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Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is a Jewish summer camp based in Conover, Wisconsin, on Upper Lake Buckatabon. The Wisconsin camp was the first of the Ramah camps, established in 1947. It draws campers from across the Midwest, primarily Chicago and the Twin Cities. The camp also hosts the Chicago region United Synagogue Youth (USY) encampment (a.k.a. "Camp Chusy"). Campers stay at the camp for either four or eight weeks, depending on their age division, or "edah". Following Nivonim, the edah for those entering 11th grade, campers are encouraged to participate in Ramah Israel Seminar. The summer following Seminar, they may apply to join the camp staff. The Camp Ramah Director is Rabbi Loren Sykes. The Executive Director of Ramah Wisconsin and the Ramah Day Camp of Chicago is Rabbi David Soloff.
The first Ramah camp was built on a site purchased by the Jewish Theological Seminary on Larsen's Bay. The property was a fishing village on the shores of Upper Lake Buckatabon owned by the Larsen family, dotted with small cabins (a few of which still remain as part of the Nivonim boys cabins) and wild flowers. Multi-purpose buildings were quickly erected, and the first campers arrived by train on the Flambau Express line. According to Shom Sefor Klaff's interview for the 50th reunion (Klaff was a camper in 1947), a seaplane brought the weekly movie to the camp. Klaff added that campers had a dress code to follow, especially for shabbat. Hot dogs were a regular part of camp, as were trips late at night to the bath-house.
List of Edot
- Garinim (entering 5th grade; 4 weeks long)
- Halutzim (entering 6th grade; 4 weeks long)
- Solelim (entering 7th grade; 8 weeks long)
- Shoafim (entering 8th grade; 8 weeks long)
- Bogrim (entering 9th grade; 8 weeks long)
- Machon (entering 10th grade; 8 weeks long)
- Tikvah (Program for campers with learning and social disabilities; 4-week and 8-week sessions, as well as an 8-week vocational program)
- Nivonim (entering 11th grade; 8 weeks long)
The Tikvah program was established at Ramah Wisconsin in 1973, and it aims to offer the Ramah experience to teens with special needs. The Tikvah program is designed for campers with learning and social difficulties, including Asperger syndrome. The program at Ramah Wisconsin includes a special "Mo'adon", or lounge building, with a kitchen and dedicated resources for the program.
Atzmayim (Vocational program)
"Atzmayim", meaning independent ones, is the name for the Tikvah vocational program. This is an eight-week program established shortly after 2002 focused on former Tikvah campers who are post-high school age. Participants work in the nearby town of Eagle River five mornings a week. Job locations include coffee shops, plant and garden supply stores, supermarkets and hotels. Participants return in the afternoon for a Judaica class and activities. Participants have their own lounge and kitchen, and live in dedicated staff housing. Participants have one day off a week, and do not work on Shabbat.
Campers lead their own services three times a day, with each age division assigned its own Makom Tefilah (place of prayer). Camper responsibility for the services increases as campers age, with the oldest edot not only leading, but reading torah and haftorah, and even providing divrei Torah. Campers who do not have these liturgical skills sometimes spend their free time at camp learning how to lead services. Friday nights feature an all-camp service on the waterfront.
Ramah in Wisconsin is a Shabbat-observant camp. Many campers and staff members are not Sabbath observant at home, so Ramah in Wisconsin may be their first exposure to being "Shomer Shabbat." Campers and staff are not prohibited from using personal electronic devices in the cabin, but all are asked not to use such devices in public during Shabbat. Raw food is not cooked in the kitchen on Shabbat, but pre-cooked food is warmed in a manner that is permitted by Jewish law.
Shabbat is brought in all-camp Friday night services, which features campers dressing up for the evening, taking pictures in groups, and having time to sit and talk with friends and siblings. The service often features the popular melodies of Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. A special Shabbat dinner follows. Campers get to wake up later on Saturday mornings than they do on weekdays. After Shacharit and Musaf services which start the day, they have free time, which is often spent on the sports fields. After lunch, campers participate in Shabbat discussions, which are usually efforts to connect the weekly parsha with modern Jewish life. Shabbat concludes with Seudah Shlishit, evening activities and Havdalah.
Ramah in Wisconsin is a Kashrut-observant camp. Many campers and staff members are not Kashrut observant at home, so Ramah in Wisconsin may be their first exposure to keeping kosher. Camper orientation involves learning about the meat and dairy sides of the kitchen. Meals are served as either dairy or meat meals (even when the meal is parve0, and full-time mashgichim (kashrut supervisors) are present in the kitchen throughout the day.
