Once A Camper, Always A Camper


Leah Kaplan Robins is only half-joking when she calls herself Mrs. Ramah. An alumna of the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah in New England, she met her future husband — “Mr. Ramah” — there and a few years ago took the initiative with a friend to organize a 10-year reunion.

Yet so far, she hasn’t attended many alumni events sponsored by Ramah itself, and the network of 11 North American camps wants her, and others like her, back.

To that end, the National Ramah Commission is creating Reshet Ramah, a national initiative that will aim to link its 250,000 alumni both online and in person, through such offerings as classes, Shabbat gatherings and ties to other Jewish organizations. The Avi Chai Foundation and the Maimonides Fund are donating a combined $1.8 million to back the effort.

“A lot of people see Ramah as their Jewish oasis,” said Rabbi Mitch Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission. “We want to use that as a jumping-off point for strong Jewish commitment year-round and life-long.”

Reshet Ramah is probably the first national, systematic alumni effort among Jewish camps, say both Avi Chai program officer Joel Einleger and Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. But its establishment reflects a broader trend in which organizations are increasingly looking to tap alumni talents and energies — not just their wallets — and put them at the service of the broader Jewish world.

The Jewish communal world sees camping as one of its longstanding success stories. A 2011 study commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp found that camp alumni were more likely than their non-camping peers to attend synagogue at least monthly, donate to a Jewish federation and feel being Jewish is very important.

Such data helped the commission realize that a vehicle linking all the camps and offering activities with appeal to adults would enable Ramah to do more with its alumni than the reunions that mainly deepened campers’ bond only to the camp they attended.

Other Jewish youth and camping movements are starting to think along the same lines. Young Judaea’s new executive director, Simon Klarfeld, says he wants the group to interact with its alumni, not just ask them for financial support. And the Union for Reform Judaism announced a “Campaign for Youth Engagement” at its recent biennial that includes goals related to its camps.

The challenge will lie in persuading alums who love their old “camp friends” to make new ones as adults, especially as other Jewish organizations ramping up their own alumni outreach are competing for ex-campers’ time and attention, Einleger said.

Kaplan Robins, for example, is reluctant to devote her scarce leisure hours to people she doesn’t know.

“Since [Ramah] events and reunions [so far] have targeted really broad age ranges, there hasn’t been enough of a sense of community to draw us in,” Kaplan Robins said.

Kaplan Robins and the many Ramah alumni who will share her feelings must be shown that there’s a new benefit to becoming active again, Einleger said.

To do so, Ramah is planning to build an online network including a gaming application for mobile devices — backed by a $59,000 grant from the Covenant Foundation — and possibly a new website, Cohen said. It has hired a company to integrate the alumni databases of all its camps and programs. Reshet Ramah will be based in New York with the Ramah Commission at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

More direct and substantive contact with alumni should also help Ramah fundraise, Cohen said, but he emphasized that fundraising is not the primary aim.

“The goal of this is to strengthen Jewish engagement year-round, and also to strengthen our camps,” he said.

Reshet Ramah will also work with other organizations, like Jewish community centers and federations, in the hope that such encounters will help alumni connect to their local community by volunteering, say, or taking advantage of services those other organizations might offer.

“If we can engage [alumni] with Jewish programming that meets their needs, it will be helpful not only for Ramah, but also for other parts of the Jewish community,” Cohen said.

Masa, the Israeli nonprofit that administers and supports work and study programs, and Taglit-Birthright Israel, which offers a free 10-day trip to Israel to Jews ages 18-26, also see their alumni efforts as channels to the world outside their organizations. Birthright has provided its trip to more than 250,000 diaspora Jews since 1999 while Masa has 20,000 alumni.

Masa wants to help its participants deepen their connection to Israel and advocate for it once they have returned home, said Ari Rubel, Masa’s director of North American operations.

Masa is sponsoring alumni fellowships in both local federations and PresenTense, the incubator for social entrepreneurs’ projects, and is facilitating various speaker and discussion series.

Birthright NEXT, which used to offer activities such as Jewish cooking classes, is now focused on helping its alumni navigate their local Jewish communities, said CEO Morlie Levin.

From regional offices in Atlanta, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, NEXT directors will work with Jewish communities both big and small to figure out how Birthright alumni can play a role, said Managing Director Liz Fisher. NEXT is also developing “a high-tech concierge service” to facilitate those connections, said Levin, who didn’t want to divulge more details until the technology is ready to use.

“We don’t want people to forget about the role of Birthright but we want to inspire people to connect with something outside of us,” Fisher said.

Associate Editor Julie Wiener contributed reporting.