I am a Pittsburgher, a Brandeisian, and a Ramahnik. As a Pittsburgher, I was privileged to attend a Jewish day school and was an active member of Pittsburgh’s vibrant Jewish community. As a Brandeisian, I have been given the opportunity to explore Judaic Studies, both academically and religiously, with insightful teachers. However, it is my identity as a Ramahnik that has given me the foundation for living a Jewish life.
My love for Ramah started when I was ten years old, after spending my first summer at Camp Ramah in Canada. There was something very magical about that place. Maybe it was the friendships that seemed to pick up every summer where they left off the prior year, or the rua ̇h that filled the air when 600 Jewish children and teenagers came together for kabbalat shabbat. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew this place was special.
Now, after spending many summers as a counselor, rosh edah, and program director at Camp Ramah in Canada, I can pinpoint what it is that makes Ramah such a special place. It is the fact that it is not, and never has been, “just camp.” Rather, it is a Jewish educational institution, one that attempts to instill Jewish values and beliefs in its campers. It is built on the belief that there need not be a mavdil bein kodesh lehol, a separation between the holy and the mundane. Rather, as a paradigm for informal Jewish education, Ramah aims to infuse a bit of kodesh into every moment of hol.
When my counselor sent me a birthday card with a quote from the Talmud on it, that was informal Jewish education. When I spoke to my camper online in transliterated Hebrew, teaching him a new word — that was informal Jewish education. It is happening all the time within the Ramah community, as informal Jewish education fosters a beautiful relationship of Jewish growth in a fun, relaxing environment.
One of my campers, at the age of thirteen, lives by the motto “living ten months waiting for two.” This was probably my motto growing up; for ten months I longed to be back at the place that I called home. Now, however, my motto is different. I live ten months inspired by two. The safe, relaxed approach of informal Jewish education gave me the tools to enhance my Jewish lifestyle during the other ten months of the year.
A few summers ago, I was a counselor for the oldest kids in camp, an experience that affirmed my belief that a career in informal Jewish education was the right path for me. Ten days after camp ended, after reading the countless emails from my campers, I wrote in my journal: “I took my love for camp, and turned it into their summer. I want to do this with my life. Taking my love and putting it into something that will become loved. It’s the best educational gift.” This is what informal Jewish education is all about. I combined my love for Ramah and my love for Judaism and transmitted them to my campers. Two summers later, they returned to camp as counselors, and I was there to watch them transmit their own passions for camp and for Judaism to their campers. It will continue for generations to come, and I intend to continue to be a part of this beautiful tradition. As a result of my Ramah experiences, I am pursuing a master’s degree in informal Jewish education at the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
I live my life as a product of informal Jewish education. I look forward to passing on these lessons to future generations of Jewish children, in the hope that they, too, will come to understand the beauty of our tradition.
Shana Zionts is a Special Projects Coordinator at the National Ramah Commission. Shana is a master’s degree candidate at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education.