Conservative summer camps clamp down on Who is a Jew

When applications to some Ramah summer camps were mailed out this year, they contained something new along with the enrollment forms and fee schedules: a statement of religious qualification.

The statement says that any child who wants to attend one of the Conservative movement-owned camps must be Jewish according to Jewish law, or halachah, and it spells out precisely what that means.

A new Ramah camp in Berkeley is not going along for the ride, however.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley Congregation Netivot Shalom, one of three Conservative congregations behind the startup of the new camp, stressed that the Ramah Day Camp of the Greater East Bay is not sending out the statement along with camp literature.

The directive by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, was prompted by an influx of campers who are Jewish by the patrilineal descent standard of the Reform movement.

However, the statement only puts in writing what has always been policy, Kelman said.

"There's nothing new here because it's been on the books ever since I was a camper in the mid-'50s," he said. "This was always set up to be a Conservative camp, period, and the Conservative movement has always had 'Who is a Jew?' questions as the primary statement of attending a Ramah camp."

While about 90 percent of Ramah campers are from Conservative movement-affiliated families, roughly 7 percent are from Orthodox backgrounds and the other 3 percent from Reform, Reconstructionist or unaffiliated families.

There are seven overnight and five day camps in the Ramah system, which together enroll about 5,500 campers a year.

The day camp in the Berkeley hills, slated to begin this summer at Tilden Park, and a Ramah overnight camp in Southern California are not sending out the statement, according to Kelman.

"It is not all of the camps that are doing it," he said. "I can tell you that the [two] West Coast camps are not. It's my understanding that the applications were printed long before this whole thing happened, but it's sort of irrelevant, because this has been the policy on the books forever."

The statement on religious qualifications says that all camp applicants must be "born to a Jewish woman who is herself natively Jewish or was halachically converted to Judaism prior to the birth of the applicant," and all male campers "are expected to have undergone brit milah."

Any campers born to a non-Jewish, unconverted woman — as well as children who were adopted — must have been halachically converted in a mikvah, or ritual immersion. Boys of non-Jewish mothers must also have had a brit milah or hatafat dam, the ritual drawing of a drop of blood from the penis, if there was a medical circumcision.

Asked if a Reform child could join the Berkeley Ramah camp, Kelman responded, "Of course." Asked if a non-circumcised boy could join, he responded, "The answer to that question is I don't know the answer to that question."

According to Rabbi Sheldon Dorph, national director of the Camp Ramah movement, distributing the rules in written form only serves to clear up any confusion.

"I guess we had always assumed that people knew to go to Ramah you had to be halachically Jewish, but as the community changed we realized that we owed it to people to be clear," Dorph said.

Another requirement that has long been included on Ramah applications says that every Ramah applicant between third grade and bar or bat mitzvah must be enrolled in a program of religious instruction.

"I can't deny that it's a standard that includes many and excludes some," Schorsch said, adding that he hopes "the few impacted negatively would be stimulated to take the final step and make sure that their children are full-fledged members of the entire Jewish community, and not just members of a sector of it."

Jill Jarecki, the associate director of Camp Ramah HaDarom, in Georgia, said that while the Conservative standard of Jewishness "hasn't been expressed quite like this before," she saw a need for it.

"Today different people have different understandings of who's Jewish. We certainly welcome campers from Orthodox and Reform backgrounds. Given that, it was important for us to come out with a statement saying it's important that everyone is Jewish according to this definition."