Thursday, July 23, 2015 | by Arno Rosenfeld
A new Jewish summer camp is coming to Northern California.
Camp Ramah NorCal will open next summer near the shores of Monterey Bay with plans to host as many as 300 campers over three sessions, camp director Sarah Shulman told J. Registration is expected to open in late August.
Camp Ramah is the camping arm of the Conservative movement. It currently operates eight overnight camps and five day camps in North America and Jerusalem, including one in the Southern California city of Ojai that has drawn kids from throughout the Western U.S. and Canada since opening in 1956.
“The impetus for developing a new camp came from the Ojai camp, which has been overflowing with campers,” explained Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Ramah’s national director. He said Camp Ramah in California — as the Ojai camp is called — regularly hosts 1,000 campers per session. “From a regional and national point of view, it was time to open a new camp.”
Five years ago, Ramah opened its first specialty camp 90 miles outside of Denver. Intended to cater to students interested in outdoor activities, Ramah in the Rockies has drawn campers from all regions.
The new site, located in Watsonville about a mile from Monterey Bay, is expected to primarily serve campers from the West, but it also will operate as a hybrid regional and specialty camp, with campers choosing from various tracks: performing arts, outdoor adventure and marine biology, according to a press release.
“We think the specialty [element] will certainly appeal to a broader base but … our expectations are that most of the community of campers will come from Northern California,” said Craig Miller, a co-chair of the Ramah NorCal board.
Efforts to create a Ramah camp that could more readily serve Bay Area kids began 10 years ago, Miller said. But the group behind the project was stalled by its inability to find a suitable site for Ramah to purchase, finally deciding to lease Monterey Bay Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school, during the summer months. According to Ramah, the 380-acre campus includes a pool, gym, theater and sports fields.
“For many years we were literally walking the land of Northern California — from Placer County to Sonoma County, from Lake Tahoe to Gilroy — looking for a permanent site,” said Miller, himself a former Ramah camper and counselor. “When we realized a permanent site was not in the offing … we no longer wanted to delay the opportunity to bring Camp Ramah to Northern California.”
Future site of Camp Ramah: Monterey Bay Academy, Watsonville
While a Ramah-owned location would allow for year-round programming and remains the goal of the NorCal board, national director Cohen said there was “no limit to the number of years” the camp could operate on the Monterey Bay site, which he said could accommodate hundreds of campers per session.
Currently, around 125 campers from Northern California attend the Ojai and Colorado locations, Schulman said, but the long-term goal is for 400 to 500 campers to attend each Ramah NorCal session.
The plan for next summer includes a one-week session and a pair of two-week sessions for kids entering the fourth to ninth grades, Shulman said, with 60 to 100 kids at each session.
Hillel Zand, 18, grew up in Palo Alto and attended Ramah in Ojai as a camper and is now in his third summer as a counselor. He said he likely would have preferred attending a Ramah camp closer to home — but only after it had a few summers to work out the kinks.
“Since the majority of kids at camp in Ojai don’t live in Northern California, most of my close friends [that I made there] live in Los Angeles, San Diego and Arizona,” Zand said.
Northern California is already served by three overnight Jewish summer camps: Camp Tawonga near Yosemite, the JCC Maccabi Sports Camp in Atherton and the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa.
But Shulman and Cohen said Ramah’s Conservative affiliation makes for a more intensive Jewish experience, which some campers and families prefer.
“Our kids are learning Hebrew in camp, studying prayer and praying each day, and doing all of it within the summer camp experience,” Cohen said. “But unlike other religious camps, we get a wide range of kids — mostly Conservative, but [also] Modern Orthodox kids, Reform kids, Reconstructionist kids.”
Shulman, who played a key role in developing Ramah Outdoor Adventure in the Colorado Rockies, said she and others planning Ramah NorCal have been in touch with leaders of Newman and Tawonga and are confident that there will be little overlap in recruitment.
“We’re not competing with other camps,” said Shulman, who is completing her work toward ordination as a Conservative rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. “We’re drawing on new kinds of kids who really want to have the excitement and experiences of the activities we offer at camp, but also want to have Jewish experiences and incredible Jewish learning.”
Camp Ramah NorCal has information at www.ramahnorcal.org.