Only strictly kosher products are allowed in the camp, so food is not allowed in from outside. Campers are thus able to see that keeping kashrut is not abnormal, rather that it can be part of a regular life.
The educational goals of the Ramah camps are to make Jewish learning a part of the everyday camp experience, using a combination of formal and informal educational tools. Campers are theoretically required to participate in six hours of Jewish studies a week during the school year. This requirement is often waived, as most Conservative synagogues do not offer the requisite number of hours. While not actually shown in the camp brochure, or talked about by campers in the promotional video, campers have two mandatory classes every day (except Shabbat and Wednesdays), taught by a combination of Israeli and American staff. This formal education takes up two of the seven programming periods of the day.
Hebrew classes are mandatory for campers, excluding Machon and Nivonim, who have electives, and for those who participate in the Beit Midrash Program. They are arranged by level within each age division. Campers are tested at the start of the year. Classes are taught exclusively by members of the Mishlachat, Israelis who participate in an emissaries program run by the Jewish Agency. The teachers are usually young women who have recently completed their army/national service. They are not usually members of the Masorti movement, Israel’s Conservative Jewish community.
Jewish studies classes
Jewish study classes are mandatory for all campers excluding Machon and Nivonim, who have electives, and for those younger campers who do not participate in the Beit Midrash Program. These classes are not arranged by level, and often based on a theme or concept (Shabbat, Tzedakah), rather than a text. They are often taught by rabbinical school students, or occasionally by Jewish day school teachers.
The Beit Midrash program offers campers in Bogrim and Machon a double period of study in place of Hebrew and Text, and offers Shoafim campers one period of study instead of their regular Jewish studies class. It is taught by Orthodox and some Conservative educators whose background is in Talmud and other Rabbinic texts. The Beit Midrash also includes a program called "the Northwoods Kollel", which unlike the traditional Orthodox model, is co-educational, and composed of between four and six college-age students who have usually not participated in the Ramah camping movement. Participants spend the day immersed in Talmud study. Classes focus on skill-building by reading a specific Rabbinic text, usually a perek of the Babylonian Talmud.
Hebrew outside of the classroom
Ramah is known as a Hebrew-speaking camp, which it was at its inception. Hebrew exams before camp were once required to gain enrollment. Near total immersion was once one of the effective techniques used by Ramah Wisconsin, with Hebrew being required to get food in the dining room, supplies in art and so on. After the 1970s, serious efforts in using Hebrew outside the classroom became limited. Currently, Hebrew is still publicly used in announcements in the dining room and campwide events, musicals, and the refereeing of softball games. Although it is unclear if campers comprehend the Hebrew used in those contexts, campers rapidly learn the Hebrew needed in order to get snack at the canteen, or "chanutiya." Some buildings are referred to by Hebrew names, but most camp activities and locations are referred to in a camp slang that is a mix of Hebrew and English, for example, “Meltzing” for waiting tables (from the Hebrew מלצר for "waiter"). Edot names are still in Hebrew.
Camp Ramah In Wisconsin offers a number of activities for the campers. The main "Tarbut" (Hebrew for "culture") activities include:
- Amanut (includes pottery, copper enameling, batik, illustration, painting and tie-dye)
- Nagarut (woodworking)
- Radio (fm radio)
- Rikud (dance)
Each day, excluding Wednesdays and Saturdays, has sport periods for campers. They can choose from basketball, aerobics, softball, tennis, kayacking, and sailing. In recent years, lacrosse, ultimate frisbee and field hockey have been offered. Martial arts or self defense are occasionally offered. In addition, the camp has a beach volleyball area, and while ga-ga is not offered as an activity choice, it is played regularly. Sports programs are recreational and competitive in nature, and do not focus on kinesthetic skill development. The most popular two sports are basketball and softball, because of the inter-edah (age division) games in these two sports.
Every age division has a perek (time period) devoted swim class once a day. At the beginning of the summer, campers are tested and placed into an American Red Cross swimming class based on their skill level. Campers in the Machon age division are offered a chance to enroll in a lifeguarding course that offers American Red Cross certification for those who successfully complete the course.
While all other prayer areas are part of multi-purpose rooms, each edah spends time praying in Ohel Yitzchak, the only permanent synagogue on the campus. Named in memory of Rabbi Isaac Bonder, the synagogue has large windows that look out into the forest, and tent-like architecture. The parochet, or ark curtain, was created by Annabelle Argand, features a tree that has just begun to bloom, reflecting the life cut short of Rabbi Bonder. The path leading to the synagogue is also incomplete. The ner tamid is a crown that is actually a ring of people holding hands and created by Israeli artist Gedaliah ben Tzvi, and the Sheviti is a paper cut by Roger Coleson, a former camp teacher who also died at an early age.
