Making camp an incubator for Jewish leaders

Making camp an incubator for Jewish leaders

Foundation honors ‘enormous influence’ of Amy Skopp Cooper

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Amy Skopp Cooper, at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, says it’s “inspiring and remarkable” to watch a Jewish camp community come together.
Amy Skopp Cooper, at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, says it’s “inspiring and remarkable” to watch a Jewish camp community come together.

Amy Skopp Cooper glows as she describes her first love: Jewish camping.

“Camp is vibrant and alive. You feel it wherever you are any minute at camp,” she said.

She raves about the singing and dancing as much as the opportunity to “watch young adults become young Jewish leaders.”

After 14 years as director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, NY, her passion for Jewish camping has paid off in a big way: Cooper, who grew up in Clark and now lives in South Orange, has been named one of three 2011 recipients of the Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, the field’s highest honor.

In nominating her for the award, Skopp Cooper’s colleagues at the National Ramah Commission hoped the Covenant Foundation would recognize both the contributions of Jewish camping as well as her mentoring of staff.

In addition to helping the Conservative day camp movement grow “exponentially over the past decade,” they wrote, “Amy has mentored hundreds of young staff members, encouraging them to strive for excellence and to become active educators and committed members of the Jewish community.”

When Skopp Cooper found out she won the award, she said, “I cried. It was a very touching moment for me.”

The award comes with $36,000 for the recipient, and $5,000 for the recipient’s organization. Skopp Cooper has not figured out yet how she will spend the money, but, she said, “I want to think about what I can do at Ramah.”

Also receiving the Covenant Award this year are Rabbi Eve Ben-Ora, educator at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and Rabbi Shai Held, cofounder, dean, and chair in Jewish thought at Mechon Hadar in New York City.

The three recipients join 60 other Jewish educators who have been honored with a Covenant Award since the foundation established the citation in 1991. They will be honored at a gala dinner and awards ceremony on Nov. 6 in Denver during the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.

The awardees’ influence is “enormous at a time when the Jewish community is looking for inspiration and ways to connect,” said foundation executive director Harlene Winnick Appelman in a prepared statement. “These three educators, professionals, and leaders work in arenas that are not only relevant and engaging, but also are the practical places where people congregate, interact, absorb ideas, and become inspired.”

Taken seriously

Skopp Cooper discussed her inspirations over coffee at Starbucks in South Orange on a recent Friday — her last at home before heading up to camp for the summer.

She said she accepted her first camping job as a counselor at Camp Ramah in New England in Palmer, Mass. That summer, just shy of 17, she confessed to the director, “I think I would like to be a Ramah director.”

The director’s response still impresses Skopp Cooper. “She could have just laughed, but she didn’t. She took me seriously. It emphasizes the mentoring that does — or should — go on throughout the Jewish community. When a young person, even at 16 or 17, expresses interest in working in Jewish education, you take the time to guide that person.”

As national assistant director at the National Ramah Commission, Skopp Cooper runs training programs and established the Ramah Service Corps, a new project created with a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Interns work in synagogues and schools and with youth groups, organizing learning programs and encouraging families to explore Ramah and other Jewish camps.

Formative years

Skopp Cooper never attended day camp; she didn’t even attend residential camp until she was ready for Camp Tel Yehudah, Young Judaea’s teen leadership camp in New York. Instead, Skopp Cooper grew up in Clark attending Temple Beth O’r (now Beth O’r/Beth Torah) and was in the fourth graduating class of the since-closed Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in Cranford.

She spent summers with her family in Israel and earned her bachelor’s degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but came back to earn a master’s degree in Jewish history and education at Brandeis University.

But Ramah New England is where she set out on her life’s path — she spent seven summers there, and even met her husband, Rabbi Mark Cooper, who leads Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, at camp. The couple has five sons.

As the summer revs into full gear, she is looking forward to watching this season’s community come together.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges — you put 1,000 people together in a single community, and there are bound to be challenges,” she said. “People don’t come in as a community, but they begin to gel and it’s inspiring and remarkable to watch it develop.”

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