Kosher home on the range: Overnight camp in High Sierra will let Jewish girls experience ranch life

Nestled in the center of Plumas National Forest, Quincy, Calif., isn’t the type of town where you’d expect to find Orthodox Jews.

But this summer, this Northern California hamlet is going frum.

For three weeks, the LL Ranch in Quincy will host the inaugural session of the Cowgirl Camp for Jewish Girls, founded by Los Angeles resident Baila Romm and her organization, the Wellsprings of Miriam Foundation.

The camp is planning to host 30 Orthodox girls, ages 10 to 15, from June 26 to July 17. As of last week, 16 girls were signed up. Most of the girls will be from Southern California, with a few coming from as far away as Toronto and Israel.

In many ways, Cowgirl Camp will function just like any other sleepaway camp, secular or Jewish. There will be horseback riding, singing, improv and overnight trips. Campers will go fishing, tubing and panning for gold.

Baila Romm

Yet the camp will be strongly grounded in Orthodox Judaism, with a modest dress code, daily prayers, glatt kosher food and discussions of Jewish traditions and values such as Shabbat and derech eretz, respectful behavior.

The kitchen at the ranch will be kashered, and a mashgiach, Rabbi Kovi Kessler, will be onsite to observe food preparations. Kosher food, including meat and cheese, will be shipped from Los Angeles, and campers will bake their own bread, cakes and challah. The camp also will have an eruv.

The ranch setting will lend itself to hands-on Jewish learning. Campers will learn how to spin wool, mend fences and harvest grain grown on the ranch, while connecting those activities to the 39 Melachot, the types of “work” prohibited on Shabbat. They also will visit a nearby farm where they will milk goats and learn how to make goat cheese that is cholov Yisroel, the kosher standard for dairy products.

Cowgirl Camp will operate as a functional ranch, and campers will do an hour and a half of “homestead chores” every morning, except on Shabbat.

But the focus will be on horses, with lots of riding and learning about horse grooming, saddle care and other topics with Meggie Bell, listed on the staff list as “head wrangler.”

Baila Romm rides high in the saddle around the corral, just like the campers at the Cowgirl Camp for Jewish Girls will do this summer in Quincy.

Despite the camp’s dress code, Romm insists that the girls will be doing “authentic Western riding.” That means a comfortable skirt over pants or leggings — no side-saddle.

Cowgirl Camp has been in the works for about three years, ever since Romm worked with LL Ranch owner Terry Howard on a Jewish boys camp at the ranch in 2008. Howard, whom Romm calls a “righteous non-Jew,” is her partner in the venture and will work as director of ranch activities during the camp.

Romm grew up in a traditional Conservative family in New York. She got a master’s degree in film and stage design from the Tisch School for the Arts at New York University, and came out to Los Angeles in 1989 to be a production designer for film and TV.

By 1995, though, she was tired of showbiz.

“I was turning 40, I wasn’t married,” she said. “I decided I wanted to do something else.”

Seeking a spiritual connection that she hadn’t found in her Conservative upbringing, Romm attended a talk by Olivia Schwartz, co-director of the Chai Center in Los Angeles.

“My soul, my essence just sprang to life,” Romm said about that talk. She became observant, got married and had a son.

She also started doing event planning for the Jewish community. But after a while, that wasn’t enough.

“It wasn’t satisfying,” she said. “I was making other people happy, but I wanted to bring more to life than making parties and events.”

Romm started thinking about her next move, and it finally dawned on her that what was missing from the Orthodox community was a way for women and girls to connect with nature.

“Jewish women are so involved with life — cooking, cleaning, childrearing — and it doesn’t always allow us to realize our power as a woman,” she said.

So Romm founded Wellsprings of Miriam, the goal of which is to provide animal- and nature-oriented retreats and camps for Orthodox women and girls.

After working with Howard at the boys camp thee years ago, Romm was approached about creating a camp for girls. She jumped at the opportunity.

“There are other Jewish overnight camps in California, but to the best of my knowledge most of them are more secular, even if they’re shomer Shabbos and kosher,” Romm said. “I have no problem with that, but there are girls who want to be more modest and still do nature and adventure things.”

This year’s Cowgirl Camp will be relatively small — Romm is looking for a maximum of 30 campers, though she is planning to expand in subsequent summers. “I don’t want to start too big,” she said.

Other plans for the future include a mother-daughter week, as well as renting the ranch and other locations for retreats for women.

“Everyone loves this idea of horseback riding in a Torah environment,” Romm said. “I want women to have laughter and joy and dance in their life … my bringing that to them will allow them to release their stress and connect to the godliness in nature.

“Growing up frum from birth, a lot of these women are put in a box, and they don’t want to be in a box. They have aspirations outside the religious circle, and this is the perfect environment for that — where they can explore their adventurous side in a safe way.”

For information about the Cowgirl Camp for Jewish Girls or Wellsprings of Miriam, visit www.wellspringsofmiriam.org.