Ramah Wisconsin’s three dining rooms serve over 2,100 meals a day when camp is in full swing. The dining rooms are also used for various activities and events. A new facility with a renovated kitchen and three brand-new dining halls opened in June, 2009.
Zimriah (Song Festival)
Early in the summer the Zimriah (song festival) takes place. Every edah learns a song that follows a theme for the summer, with the majority of the songs coming from Israeli songwriters. Every edah wears a color for that evening, giving the appearance of a color war. (While the oldest age division wears black, pre-2000 Zimriot saw the Nivonim wearing tie-dye shirts, plaid, or even white.) After all edot have sung their songs, each edah stands up again and sings their own edah song. Traditionally, the older edot join in with the songs for the younger edot. After all songs have been sung, the entire camp stands up and sings the Himnon Ramah, the camp song, which is traditionally sung after all camp-wide gatherings.
Rikudiah (Dance Festival)
Now held near the end of the summer, the Rikudiah was originally held on the tennis courts as a part of the visitors' weekend festivities. While the Rikudiah is open to all campers, only the youngest edot dance as a whole edah. Older edot are usually represented by those who take dance as a tarbut (cultural) activity, a group that is predominantly female. In addition, the Mishlachat (Israeli staff), the educational staff, the European staff and the administrative staff each perform a dance. When all the presentations are complete, the whole camp dances together, with each edah called to bed until only Nivonim and staff remain.
The focus of the Rikudiah originally emphasized Israeli folk dance and dances to classic songs from Israel and Jewish traditional life. These aspects are no longer a part of the Wisconsin Rikudiah. The most predominant style of dance seen is a variation on urban/hip-hop dance, with the occasional modern or jazz dance piece.
The fast day of Tisha B'Av is the only Jewish holiday that falls during the summer. Camp begins commemoration of the day with ma’ariv in the dining halls after a seudah mafseket (a meal to prepare for a fast). Nivonimers form paths of paper lanterns from dining hall to bet am, and the entire camp walks through the candle-lit paths to a communal reading of Aicah (the Book of Lamentations). Following the reading, campers fast and participate in discussions, role-playing simulations and other special activities until the breaking of the fast the following night (pre-bnai-mitzvah campers do not normally fast).
Every year there is a Yom Sport, or "Sport Day". This day is similar to the traditional "color wars" found at other summer camps around the world. Campers are divided into four teams, traditionally having Red, White, Blue, and some other color. Campers from Nivonim are team captains, two for each team. Other Nivonim campers are part of the black team, or "Team Uber," or vice-administrators. Each team within each edah compete with the other teams in the edah throughout the event.
Throughout the day, campers are required to cheer in Hebrew, and often take up Israeli sports teams (Beitar, Hapoel, etc.) The day currently ends with a giant, camp-wide relay race called "The Apache," adaptation of the Jicarilla Apcahe religious ritual  brought to Ramah Wisconsin from "Indian" camps (ostensibly teaching some form of Native American values). This adaptation of Native American practices, one of the few at Ramah lacking either a Hebrew name or a Jewish cultural reference, replaced the original end of day event, the camp wide tug-of-war. The events that make up the Apache change every year. Elements include both the whimsical, such as of a mummy wrap, tent building, and car washing, as well as physically more demanding events such as long distance swimming and running. The conclusion of the Apache is a fire building contest, where the victors are the first to snap a string suspended above their fire pit.
No Smoking is the close-of-summer program that combines award ceremonies, encores of musical numbers from edah musicals, and a multi-sectioned slide show on the last night of camp. No Smoking was originally a joke-filled roast of camp figures created in the late 1950s. Campers were responsible for their own program, and the musical interlude was a nonsensical jingle based on the doo-wop hit "Sha-boom," inspired by the songs in the dining room. As the camp grew and campers became more sensitive, the jokes and roasting elements were banned.
Each edah from Sollelim through Nivonim puts on a Broadway musical entirely in Hebrew. Certain plays are relegated to different edot, such as "The Little Mermaid" and "Peter Pan" given to younger edot such as Sollelim and Shoafim, because of their simplicity. More complex plays like "Joseph", "Les Miserables" and "Hairspray" are usually reserved for Machon,Bogrim and Nivonim because of complex and more mature subject matter.
- Ramah Wisconsin website
- The Ramah Day Camp of Chicago
- The National Ramah Commission
- "Research Findings on the Impact of Camp Ramah," 2004