1st area Ramah day camp combines games, fun, prayer

Nine-year-old Rachel Weiss has gone gaga for gaga.

Gaga, the Israeli ball game played at the Ramah day camp, is the fourth-grader's favorite. She even won — once.

"I felt pretty special," said the Pinole resident, savoring her lone victory.

But for Weiss, the best thing about Camp Ramah isn't the ball games; it's her flock of new friends.

"In the beginning," she said, "I only knew one person. Now I'm friends with five.

"I think we'll stay friends forever."

Weiss was one of 35 kids in grades kindergarten through five attending the first session of the Ramah Day Camp of the Greater East Bay.

"It's the pioneer summer of this day camp," said Dan Alter, the director. "It's a dream come true for me in many ways."

Held at Tilden Park in the Berkeley Hills, the camp came about as a joint project of three Conservative East Bay synagogues — Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland and Congregation B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.

Although it's the first non-synagogue Conservative day camp in the Bay Area, it's the fifth Ramah in the nation. The Ramah organization also oversees seven Conservative overnight camps nationwide.

Like most Ramah day camps, the Berkeley camp adheres to a strict level of Jewish observance, providing daily Jewish study and daily tefillot (prayer). Kids bring lunches that are dairy or vegetarian.

Kids from non-Conservative households, however, were not turned away from the Berkeley camp. This mix of campers has provided an exciting backdrop, said Alter.

"It's been really magical to see all these children [from different movements] at prayer service each day and walking around singing songs from tefillah [prayer class], even after class," he said.

Ten-year-old Simone Kertesz explained the campers' enthusiasm for tefillah.

"Most that I've gone to before Camp Ramah were really boring," said the fifth-grade El Cerrito resident. "Here they make it fun so that you'll enjoy it."

The Berkeley camp has also implemented an innovative learning technique that brings together children of various ages, giving them some activity choices. Alter learned about it from Ramah board member Rena Dorf.

"A traditional camp day is a lot like a school day — the kids march through a procession of 45-minute units," said Alter. "Instead we have a two-hour block of time where the kids are learning, focused around one project. That project pulls together all the types of different elements they'd get from the procession of units."

During the two-hour block, campers are split into two thematic, multiple-age groups; one focuses on environmental topics, the other on performing arts. Both incorporate other elements, including arts and crafts, nature and Jewish content.

Dorf, who holds a doctorate in educational research from U.C. Berkeley, said that this set-up, used in progressive educational settings across the country, gives campers more individuality and freedom.

"Campers sometimes dread the whole day because of one element," said Dorf. "This way they get a lot more free choice but still get the structure they need."

Kertesz loved her two-hour block because it was "just so much fun." Her group put together a play based on the Tower of Babel, called "Babylonia."

"I like acting a lot," she said.

The first session of Ramah ended in July. Seventy campers are now attending the next three-week session, which runs through Aug. 11.

Attending the first session, 8-year-old Sarah Goldman, a third-grader from Piedmont, said she was really sad to see it come to an end. She'll miss "the hikes and all the cool people that I really, really, really like.

"But," she added, "I'll always remember my friends that I met."