Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Jewish Community Studies

The Changing Realities of the
North American Jewish Community

Address to the Conference: "Ramah at Forty: Retrospect and Prospect," Jewish Theological Seminary, 1986

Daniel J. Elazar

Ramah and the New Epoch

When the first Ramah camp opened its doors on Lake Buckatabon near Conover, Wisconsin in 1947, the world as a whole and the Jewish people in particular were on the threshold of a new historical epoch. The modern epoch that began in the middle of the 17th century, had produced a secularized world whose environment was dominated intellectually and practically by a new science and radically new technologies; an economy organized on capitalist principles, expressed either through private enterprise or a state capitalism often masked as socialism, and featured the spread of democratic republicanism as the desired form of government. It was the epoch of Europe's great frontier which placed the cutting edge of development in the new worlds of the Americas, southern Africa, and Australasia. As an epoch, it was marked by great revolutions -- in England at the beginning of the epoch, in the United States and France at its climax, and in Russia and Central Europe at its end.

For Jews, it was an epoch which brought an end to Jewish corporate autonomy and the emancipation of individual Jews so that they could and did enter society as individual subjects or citizens of their respective states. Jews underwent a population explosion from an estimated two million in 1700 to over 16 million in 1939. The epoch featured unprecedented Jewish migration -- from east to west in Europe and across the oceans to the new worlds, especially the United States of America. The modern environment, in turn, produced religious reform and reaction, assimilation and nationalist revival.

After 300 years, the modern epoch collapsed in a generation-long gotterdammerung which began with the First World War, found expression in the inter-war period through anti-democratic revolutions of the Left and the Right which reshaped the globe, and culminated in Nazism and World War Two. For Jews, it brought the Holocaust, in which the Jewish people was more than decimated, losing one in three, not one in ten. At war's end, the American Jewish community was by far the largest and most powerful in the world, the principal beneficiary of a migratory trend which had occupied much of the modern epoch that in any case had brought the transfer of Jewish populations from the centers which had existed at its beginning to new lands that were virtually unknown 300 years before. The great Jewish communities of Eastern Europe were no more, either destroyed or under Communist rule. Western European Jewry was barely able to begin rebuilding in the aftermath of the Holocaust and then only with American Jewish assistance. In Eretz Israel, the other dynamic center of world Jewry was in the midst of a struggle for independence which would culminate in the re-establishment of an independent Jewish state the following year to mark the beginning of the post-modern epoch for the Jewish people and, indeed, the world.

Camp Ramah was both a product and a manifestation of a number of these trends. The proximate impetus for the first camp came from a group of voluntary leaders, Jewish educators and rabbis in Chicago and the Midwest who saw the necessity for American Jewry to assume its new leadership role by producing a new generation of Jewishly educated Jews, at home in Hebrew and Jewish sources. Hebrew-speaking camping, the form of their effort, was a product of the combination of the Zionist revolution and the American middle class experience, which made the revival of the Hebrew language the key to Jewish learning and the camp environment an appropriate setting for pursuing that revival and all that went with it. Camping felicitously combined the "back to nature" normalization which was so much a part of Zionism and the style of an emerging American Jewish affluence. At the same time, it was clear that the thrust of Camp Ramah would be toward producing a Jewish leadership for the American Jewish community. Whatever the camp owed to the Zionist ideal, it was not informed by a Zionist ideology, unlike most of the other intensive Jewish camps that preceded it.

In 1947, the American Jewish community was just on the threshold of "making it." While in retrospect we can see that the outlines of the subsequent American Jewish community were well in place by 1947, at the time, neither the American Jews nor anyone else knew that such was the case. Jews were uncertain as to whether the anti-semitism of the 1930s would continue to be a factor in their lives and block their advancement in American society or whether, as did happen, Nazism had so discredited anti-semitism as an ideology that the doors to American society would open before them, individually and collectively, in undreamt-of ways. The Conservative movement, too, which had enjoyed steady growth at the expense of Orthodoxy in the previous generation was just about to "take off" as it did in the 1950s to become the dominant religious movement in American Jewish life. Finally, the American Jewish population was still expanding, albeit at a slower pace than in the previous several generations and demographers could see that even though the absolute population was growing, the percentage of Jews in the total American population was already declining. Still it was a period of growth.

