Is Camp Ramah TOO Jewish?

The Forward just published an interesting article about a long-standing debate: “Is Jewish summer camp fun enough?” Many parents of Jewish day school students argue that their kids should get a “break” over the summer and not be subjected to more Jewish education. Of course, Jewish summer camps that emphasize prayer and Talmud Torah (Jewish learning) like Camp Ramah, Camp Moshava, Camp Yavneh, Camp Stone, etc. also have other activities like sports, waterskiing, art, and drama.

The opening paragraph of this article is misleading. Columnist Rebecca Spence writes, “At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Jewish campers wake up every morning at 7:30 and daven the morning prayers. After some swimming or maybe a Frisbee game, the older kids can, if they want, daven again in the afternoon. And at the end of a day that includes a 45-minute Judaic learning session, well, they can… daven again.” Add up the time spent in prayer services (even including the “optional” afternoon and evening minyanim), the 45-minute class, and mealtime and these campers are still left with many hours of typical camp activities.

Rabbi Mitch Cohen (Ramah)My colleague Rabbi Mitch Cohen (pictured), director of the Ramah Camps, makes a bold (but true) statement in this article, explaining, “Families who spend a fortune on day school education and then send their kids to nonreligious programs in the summer in some ways are wasting their investment.”

The trick of course is to create summer camping experiences that emphasize Jewish living 24/7 with prayer services, learning opportunities, and Shabbat observance while also offering serious summer activities like sports. Having served as a staff member at three of the Ramah camps (Wisconsin, Nyack, and Canada), I can honestly say that they are successful at this synergy.

For three summers I served as the director of the Ropes Challenge Course at Camp Ramah in Nyack and was always cognizant of the synergy between Jewish education and outdoor camp fun. In that vein, I published a curriculum that was used at Ramah to teach Jewish values, Hebrew, and Torah to the campers while they were participating in the Ropes course and climbing wall.

I’m optimistic that the Foundation for Jewish Camping will work to ensure that Jewish summer camps where Judaism is a focus will be able to provide top-notch extra-curricular programs like sports taught by instructors one would find at the best sports camps in the country, as well as outdoor adventure activities that rival any secular camp.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish Agency Prioritizes Acceptance of Reform & Conservative Conversions by Chief Rabbinate

This is an important Op-Ed from the Jerusalem Post about the Jewish Agency for Israel’s (JAFI) new push for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to finally recognize conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis. The complete article can be accessed here.

Politics hurts religion

The Jewish Agency for Israel, whose Board of Governors is meeting in Jerusalem this week, is expected to consider a resolution calling for official Israeli recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.

Speaking more broadly on the issue of pluralism in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, JAFI Chairman Ze’ev Bielski said: “The time has come for the government and the rabbinate to show the millions of people from the Reform and Conservative movements that they are a part of us.

“I don’t think that anyone can take the responsibility for losing out on so many people who might want to come on aliya and be integrated into Israeli society. … There are, after all, so few Jews in the world. We should not all be fighting each other and we should look for common ground.”

Orthodox representatives argue that it is the other streams that have compromised Jewish unity, by changing the standards for observance and conversion to such a degree that there is dwindling agreement over who is a Jew, let alone how to be Jewish.

Whether they are right or not, this response, together with Bielski’s explanation that pluralism is needed to encourage aliya, show that the discussion of the issue continues to miss the point. Israel’s Orthodox establishment has done more to discredit Judaism in the eyes of the non-observant than to advance it.

The Israeli rabbinate jealously guards its sole right to administer marriage and divorce for Israelis, so that even Orthodox rabbis who come from overseas to perform a marriage must stand beside – and pay – a representative of the rabbinate to gain official sanction for the wedding. It also holds the keys to kashrut certification and burial for all Jewish Israelis.

Yet this rabbinate, with its monopoly on life cycle events, expresses next-to-no view and offers little guidance on such deeply Jewish issues as social justice, the minimum wage, redeeming a captive soldier, the ethics of war, individual spirituality and much more besides. Where it isn’t trying to enforce its jurisdiction as an institution, the rabbinate is almost always, tragically, silent. Indeed, the only encounter most Israelis have with Judaism is with a disinterested rabbinate clerk paid by taxpayers to whom he does not see himself accountable.

It would be better, both for Jewish unity and for the advancement of Judaism in Israel, if the Orthodox gave up their official monopoly over religion in Israel. Even better, there should be no official rabbinate to monopolize. Far from compromising the Jewishness of the state, eliminating the rabbinate would enhance it, since rabbis from three streams would be free to serve their own communities in Israel as they do in Diaspora.

But it isn’t enough to call for a separation of religion and state. What’s needed is a specific type of separation.[…]

The mixture of religion and politics has been harmful to Judaism here. For the sake of Jewish unity and the advancement of a religious agenda, the link should be severed.

We hope the Jewish Agency’s Assembly and Board of Governors send this message to the Jewish world they represent. And we hope the Orthodox delegates, those who care deeply for the influence of tradition and ancient wisdom on modern Jewish life, courageously stand at the vanguard of this vital initiative.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

A League of their Own – The American Pastime in Israel

One new thing I hope to do in Israel this summer (I’m leading a congregational trip from August 5-17) is attend a professional baseball game.

