In the latest effort to define its religious boundaries, the Conservative movement has directed its summer camping system to notify parents that prospective campers must be Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law, to be accepted.
The notification, included in this year’s application, marks the first such written statement of policy in the 53-year history of the Camp Ramah system, said its national director, Rabbi Sheldon Dorph.
Rabbi Dorph said the move is merely a reaffirmation of the system’s long-standing unwritten policy. He said Ramah officials decided it was necessary to put the policy in writing now because of the sea changes in American Jewry in the last generation, including increases in intermarriage and the Reform movement’s 1983 adoption of patrilineal descent: accepting a child whose mother is not Jewish. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis require the mother to be Jewish.
"When Ramah was established in 1947, there was no question kids had to be Jewish to go, and there’s been no question all these years," Rabbi Dorph said. "However, because of changes in the Jewish community and because of patrilineal descent in Reform … we felt at this point that parents needed to understand clearly that there were religious standards for Ramah."
The Ramah notification comes at a time when the Conservative movement has been issuing much stricter guidelines for its leaders.
In recent months, the congregational arm of the movement has banned intermarrieds from serving as professionals and Hebrew school teachers, and is pressing synagogues to adopt standards of religious observance for its officers.
Ramah, comprised of seven sleepaway and four day camps with an enrollment of about 6,000 campers, operates under the auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary. About 90 percent of Ramah campers belong to the Conservative movement, while 7 percent are Orthodox and the rest from Reform, Reconstructionist or unaffiliated families.
Rabbi Dorph said the move was made as well to reassure Conservative parents that their kids are mingling with like-minded Jewish kids.
"Let’s face it, at Ramah we make a lot of shidduchim [matches]. We want families to know exactly what kind of community they are sending their kids to," he said.
Rabbi Dorph said each camp will be able to formulate its own version of the statement. The one he provided, called "Statement on Religious Qualifications for Children," says that "Ramah camps admit only halachically Jewish children and educational staff. This requires that the applicant either was born to an halachically Jewish woman or has been converted to Judaism according to halacha.
"Ramah’s application process has always required that the camper’s congregational rabbi and Jewish educator sign off. Ramah also requires that campers be enrolled in religious study programs: six hours a week for preteens, four hours a week for teens.
Reform leaders said the Conservative movement has the right to set its own policy, and didn’t believe many children would be affected.
Rabbi Allen Smith, director of the Reform movement’s Youth Division, said the policy clearly excludes patrilineal Jews.
But whether Ramah would ban candidates converted by Reform rabbis was unclear, said Rabbi Smith, who directs the movement’s 13 camps with 10,000 campers. Many Reform conversions are not performed according to strict Jewish law, he noted.
"The only impact is it would say to members of Reform congregations that we belong in a Reform institution, we don’t belong in Ramah," Rabbi Smith said, adding that Reform camps also require rabbis attest to the Jewishness of a camper.
Rabbi Ramie Arian, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, said he was surprised by the Ramah notice but not that Ramah is affirming its requirements.
"They view themselves, and are, a serious educational institution of the Conservative movement," he said of Ramah.
"There’s pressure on many institutions to sharpen their boundaries," said Rabbi Arian, who runs the 2-year-old foundation designed to strengthen Jewish camping nationwide. "It would surprise me if very many people are affected by articulating a policy this way."
He said there are enough Jewish camps of different philosophies to meet the need.
But not everyone embraced the new policy.
"Our board hasn’t even looked at it yet," said Brian Greene, director of Camp Ramah in California. "We want to look at the wording and consider the implications."
But perhaps more important, he noted that it was too late for consideration this year anyway.
"We already filled our enrollment months ago," Greene said.