Since 1947, the Ramah movement has weathered the first generation of the post-modern epoch and all the changes it wrought in Jewish life, in the USA, and in the world, and the first third or so of the epoch's second generation. It is not my task to describe the growth and success of the Ramah movement. Others have done that very well. In my opinion there is no question as to its success. It was probably the most important institution founded by the Conservative movement since the founding of its original components before World War One. It is my task to examine the present environment in which the Ramah camps must function and to try to project forward to see what that environment is likely to be like over the rest of this generation. In carrying out this task, it is my responsibility to be as realistic as possible; even to err on the side of emphasizing the difficulties confronting American Jewry in general and the Ramah movement in particular, so that those whose task it is to guide Ramah will be properly alerted as to what lies ahead of them, to capitalize on the opportunities available and to develop means to counterbalance the problems.

The Second Generation: Where We Stand

Forty years after the founding of Ramah, the post-modern epoch has imposed its own reality on Jewish life. Israel is now the central Jewish reality - the only place in the world where it is possible to lead a complete and authentic Jewish life, "warts and all." I believe that the American Jewish community is vibrant and creative and capable of sustaining itself. But for all of the positive reasons that American Jews proclaim with regard to their integration into American society, it is not and cannot be a comprehensive community. Moreover, the "Bavel and Yerushalayim" argument of equal centers was historically only valid when Jerusalem was in alien hands and there was no Jewish state in Eretz Israel. American Jewry is integrated and secure beyond its wildest dreams, even though, for better or for worse, Jewish fears for their security have not disappeared from American Jewry.

The price of that integration has been that American Jews have become more like other Americans, particularly other Americans of their socioeconomic status. This means more assimilation, more secularization and the acquisition of habits previously considered "un-Jewish." This in turn leads to increased intermarriage as a new generation which is culturally less Jewish is at the same time more American and more easily able to find common language with non-Jewish partners of otherwise similar backgrounds.

At the same time, Judaism in North America has flourished. Institutionally, in level of activity, in membership, in giving, and even in scholarship. A real minhag America has emerged in the form of an American Jewish religious style which is now in the process of being formally institutionalized in the Conservative Movement. This style is authentic to the American Jewish situation, but by the same token, it seems to be increasingly different from the Jewish way of life in Israel and for that matter in the rest of the diaspora. As always, it is "the best of times and the worst of times." And we should not overemphasize either side of that equation.


The basis for all of our analysis must rest on the demographic trends in the American Jewish community since 1947. The Jewish birth rate is down to at least one third and perhaps as much as one half of what it was then and 85 percent of the total Jewish population of the United States is over the age of 16. For the past few years we have had an artificial mini-boom in the birthrate, as the children of the 1960s who married late, have their children at the same time that the children of the 1970s who married earlier are having theirs. But that should not fool us with regard to the long term trend. In the last few years there has emerged an "optimistic" school of demographers of American Jewry, to counterbalance the "pessimists" at the Hebrew University. As Sydney Goldstein has pointed out, there are problems in judging who is right, the optimists or the pessimists. But it is clear that even if everything the optimists claim is correct, it only means that the American Jewish birthrate is the same as that of the mainstream Protestant groups in the United States, which means that it is probably not up to replacement levels. Except for a brief period that will begin toward the middle of the next decade, one can simply expect that there will be a smaller total population upon which Ramah, or any other Jewish institutions oriented towards young people, can draw. This has already been reflected in the precipitous declines in enrollment in Jewish schools since the enrollment peaked slightly over two decades ago.

Somewhat counterbalancing this trend is the increase in enrollment in Jewish day schools, including Solomon Schechter schools. Today, some 25 percent of those Jewish children enrolled in Jewish schools are enrolled in day schools, which is way up from the figure two decades ago. To the extent that Camp Ramah is a natural extension of the Schechter experience and is the movement camp for those schools, it will have a stable and perhaps even growing population upon which to draw.

Counterbalancing this are cost factors. The cost of day school and camp, which now comes to between $5,000 and $6,000 a year per child, is increasingly forcing less affluent families to make hard choices and if those choices have to be made, camp will be eliminated, so that day school can be retained on the grounds that the children would require private schooling of some kind in any case, while camp is a luxury.