Baseball has never been very big in Israel. In fact, I remember when Burt Faudem, a Detroit dentist who made aliyah, started a little league baseball league in Jerusalem back in the 1980s. I attended 1st grade at Hillel Day School with Dr. Faudem’s son Josh (see joshuafaudem.com) and at the end of that year the family moved to Israel. Josh was a pretty good ballplayer but when they moved to Jerusalem and no little league existed, Josh’s dad had to create a league made up of mostly North American immigrants.

Now Israel has professional baseball and my guess is that it will be successful. Here is an article about the recent startup that I first read at Jewschool.com.

טייק מי אוט טו ט’ה בול גיים

by Josh Frankel · Monday, June 25th, 2007

Israel Baseball League
3,112 fans from across Israel converged on the Baptist Village outside of Petach Tikva for the opening game of the Israel Baseball League. The baseball was real, the hotdogs were Kosher, and the kids had a great time. All around the diamond, children, many of whom at their first ball game ran around collecting foul balls, and getting anybody wearing a uniform to sign them. These players, many of whom were passed over in the recent draft got to feel like they were in the big leagues, or at least the Cape Cod league.

The game started with the players rubbing off a bit of rust, errors and sloppy play seemed the norm at the beginning, but soon the play ran smooth. There were strikeouts as slick curveballs got the edge of the black, double plays were made to look easy, and the deep outfield fences kept all but one rocket by Ryan Crotin in play.

The teams on the field were as diverse as any pro team in the States. Some of them were college grads passed over in the recent draft, others were in school and choose to play their summer ball over here in Israel rather then hanging out in Kansas or Westchester, and there were a few pro-ball veterans who had finished off their careers and made aliyah. Players were recruited from all over the world, and just as in American baseball, the Latin American players made themselves known. Maximo Nelson, a tall, lanky Dominican player was rumored to throw 96mph heat, though he seemed to struggle a bit with his control. One player told me that the guy had major league stuff, but simply hadn’t broken into the American farm system because the State Department wouldn’t give him a visa.

Aside from the regular ball players, what made these teams specials were the Jewish guys. While they often seemed a bit shorter, these players were perhaps the happiest. Some of them were sabbath observant American kids, with tools, who had never gotten to play competitive ball before, and then there were the Israelis. They were few, but the crowd gave these guys the biggest hand. Having grown up in Israel they somehow managed to learn the game and now were given a stage of their own.

Clive Russell, the director of Major League Baseball’s operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa was on hand at the game, and he seemed quietly impressed. He had been to Israel before, but this game was the best he had ever seen both in terms of talent and as far as the crowd. He was pleased that baseball was on its way here, and gave Israel a solid chance at fielding a team for the next World Baseball Classic, but he said the Israeli league needs to wean itself off its dependency on American ex-patriots. “In Italy,” he told me, “there is a league that plays level A ball, and 80% of the players are home grown.” This league, by comparison only had a smattering of native players, and the fans, well, there were many that couldn’t speak Hebrew, and I doubt anyone didn’t know English.

The league has a lot of upside, and as long as they can keep it profitable it should last. Baseball season is off-season for the country’s main sports obsessions – soccer and basketball, and that means that the games are getting lots of attention on the local sports stations. Surely any kid with half a sense of adventure would choose to travel to Europe to play than get put up in a barn in order to compete in a summer league in Iowa. And with the growing popularity of baseball around the world, a European championship might not be so far in the future.

Meanwhile, play ball!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Are there any Jewish theologians in the future

After a three week blogging hiatus, I’m back. Taking this week off I’m hoping to catch up on my blog.

I met Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove for the first time at the Rabbinical School Kallah (retreat) during my first year of rabbinical school at The Jewish Theological Seminary in 1998 when he was a senior. Late Friday evening I joined a group of senior rabbinical students who were sitting around enjoying an expensive bottle of Johnny Walker Gold Label. In addition to finishing off this bottle, the was very impressed with

"Dirty Dancing" Star Sings Klezmer

I just saw this very funny YouTube video of Jennifer Grey, the star of “Dirty Dancing”, singing a hillarious Klezmer parody song called “Duvid Crockett” on Conan O’Brien. The Klezmer song was actually written and performed by her grandfather, the Jewish comedian Mickey Katz. Jennifer’s father (and Mickey Katz’s son) is the Broadway actor Joel Grey, who was recently in Wicked.


(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Hayim Herring and Kosher Vending Machines

Last night Rabbi Hayim Herring, the Executive Director of the STAR Foundation delivered a fascinating speech at my synagogue. The title of his “Visions of the Jewish Future” speech was “Anything, Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere: Synagogue Renewal in an Age of Extreme Choice.” He explained how the role of the synagogue as a house of prayer/gathering/learning has changed drastically in this era of instant gratification, technology, and individual choice.

Well, Starbucks might be the “Third Place” where you can get your latte however you want it, but now even keeping Kosher while traveling will soon get easier. You may soon see Kosher vending machines in airports in New York.

Kosher Vending Industries, LLC, makers of Hot Nosh 24/6, the first certified Kosher on-demand hot food available through vending machines, has announced that Ruby Azrak, hip hop mogul Russell Simmons’s former partner at Phat Farm, has invested in the company to help fuel a nationwide expansion. Azrak keeps strictly Kosher himself.

KVI was established when co-founders Alan Cohnen and Doron Fetman were discussing the challenges Kosher travelers have when visiting locations that have no available Kosher hot food. Together they researched various options and the KVI concept was born.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller