chant Torah and Haftorah portions and how to write and deliver a d’var Torah, or biblical commentary.

Since 1991, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has run the IMUN Program, a training institute for lay religious leadership in smaller Jewish communities.

“It used to be that the old-timers who ran the store downtown” would lead synagogue services, said Rabbi David Blumenfeld, IMUN’s program director and the head of outreach to the several hundred small congregations affiliated with United Synagogue.

As those community leaders age, concerns are growing over who will take up leadership roles and prevent the basics of Jewish ritual from seeping away. At the same time, many small and isolated Jewish communities are witnessing a dearth of pulpit rabbis.

United Synagogue responded with a nine-day immersion in Jewish liturgy and Torah reading, as well as discussions of Jewish life cycle rituals and holidays, synagogue schools and youth programs, Jewish law and practice, and the whys and hows of the Conservative movement.

Rabbis, cantors and lecturers from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary lead many of the courses.

The program costs $850, but Blumenfeld said United Synagogue hasn’t had any troubling filling the 20 slots open each session.

IMUN’s organizers had originally considered holding the retreats in upscale urban facilities, but Ramah’s rural scenery and its Jewish character attracted the group.

“We’re just their hosts, but we make it able to happen in a very good setting,” said Paul Resnick, the director of the camp.

“Here they wake up and hear four minyanim” or prayer services, Resnick said.

Candidates for the IMUN program, which also runs in the winter at Camp Ramah in Ojai, Calif., must be members of a USCJ congregation, recommended by the synagogue’s rabbi or president, able to read Hebrew phonetically, committed to Jewish learning and prepared to take what they learn home — and use it.

The object of the program, Blumenfeld explained in an open-air interview at Camp Ramah, is for participants to build a “powerful nucleus” of lay leaders and to serve as “the driving force behind spirituality in their home congregations.

“It’s not a para-rabbinic course. It’s not Torah instruction, although, of course, they do learn. But it’s not for the purpose of just learning.

“It’s training,” he said, explaining that the program’s title — emblazoned on his blue T-shirt along with a design depicting a yellow flame — means just that in Hebrew.

Temple Shalom of Auburn, Maine, which has about 90 families, sent several members to the program — including Sherry Olstein, a 44-year-old nurse who is “mostly a mom” these days.

The synagogue’s rabbi got his congregants involved in IMUN “so it wasn’t a one- person show,” Olstein said in an interview that interrupted a lively lunchtime discussion.

The rabbi has since left the pulpit, but Temple Shalom now has energetic and educated lay leaders to keep up its religious activities.

“Will we be doing it perfectly? No,” Olstein said of her colleagues at Camp Ramah. “But at least we’ll know what we’re doing wrong.”

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