With regard to afternoon schools the issue is not as clear. While the day schools have grown, Conservative afternoon schools have deteriorated, offering fewer hours of instruction now than ever before. What influence this has on Ramah recruitment is not entirely clear, since if left alone it might mean that fewer young people will be interested in going to Ramah. On the other hand, if exploited, Ramah can actively campaign to increase its enrollment on the grounds that it is even more necessary as a supplement to supplementary Jewish education than at any time in the past.

Socio-Economic Changes

In its early days, the Ramah camps offered Jewish children an opportunity to get out of the city and do something interesting with their peers during their summer vacations at a time when few Jews travelled. This meant that the greatest competition for potential campers' interest were other camps or stationary vacation areas near the great American cities - "the Shore," "the Catskills," "Michiana," or the like. An exciting camp program in a nice outdoor setting with interesting peers could compete easily against those attractions.

Today the situation is quite different. As the American Jewish community has become affluent, vacation travelling, summer and winter, has become the norm. Affluent young Jews can expect to go to mountain and beach resorts for skiing and water sports. After a certain age, which is dropping all the time, they can expect to travel abroad, either with their parents or with their peers. In other words, the competition confronted by summer camping, not only Ramah, has become fierce. Nor is it only a matter of competition for time; it is also a competition for money. Young people who can travel from home during the summer on short trips may prefer to use their resources for that instead of for camp. Moreover they and their parents may prefer a summer trip and a winter trip rather than spending relatively high fees for a single camping experience.

Even those who are more interested in camping want to combine travel and camping in the summer, so that the two month session discourages them. This was discovered early on in California where, as is usually the case, the national pattern was originally prefigured. California's response was to introduce single month sessions, which, of course, cuts the effectiveness of the camp program but does open it to a larger population.

The same trends towards affluence and the activities of the affluent have lowered the maximum camping age. In Ramah's early years it was expected that children would be campers through high school graduation, then serve two years as junior counsellors and finally become counsellors during their last two years of college. Today an increasing number of young people do not even want to be at camp past the age of 16, preferring other summer vacation activities. Moreover, staff salaries, always low compared to opportunities outside of camp, have become even less competitive for those who need to earn money during the summer and not attractive at all to those who do not.

The impact of all this on Ramah has been maximal or will be, since the camps draw most heavily on affluent, upper middle class populations or from families with high Jewish commitment who send their children to day school. In the early days, Ramah's fee structure was such that it drew from a far broader population base, but once fees were increased in the early 1950s the complexion of the camps changed. Today those people who can afford to send their children to Ramah can also afford to do all the other things which are offered in an affluent society, while those who cannot afford the benefits of affluence also cannot afford Ramah. In the early days, synagogue and other scholarships softened the impact of high fees on families of modest means. Have those financial aids kept pace with the rise in fees? If they have not, scholarships no longer serve to modify this situation. Serious attention should be paid to the possibilities of increasing such financial aids.

All this is exacerbated by the divorce rate and the emergence of so many single parent families or multiple family ties. This is a pattern for the Conservative Movement as a whole since its congregations were built around the nuclear family. (The movement developed in the only place where and during the only two generations in human history when the nuclear family was dominant.) It is an even more serious problem for Ramah. To give just two examples, summers are times for children of divorced parents to be with the other parent. Single mothers are even more economically disadvantaged and can less afford extra expenditures. It may even be that disruption of families leads to diminished religious observance and Jewish concern.

With regard to staff, it is easy to recommend the payment of higher salaries but it is also equally clear that there have to be other incentives, since salaries are not likely to ever be competitive monetarily.

A serious effort must be made to identify target groups and what would serve as incentives for them. This is particularly necessary since for many years there was an emphasis on staffing at least the upper echelons of the camp with rabbinical students who were encouraged to spend their summers in the Ramah environment to further their socialization into the Conservative Movement, if not their education, and who were given preference over other potential members of the camp staff who were not pursuing rabbinical training. This policy, whatever its benefits, also had a negative effect that extended beyond Ramah, in that it weakened a major tool for the development of serious nonrabbinical leadership in the Conservative Movement. It is my understanding that now it is much more difficult to recruit rabbinical students for Ramah. For that reason, and for the sake of the movement, the policy needs to be reevaluated and new directions for recruitment explored.

