When Dana Levinson first imagined creating an app, she had no idea what that entailed.
What she thought was that “it would be a great way for Camp Ramah people to connect with each other during the year,” the 24-year-old said.
One year later, Levinson’s app is a reality, and she and her co-creator, Rabbi Ammiel Hersh, are recipients of an award from the Jewish Futures Competition, which recognizes dynamic, innovative contributions to Jewish community life.
Their creation, Ramah 365, is a mobile phone application that allows campers and alumni to stay in touch year round. Currently being piloted at Ramah camps in Nyack and the Berkshires, it also includes a games function that encourages participation.
The two gave a presentation on the concept to an audience of close to 500 educators at the Jewish Futures Conference held in New York City on June 4.
Also present were some proud family members, including Levinson’s parents, Joan Schiffer Levinson and Leslie Levinson. “She looked totally calm and confident. It was amazing,” said her mother, this year the Women’s Philanthropy campaign chair for the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and a past president of the JCC of Central NJ, both on the Wilf campus in Scotch Plains.
The family’s connection to the Jewish community and her experiences as a young adult have inspired Levinson. “I really wanted a way to give back to the community that has encouraged and supported me throughout my life,” she told NJ Jewish News in an interview on June 11.
The Fanwood family belongs to Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains. As a teenager, Levinson was involved with the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, but attended secular summer camps. At 17, that changed. She went to Camp Ramah in Nyack, NY, as a counselor, and fell in love with the place and the institution. “It is the most unique, stimulating, supportive community, and it pushes one to try new things — in Judaism and spirituality and Zionism,” she said. Now a rosh edah — or division head — she will be returning for the eighth time this summer.
While campers come for the day sessions, the staff members sleep on-site and spend their off-duty hours learning, taking part in recreational activities, and building friendships. It’s that kind of connection that Ramah 365 aims to sustain year-round, she said. It also offers activities for campers and alumni, wherever they are in the world.
Levinson kept up her Ramah involvement through her years working toward her undergraduate degree in education at McGill University in Montreal, through a year of teaching at American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, NC, and now as a post-graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. There she is part of the first cohort in a new master’s program in experiential education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education.
Her mentor, Amy Skopp Cooper of South Orange, director of the Nyack camp and assistant director of the National Ramah Commission, got the app adventure rolling. Last year, she invited Levinson and two other Ramah staffers to attend a conference on gaming for Jewish educators, sponsored by the Covenant Foundation, an organization that supports and rewards innovative Jewish educators.
Never one to spend much time playing video or computer games, Levinson was a bit baffled by the very idea. As an educator with a passion for expanding learning situations beyond the classroom, however, she quickly became intrigued. “They were talking about game playing as a way of teaching,” she said. “When you think about it, games are always about the chance to win, and what can be more engaging for a student than getting involved in something they can hope to win?”
The participants, working in groups, were challenged to think of game ideas that could be put into practice after the conference. In September, Skopp Cooper asked Levinson what she could offer. Dana, there and then, came up with the idea of using her generation’s ever-present cell phones as a way for the Ramah staffers, campers, and alumni to keep connected between summers.
Full of excitement and ideas, but without a clue as to how to put them into practice, she turned to longtime friend and colleague Hersh, the program officer of the National Ramah Commission and assistant director of Nyack camp. He took on working out the technical aspects. “He has a very different way of thinking and we make a very good team. We play well together,” Levinson said.
Hersh, who was ordained in May, is also a student at the Davidson school, where he will complete his MA in informal education and Israel education next year.
Last December, just as Levinson was about to head off for a five-month immersive program in Jewish education at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she got word that the Covenant Foundation had awarded the two of them a Signature Grant for just under $100,000 over two years to develop the idea into a workable app. “I was absolutely over the moon,” she said.
And then, this past April, just before she was due to return from Israel, Levinson found out about being a winner in the Jewish Futures Competition. “I didn’t even know they had entered our app in the contest,” she said.
The competition — and the annual conference associated with it — are sponsored by the Jewish Education Project and the Lippman Kanfer Institute of the Jewish Education Service of North America, in collaboration with UJA-Federation of New York.
Levinson arrived back from Israel just days before the conference. According to her mother — and the applause audible on the video posted on the Jewish Futures website — their presentation was extremely well received.
“I am so proud to be part of an organization that is at the forefront of the evolution of Jewish education,” she said. “I hope we were able to motivate others to explore new avenues, too.”