New Conservative survey of Camp Ramah alumni…

NEW YORK — High school senior Ariel Postone remembers Shabbat as her "absolute favorite" part of attending Ramah's California summer camp in Ojai.

As Friday night approached, Postone, a 17-year-old Berkeley resident, and her friends would clean the tent, dress up — and "all the girls would do their makeup together."

During services held outside, they would watch the sunset, and after dinner the dancing, singing and atmosphere of spirituality made it "like a party with a religious aspect," she said.

Given Postone's and many other campers' fond memories of Shabbat at camp, it is not surprising that Ramah's alumni are more likely to celebrate the Sabbath regularly than are other Conservative teens.

"Shabbat was a big influence on me," said Postone, who has attended the Conservative movement's Ramah as a camper or counselor for six years. She first attended the camp to spend the summer with a friend.

"I think I've learned a lot about Judaism as a religion, and how to interpret it for myself," she said. "I think I've learned Judaism is a constant thing that I'll do forever."

A new study, based on data culled from a larger Jewish Theological Seminary-sponsored survey, shows that Conservative Jewish teenagers who attended Ramah's 12 Jewish summer camps are more religiously observant, Jewishly committed and attached to Israel than those who did not attend their camps.

Ramah has seven Jewish sleepaway camps and five-day camps in North America, serving more than 5,000 campers.

Ramah alumni, the survey says, are also more committed than Conservative teens who attended other Jewish camps, mainly those affiliated with Jewish community centers and Young Judaea and Habonim Dror, two Zionist camps.

And on all measures, the more high school summers the teens spent at Ramah, the more they identified with Judaism.

The study's researchers interviewed 1,273 North American teens whose parents belong to Conservative synagogues.

Of the sample, 176 attended a camp affiliated with the Ramah network, and 25 percent of those spent four or five high school summers at a Ramah camp.

Of those surveyed, 716 attended other Jewish camps and 381 had not attended any.

In the area with the widest gap between Ramah participants and teens attending other Jewish camps, 54 percent of the Ramah alumni surveyed said they always celebrate Shabbat at home, while only 23 percent of the teens who attended other Jewish camps do.

Conservative teens who attended other Jewish summer camps were less observant than their Ramah peers but were more observant than those who had not attended any Jewish summer camp.

Among the findings:

*78 percent of Ramah alumni said it is "very important" to marry someone Jewish, compared with 59 percent of other campers and 41 percent of the teens who had never attended a Jewish summer camp.

*30 percent said they date only Jews, compared with 14 percent of other campers and 6 percent who had never attended Jewish camp. A plurality of Ramah and other Jewish campers said they "prefer Jews, but also date non- Jews," but more than half who had never attended Jewish summer camp said they do not care whether romantic partners are Jewish or not.

*56 percent of Ramah alumni said they do not eat meat and dairy foods together outside the home, compared with 29 percent of other campers and 24 percent who had never attended a Jewish camp.

*70 percent said Israel is "very important" to them, compared with 56 percent of the other campers and 39 percent who had never attended a Jewish camp.

The study notes that Jewish summer camp participants are a self-selected group who are more likely to have grown up in highly committed Jewish homes than are Conservative teens who do not attend such camps.

The researchers report that while parental influence is a stronger factor, camp attendance also has significant influence on teens' behavior.

The study "provides a clear basis for the claim that attendance at Camp Ramah during the high school years has a holding effect on youth from committed Conservative homes and a transformative effect on others from less religious families," write the researchers, Ariela Keysar and Barry Kosmin.

Keysar and Kosmin were both involved in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey conducted by the Council of Jewish Federations, which looked at social, demographic and religious structure of the American Jewish community.

Rabbi Sheldon Dorph, national Ramah director, said he was pleased with the team's report on the camps, which he said is "not a sugar coat."

Dorph attributed Ramah's apparent impact on Jewish identity to the fact that campers are in a community "where all the adult models are serious about Jewish learning and their Jewishness" and where participants interact with Jewishly involved campers of all ages.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, said the study "simply confirms what we all knew anecdotally — that Ramah is one of the best educational venues ever created by the Conservative movement."

Camp works, Schorsch said, because "they live Judaism for eight weeks. That's far deeper than studying Judaism for eight weeks."

Postone agrees. While she attended Reform Congregation Beth El's religious school in Berkeley for years and became a bat mitzvah there, she said that experience doesn't compare with her years at Ramah.

"It's hard to compare somewhere where you attend a few hours a week to somewhere you live full-time," said Postone, whose paternal grandfather is an Orthodox rabbi. "You're able to experience a more full Jewish life."

While the study indicates that Ramah has a major impact on Jewish identity, Dorph said the camps may need to do more to discourage intermarriage.

He described the findings that even Ramah alumni are relatively accepting of intermarriage and interdating as "scary."

Thirty-six percent of Ramah alumni said they prefer to date Jews, but they also date non-Jews, while only 30 percent of the alumni said they date Jews exclusively.

"Ramah looks a little better than other Jewish camps" in terms of the percentage of alumni committed to marrying Jews "and yes, Jewish camping is better than no Jewish camping, but the study shows pretty clearly how strong the majority culture is" in accepting intermarriage, Dorph said.

However, the study indicates that the more summers spent at Ramah, the more committed teens are to dating only Jews; 70 percent of teens who had spent at least four high school summers at Ramah date only Jews.

Postone appears to reflect the dominant attitude when it comes to intermarriage.

While she "100 percent" intends to raise her children Jewish and thinks she will probably marry a Jew because she's "around Jewish people a lot," Postone said she would probably marry a non-Jew if she fell in love with one.

In addition to indicating a need to address intermarriage, Dorph said, the study also points to the need to expand the Ramah network. Like most Jewish camps, Ramah turns away hundreds of children each year for lack of space.

Three new Ramah camps — one on the West Coast, one in the Rocky Mountains and one on the East Coast — are in the early planning stages. New camps typically cost $15 million to $20 million to build, Dorph said.

Rabbi Ramie Arian, executive director of the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Camping, said the Ramah study "validates the substantial body of anecdotal evidence" about Jewish camps.

While there has been little previous research on Jewish camps, many demographic studies ask about Jewish camp experience and "100 percent of the studies are positive about the impact of Jewish camping," Arian said.

JCC camps, in contrast, attract a more diverse clientele and devote less attention to formal education, such as religious and Hebrew instruction than Ramah ones, said Lenny Silberman, assistant vice president of program services for the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America and a former director of the Pittsburgh JCC's Emma Kaufman Camp.

However, Silberman said, when it comes to informal Jewish education, "there's no question in my mind that all the JCC camps in the year 2002 are doing such incredible work.''

Doron Krakow, national director of Young Judaea, said he admires the Ramah network, but he questioned whether other Jewish camps affiliated with religious movements or Zionist youth movements are really less effective than Ramah at fostering Jewish commitment.

He cited a 1997 study of adult Young Judaea alumni, including those who had attended at least one summer of one of the movement's six summer camps. That study found them to be considerably more observant than the general American Jewish population.

For example, 60 percent reported lighting Shabbat candles, 44 percent kept kosher and 91 percent who had wed in the previous decade were married to other Jews, Krakow said.

Every summer, 2,500 children in North America attend the Young Judaea camps.

Postone said her experience at Ramah has left her committed to Judaism — but perhaps not exactly the type of commitment the camp's organizers predicted.

"On the one hand, I enjoyed the Conservative services, but I am also drawn to the humanistic side of Judaism," said Postone, who considers herself a Jewish agnostic. "Even if I don't believe in God, I believe in [Jewish] values being carried out. It's important to carry out Jewish ideals."