Responding to Hedonistic Individualism

Perhaps the greatest environmental problem confronting all religious movements today is the emergence of hedonistic individualism as an acceptable and attractive "lifestyle." While this is a worldwide phenomenon, it is more pronounced in the West and most pronounced in the United States where it was apparently born and where it was able to capitalize on certain elements in American culture to acquire a patina of ideological justification as if it were the kind of true liberty and pursuit of happiness for which the U.S. was founded. We all know what hedonistic individualism is about; its essence is the legitimation of individuals' pursuit of what is personally convenient and pleasurable at the expense of all else. This is not the place to go into the origins of hedonistic individualism. However, its implications for society and especially for Judaism must be confronted. Hedonistic individualism is neo-paganism, avodah zarah, to put it bluntly.

There are strong tendencies in non-Orthodox Judaism in North America to accept elements of hedonistic individualism as part of keeping up with the times. One of the hardest tasks today is distinguishing between useful and necessary changes and being trendy in accommodating hedonistic individualism. Since the latter is so pervasive in American society, and has been since the social revolution of the 1960s, it is impossible for any Jewish institution to escape confrontation with it. Since it is especially oriented toward the youth culture, it is especially difficult for youth-oriented institutions to avoid having to do so.

Ramah has been faced with this problem for nearly twenty years. It has gone through several kinds of responses to it. Up until now, those responses could be ad hoc. But hedonistic individualism is now becoming a vested ideology taken for granted by people who used to know better. It embodies a set of policies that flow from it which religious institutions, especially those serving youth, will have to confront more directly.

The present worldwide struggle between fundamentalists and modernists in part revolves around that confrontation. Indeed, the fundamentalists' willingness to recognize the problems of hedonistic individualism and to combat them, is one of the reasons why fundamentalism has become attractive to people who would otherwise not accept the fundamentalists' obscurantist views of the world. This is equally true in Judaism. One of the great strengths of Orthodoxy and one of the reasons why many secular Jews are willing to tolerate Orthodox demands is because it presents itself as a serious means of combatting hedonistic individualism. Non-Orthodox movements, on the other hand, have not been convincing in that regard.

The development of a Jewish religious movement which can occupy the vital center by combining judicious progressivism with faithfulness to first principles and that can resist hedonistic individualism is extremely important to prevent Jewish life from unfortunate shifts to one extreme or another. To do so, however, one needs to explore and develop authentic Jewish responses in both directions. Perhaps the Ramah camps have a role to play in doing so.

The Conservative Movement

Ramah's demographic problem is further compounded by what has happened to the Conservative Movement. In the years of Ramah's development, the Conservative Movement was in its period of highest growth and was going from strength to strength. That growth came to an end in the early 1960s, not only for the Conservative Movement but for all mainstream religious movements in the United States. For the next decade those groups suffered a steady decline which, at least for the Jews, stabilized in the mid-1970s.

On the other hand, as early as the National Jewish Population Study of 1971, students of American Jewish demography discovered that the Conservative Movement, which was particularly strong among second and third generation American Jews, dropped off considerably among Jews who were fourth generation Americans or more. Since this phenomenon was first identified over 15 years ago, the percentage of fourth generation Jews and beyond has grown and the trend forecast in that study has become a powerful one. In the round of local Jewish population studies undertaken by the Jewish community federations since 1980, the percentage of Jews identifying themselves with Conservative Judaism has dropped, in some cases precipitously, while the percentage of Jews identifying with Reform Judaism or no movement has increased.

Today it fair to say that the Reform Movement is probably the largest of the three movements in the United States, with the Conservative share continuing to drop. In its early days the Ramah camps, or at least some of them, tried to attract Jews from all movements, but from 1952 onward the emphasis was shifted to attracting people from Conservative congregations. As the Reform and Orthodox Movements developed their own camps, this tendency was reinforced so that today the Ramah camps depend upon a strong and vital Conservative Movement in order to maintain a base on which to draw campers. That base is now eroding.

There is another dimension to the relationship between Ramah and the Conservative Movement which has to do with the interplay between the two. While in one respect Ramah is recognized as one of the crown jewels of the Movement, it is also perceived as a source of problems. The pleasure felt by the Movement's leadership at the raising up of cohort after cohort of Conservative rabbis and educators, not to speak of better educated baalei batim, is matched by dissatisfaction of many congregational rabbis who feel that Ramah generates rebellion in the ranks of their youth - rebellion against normal congregational life, against the formal prayer services which are the centerpiece of congregational activity and, in some cases, against the synagogue itself.

