Ramah offers yeshiva under the sun for college kids

LOS ANGELES — A pair of students — a traditional chavruta, or study partnership — grapple with a tricky piece of Gemarah. Their heavy tomes rest not on a classroom desktop but on freshly mowed grass. And the tiny letters of the Rashi and Tosafot commentaries are illuminated by a blazing summer sun instead of fluorescent bulbs.

This is Lishma, a new summer program at Camp Ramah in Ojai, where a group of college students will spend six weeks studying traditional Jewish texts in an egalitarian, yeshiva-type program.

In his search for a more traditional life that doesn't conform exactly to Orthodoxy, Joshua Horwatt, a junior religious studies major at U.C. Davis, sees the camp as the next step in defining his Jewishness. "I've been studying in a secular university learning about religion," he said. "I get to learn about spiritual beliefs, but I don't get a chance to practice them. I want to be part of a religious program where I can pray."

Having grown up in a Reform family in Los Angeles, Horwatt now wants to strengthen his connection to traditional religious life. If everything clicks, he might consider becoming a rabbi. "The camp will help me decide how I want to develop myself and see if Judaism has what I need," said Horwatt, who never attended a Jewish summer camp.

Brian Greene, executive director of Camp Ramah in California, said he's found that "many former Ramah campers and staff members were looking for something deeper and wanting to continue their studies, and they were heading into the Orthodox environment to satisfy that need. We wanted to provide a Conservative framework for serious Jewish study."

The name Lishma is derived from the Hebrew phrase "Torah Lishma," which means studying Torah for its own sake.

Organizers set a goal of enrolling 12 students this first summer, but 18 are currently signed up. About half are from Southern California and the other half from universities around the country. The camp begins Wednesday and runs through Aug. 10. Participants will spend their days in chavruta text study and in classes in which those texts are discussed.

Each day also will include three prayer times and an evening program dedicated to real-life applications of what the students studied during the day.

Faculty include a scholar from Israel, the chair of the religious studies department at Arizona State University and a professor of Talmud from the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which is co-sponsoring the program. Two rabbinic students from the Ziegler School will serve as mentors, helping the Lishma students undertake their studies as a spiritual as well as an intellectual endeavor.

The program also includes a social-action component, in which students study texts that relate to social services, devoting the next day to a community-outreach project.

"Lishma combines the strengths that liberal Judaism has brought to the table with the commitment to Torah study and religious life that the right wing of Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism have brought to the Jewish world," says Lishma coordinator Daniel Greyber, a second-year rabbinical student at the Ziegler School.

The Covenant Foundation recently awarded Lishma a grant for $36,000 a year to go toward tuition and stipends through 2000. Tuition is $1,500, and each student is awarded a $1,000 scholarship and another $1,000 stipend upon completion of the program.

"Providing a Jewish environment for college students, in many ways, is what we are all about," says Ramah Director Greene. "We employ 150 counselors who are college students, and the Ramah environment really has an impact on them at a time in their lives when they need it. But being a counselor isn't for everyone, and this is another way to bring committed kids into that environment."

Greene is excited to have the Lishma participants as teachers for the younger campers. "There will be a natural role modeling [that] takes place," Greene says. "Campers will see them and wonder who they are and be impressed with the fact that these are college kids who are here to study Jewish texts."

Greene expects Lishma to add a new depth to the already charged and passionate camp setting.

"The Ramah environment is this dynamic, exciting Jewish community," Greene says, "the kind of place where everyone is committed Jewishly, where prayers and Hebrew and kashrut are part of the natural fabric of the place."

Bringing college kids into this environment, for serious spiritual and intellectual engagement, could be a boon to the Conservative movement, Greyber says.

"The hope for this program," he says, "is that we will develop committed and knowledgeable lay leadership for the future of Conservative Judaism."