WINGDALE, NY — Hundreds of people converged on Camp Ramah in the Berkshires on Sunday, June 9.
Many craned their necks as they entered the gates in search of bunkmates and buddies from summers past. These were not anxious and excited campers waiting to be dropped off by equally nervous parents. Instead, 994 alumni (and current campers) had arrived for the camp’s 50th anniversary celebration.
Ramah Berkshires opened for its inaugural summer in 1961 in Nyack, NY, and then moved to its current location in New York’s Dutchess County in 1964, joining a network of summer camps affiliated with the Conservative movement. Initiated by faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Teachers’ Institute, the Ramah camps were meant to reinforce the campers’ Conservative identity in ways that included, but went well beyond, ritual practice.
The result, say Ramahniks, can be seen in the number of Jewish professionals, committed lay people, and couples who credit their careers, families, and Jewish identity to summers at Ramah.
One of those was Andrea Barnett of Morganville, who first attended in 1975, when she was 12. “Going to Camp Ramah was the single most deciding factor in my Jewish practice today,” she said. “I learned everything I know at camp.”
Marcy Felsenfeld and Ken Gold of South Orange can trace their bond — and eventually their romance — to the camp. The two met there when Marcy started at age 12. “Ken was my counselor. He was a great counselor, and I had such a crush on him,” she recalled. “I think he thought I was a sweet kid.”
The two met again at a Ramah Labor Day reunion in 1999, and they were married in 2001. Their oldest son started at Ramah last summer; their two younger boys spend their summers at Ramah in the gan while their father works on staff.
Today, Marcy is a program director at the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, which was founded by the local Jewish community. Ramah, she said, “changed my life.”
“I’m not sure where I would have been headed Jewishly without Ramah,” she said. “I certainly would not have gone to Brandeis or worked in the Jewish community. I don’t think I can pinpoint one pivotal moment, but we’re both active participants and leaders at a Conservative congregation and we keep a kosher home.
“Camp gave me an understanding of the significance of being part of a community, and I think the communal nature of Jewish life.”
Jessica Mehlman of Springfield is not a Ramahnik, but she’s married to an alumnus of Ramah Wisconsin and is the mother of two Ramah Berkshires campers. She recalled how her husband, Ross, reunited with a fellow Ramah Wisconsin alumnus, Sam Kamens, now of Highland Park, at a winter reunion for their current camper-daughters several years back. Kamens and Ross Mehlman had been best buddies at Ramah Wisconsin, and now their daughters were in the same division at Ramah Berkshires
Leonard Kaplan of Scotch Plains, who grew up in East Brunswick, was “very disappointed” that he couldn’t make it to the anniversary. “Some of my best friends today are guys I met in 1978 when I was 10,” said Kaplan, a camper from 1978 until ’84 and a staffer from ’86 to ’87. “And our families are friends. We went to each other’s weddings, and the wedding parties were all from camp.”
Like many of those friends, when it came time to choosing a camp for his own children, he said, “We know so many people who have gone there — there was no reason to look at anything else. And we enjoy going up there and seeing our own friends.”
Current campers participated in the festivities as well. Gabe Pont of Marlboro, 15, who will return this July for his seventh summer, loved being there with his friends, but was also interested in the other guests.
“It was cool to see older people there,” he said. “There was one guy from the first Gesher — the oldest age group — to ‘graduate.’ He was 60-something or 70-something. And there were people my parents’ ages.
“But I still feel like it’s my camp. Everyone feels that way.”