This tension has never been resolved; it probably cannot be. By and large it has been a productive one for the Movement. Even the establishment of secessionist havurot which belong to the Conservative community, but not necessarily to the Movement proper, has given Conservative Judaism renewed vitality. On the other hand, it has also led to a certain "bleeding" away from the Movement into Orthodoxy. While all the evidence is that the number of Conservative Jews who move into Orthodoxy is relatively small in the total picture and is far fewer than those who move into Reform, by and large they are former Ramah campers and represent some of the strongest products of the Movement's educational system.

On the other hand, Ramah has been the model for the development of an authentically traditional Conservative Judaism. It is not surprising that the most successful Masorati congregations in Israel are those founded by Ramah products whose nusach tefillah and religious practice is based on the Ramah model as is the case in the American havurot. The mainstream in the Conservative Movement has developed very different models of prayer and religious observance which, while authentically American, raise problems for many traditional Jews. The Ramah influence has been confined to the peripheries of the Movement, but while peripheral in one sense, in another it is the cutting edge of what could be a truly masorati Judaism.

The Conservative Movement, more than any other, is characterized by a great gap between its elite and its mass membership -- in standards of religious behavior, in Jewish knowledge, in rootedness in Jewish culture. This in itself is a problem which the Movement faces. Ramah is clearly an institution of the elite. That is why it is an integral part of the Jewish Theological Seminary, not of one of the other agencies of the Movement. It can even be said that it was an attempt on the part of the major elite institution and its supporters to broaden the base of the elite through introducing the young people from Conservative congregations to elite Conservative Judaism through a camping experience. Not surprisingly, from the first, it tended to attract a disproportionate share of its campers from among the children of the Movement elite. Nevertheless, it still was able to play that attracting role with considerable success.

Much of the conflict between Ramah campers and congregational rabbis is the result of this success. Once recruited into the elite, these young people come to share the elite's dissatisfactions with the forms and institutions developed to serve the mass membership. Those Ramah products who remained seriously Jewish ended up with a narrow range of choices. Either leave the Conservative Movement and seek a Judaism more to their liking in Orthodoxy or to develop their own institutions within the Movement, which is what the havurot are. In a few cases they were able to find congregations congenial to their demands or to establish such congregations, particularly in university communities.

On the other hand, the Movement, dominated by rabbis and congregations, has tended to reject the creations of the Ramah alumni, and see the havurot as a threat to the mass based organizations and their leaders. This has directly affected rabbinical and congregational support for the camps. (Most of the support which the camps have gotten has come from a relatively small number of rabbis who have risen above this narrow perspective to understand the true importance of Ramah.) This is also one reason why Ramah's influence on the Conservative Movement has been less than it might have been, had the Movement made more place for its alumni, or at least been more hospitable to those alumni trying to make a place for themselves.

On the other hand, Ramah has done no better than the rest of the Movement in articulating an ideational framework for a Conservative Judaism. Nor has it tried to do so systematically. This is not meant as criticism. There is much virtue in the organic development of a Conservative version of tradition that has occurred. It is also clear that at some point there has to be a systematically articulated set of premises which are recognized as part and parcel of any movement. In this respect, Elliot Dorf's little book, Conservative Judaism, prepared for USY, is a model.

Perhaps this is an issue that should be confronted more by staff than by the campers, but somewhere in the Ramah movement it needs to be confronted. At a time when Orthodoxy is intellectually vibrant and actively redefining itself and its concepts, albeit in a rightward moving way and the leading Reform intellectuals are actively engaged in building a new liberal theology, the Conservative leadership can do no less if the Movement is to flourish. Part of the excitement of Orthodoxy and its appeal to the most serious Jews is to be found in this commitment, in its own way, to an intellectual quest, whether through Habad with its Tanya mysticism, religious Zionism, or even the neo-Nietzschean ideas of Satmar.

In its greatest days, it was the Conservative Movement or at least the Jewish Theological Seminary which was the source of ideas for American Jewry. The great contest between Mordechai M. Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected the Movement's intellectual vigor. That vigor has now passed to Orthodoxy and to Reform.

While the Ramah camps have been vitally important to the Conservative Movement, they have not been properly represented in Movement councils. This is in great part because the Movement essentially has two components. The Jewish Theological Seminary, which serves the Movement as a modern adaptation of a Lithuanian yeshiva, and the congregations which are organized into the United Synagogue. Under this arrangement there is room at the decision-making table for an organization of rabbis and for other bodies as auditors, but there has been no place at the table for non-congregational bodies, must of which are subsumed under the Seminary in one way or another. That has been the case with the Ramah camps. The end result is to deprive the Movement of the contribution of a significant constituency, most of whom do not find a place in the Movement through the accepted channels.

Even those who find a place in local congregations or in the Seminary proper rarely become involved in the Movement. I would hazard a guess that this is partly because the channels are inappropriate to them. As the Conservative Movement moves into its second century, it should be broadening its base to provide direct representation at the highest levels for other institutions such as Solomon Schechter schools and Ramah camps.

Another change that is occurring within Conservative Judaism is that what was once a single movement may now be dividing into parties. However divided internally among five or so different countrywide institutions or organizations and hundreds of independently-governed local congregations the Movement was, there was only one way to become a Conservative Jew and that was to affiliate with one of its recognized institutions. With the changes that have taken place in Conservative Judaism since the 1960s, it is very likely that what was once a movement is becoming a community, or in Hebrew, a mahane (camp), which embraces more than one organizational framework. Thus, most of the independent havurot in North America are not officially members of the Conservative Movement, but in fact almost all of them are comprised of Conservative Jews and they do represent an expression of Conservative Judaism. If the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism separates itself further from the official organs of the Movement, we may well get another movement within the Conservative community or mahane.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Such divisions may offer greater choice for people who are attracted to Conservative Judaism and as such may strengthened the Conservative approach to Judaism in the way that Orthodoxy, which is very divided, has been strengthened by the existence of many different, yet equally legitimate, ways to be Orthodox -- Hassidic, Haredi, modern Orthodox, religious Zionist and so forth. If that turns out to be the case, the Ramah camps will either have to serve the whole Conservative community or close to it, or face competition. It is possible that the Ramah camps would serve as bridging institutions, at least for the foreseeable future, but this will require their own adaptation to new forms of pluralism within Conservative Judaism.

Another task that lies before the Movement is to break out of its North American, one might even say United States centered shell. Of the three branches of Judaism, Conservative Judaism is the most United States-bound. Even in Canada it has had relatively limited success. In part, that is because of the uniqueness of the American situation and the fact that the Conservative Movement was developed in response to that unique situation. In part it is because too little effort has been made outside of the United States. In that sense the Conservative Movement is ethnocentric in an archetypically American fashion.

The evidence for this can be found in those cases where even a modest but real effort has been made in other parts of the world. Argentina is the best example. There the efforts and dedication of one man launched a movement where none had existed before, in a Jewish religious desert crying for some appropriate form of Jewish religious expression. The Conservative Movement today is the most dynamic religious movement on the Latin American continent and at least institutionally has conquered whole communities like Chile. Camp Ramah has become part of that effort as well.

Both Israel and Europe seem to be ripe for some growth for Conservative Judaism, although neither will be as easy as Argentina, since neither is a religious desert. Israel, indeed, has a vital and vibrant Orthodoxy. The Movement will have to pay special attention to Israel and other Jewish communities over the next generation, if only because as the world grows smaller, any Jewish religious movement that does not have a strong presence in Israel and is not really worldwide will lose ground.

There is already a very significant Camp Ramah presence in Israel, mostly directed toward serving North American young people, but with the beginnings of a serious Israeli program as well. It will be different than the standard American camping experience. Israelis will not send their children away to two-month overnight camps. Indeed, overnight camping, except for very short periods, may not be appropriate to the Ramah experience in Israel, but there can be a real Ramah experience for Israelis if one is designed with Israel's needs in mind. So too, as more open expressions of Conservative Judaism emerge in the Scandinavian countries and Britain, Ramah will have to consider a presence in Europe as well.

Cultural and Educational Environment

Perhaps Ramah's greatest failure has been in its failure to raise a Hebrew-speaking community within American Jewry or an indigenous American Jewish high culture. The two go hand in hand. In its very earliest days that was part of the Ramah dream. In all truth it was a dream abandoned at the beginning of Ramah's great expansion when other values were placed higher on the scale of priorities. This change was reinforced by environmental pressures. From the Conservative Movement, the pressure to produce a generation of Conservative Jews, from the American Jewish environment a subtle or not-so-subtle pressure against the emphasis on Hebrew, from American society as a whole, the overwhelming influence of American culture. Thus, for better or for worse, in the days when there were Hebrew plays at Ramah, they were usually translations of Broadway hits and rarely involved independent Jewish cultural creativity.

Perhaps it is too much to expect the development of Hebrew-speaking camps in the American environment. On the other hand, with the combination of day school and Israel experiences now available to more and more children at a younger and younger age, in theory in should be possible to raise a generation of Hebrew-speaking Jews in North America who are able to appreciate a Hebraic high culture, even if they cannot themselves contribute to it.

There is another dimension to this. When the Ramah camps were started, the only Jewish camps that really could compete with them were the Zionist camps, Massad and the two study camps affiliated with the Boston and Chicago Hebrew teachers colleges. Today all three religious movements have camps, at least equally Jewish in content and thrust. Moreover the Jewish community camps have also begun to emphasize Jewish programming. Thus Ramah is in a more competitive situation than it ever was. Part of that competition is overcome by the relationship between Ramah and Conservative Movement schools. That may be sufficient. On the other hand it is clear that the search for Jewish authenticity is a great part of the interest of young people in their Jewishness, especially the kind of young people to whom Ramah appeals. Its offering the best possible models for Jewish authenticity is an appropriate response on the part of the Movement.

The Impact of Communications and Transportation Technology

Perhaps the most critical environmental change confronting us all is the technological revolution in communications and transportation. Jewish life in the last generation was transformed by air travel and particularly the jet plane which made any settled part of North America accessible to any other within a matter of hours and which made Israel accessible to the Jewish world on a regular and continuing basis. This generation's revolutions will be in the field of communications.

While the direct impact of cybernetic communication on Ramah is not likely to extend beyond greater ease of communication between New York and the camps, or even among the camps themselves, and lowered costs for preparation of materials, there is another dimension to the transformation which is of great significance and that is that the world is becoming even more interconnected than ever, almost literally wired together, or better, tied by radio waves transmitted through satellites. From a communications point of view, this may indeed produce something like Marshall McLuhan's "global village," but it also seems to be making possible the survival of ethnic groups in a wider variety of settings and in an environment which is increasingly hospitable to pluralism, out of necessity, if not out of choice.

These technological changes are ending the last vestiges of American self-containment, as the economy of the United States becomes an integral part of the world economy, subject to vicissitudes as well as gains. The same thing will be true of American Jews. By and large, the American Jewish community has lived in a kind of splendid self-containment, linked to Israel where it wanted to be, occasionally to other diaspora Jewries, usually on a benefactor to recipient basis, but ultimately assessing reality from a very self-contained perspective.

One consequence of this for Jews for example is to believe that the patterns evolved by American Jewry are the accepted or dominant patterns of contemporary Jewish life. To give one concrete example, because only 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox, while something like 80 percent identify as either Conservative or Reform (whether or not they are members of institutions of those movements), American Jews assume that Orthodoxy is a small minority in the Jewish world and that non-Orthodox Judaism is by far the dominant mode. Yet when viewed from a worldwide perspective it turns out that no matter what measure is used, serious identification without active commitment or nominal commitment, more Jews are Orthodox than Conservative and Reform combined.

The Ramah camps were among the first Jewish institutions to respond to the jet age through the mishlahat program bringing Israelis to staff the Ramah camps in North America and by establishing a Ramah in Israel. There will undoubtedly be ways in which Ramah will have to adapt to the new communications age and the resultant shrinking of the world, including the Jewish world.


The Conservative Movement has now entered into a critical period in its development, one in which its elites are preoccupied with changes in ideology and practice and its masses seem to be fading away to Reform congregations or to nothing. The external environment in which it operates has changed, making many of its basic institutional approaches obsolete and it has lost its previous intellectual preeminence in Jewish life. Ramah is likely to be very much affected by the struggle over ideology and practice, particularly the latter. It is likely to be less affected by the shift of peripherals away from the movement, no matter how numerous, although that does reduce the population from which it can draw. With regard to other environmental changes, I leave it to others to discuss whether dealing with children from single parent families, divorce and remarriage, and the like will affect the camps.

As suggested above, Ramah has played a major role in shaping elite Jewish practice. The question remains as to whether it can contribute to the resolution of the ideological issues confronting the Movement.

One of the principal hidden ideological struggles in the history of Ramah has been the struggle between the camps as movement camps and the principal of clal yisrael. This too mirrors a struggle within the Conservative Movement which has prided itself on its commitment to clal yisrael, but which in the course of time has had to become increasingly concerned with its own institutional identity. For its first five years, Ramah functioned on a clal yisrael basis, but from 1953 onward, it became much more Movement oriented.

In recent years the Movement has taken another giant step toward separating itself as a distinctive approach to Judaism, while the bulk of the Jewish people have less patience for such divisions, even if they must make their choices among them with regard to their affiliations which are often nominal. This puts the Movement and the camps in something of a dilemma. Reform has somewhat solved this problem by trying to develop a uniquely Reform Jewish perspective only in a very narrow sphere of religious ritual and social action. Orthodoxy claims to speak for all Jews. The Conservative Movement is left somewhere in the middle with a not-sufficiently-defined position.

Another environmental change is the shift in emphasis on the part of American Jews as to what is important for being Jewish. During the heyday of Conservative success in the first postwar generation, American Jews emphasized the triple melting pot theory, that is to say Judaism as a religion in the American sense. Toward the end of that generation there was a revival of ethnicity which while initiated by blacks and southern and eastern European ethnic groups was heartily embraced by the Jews. In the end it turned out that for most American ethnics it was a transient phenomenon, part of their final integration into American society on equal terms, so that Jews once again proved exceptional. Today, in fact, much of Jewish identification is political. Jews who are not seriously religious, who do not have any significant ethnic culture remaining, show their Jewishness by participating in Jewish community organizations, fundraising for Israel, or political demonstrations on behalf of Jewish causes whether Israel or Soviet Jewry or Ethiopian Jewry or whatever.

One of the prime characteristics of the post-modern epoch is the emergence of an institutional world Jewish polity that competes for the talent and attention of the kind of people that Ramah tries to attract. Ramah, as part of a religious movement, has been a representative of the keter torah at a time when the keter malkhut has become more powerful than at any time in the past 2000 years.

Ramah was developed at the time when religious identity was paramount and indeed went somewhat against the stream in its initial emphasis on Hebrew culture, which is one reason why that emphasis soon was replaced by religious study and practice. It never really was swept along with the ethnicity movement and it has developed no tools for dealing with the new politicization of Jewishness. One of the most exciting arenas of Jewish activity today in a relatively nonreligious age is Jewish politics and the Jewish world is now completing a political reconstitution which has given adat bnei yisrael, or the world Jewish polity, an active institutional framework with increasingly widespread opportunities for leadership and involvement, it may be that not even Ramah can ignore this new reality, even though its main goal is in the religious and educational spheres. Perhaps Ramah has to consider how to produce educated Jewish leadership, not only for the congregations and other institutions of the Conservative Movement, but for the world Jewish polity. It may be that it should not attempt to deal with the latter directly, but the possibility should be considered.

The sum and substance of the foregoing is that the Ramah movement must now function in a transformed environment, the majority of whose characteristics make it more difficult for Ramah to continue along established paths but others of which offer the movement an opportunity to become part of an overall system of Jewish education and expression in which the best that Ramah has to offer can find room to grow even beyond the camp environment. If the tides of demographic and socioeconomic change and the trends in the Conservative Movement make Ramah's situation more difficult, the growth in day schools, the easier travel to and from Israel and the emergence of a means of continuing Ramah-style Judaism beyond the camping years give Ramah something that was previously lacking. To the extent that Conservative Judaism can generate an authentic Jewish expression of its own, not merely a series of compromises with a basically hostile environment (rendered all the more hostile because it seems so supportive), Ramah must be the place where it is developed. That is the challenge which faces the Ramah movement for its next forty years.

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