Why A Ramah Counselor Spoke-Out About the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters Last Week

Protest of the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters
Protest of the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters. Image courtesy of author.

Anyone who knows me knows that I grew up at Ramah. Without it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Ramah is a holy community, a Kehilah Kedoshah, as we say. This summer, when a fire burned down our main building, people posted on Facebook, donated money, and reached out to me individually. I felt supported by the entire National Ramah movement.
But where is that same support, community, and strength in our conversations, actions, and education on Israel/Palestine? Although Ramah changes me and lifts me up in so many ways, it fails me every year in one way: by perpetuating lies about the Occupation.
Not once, in my combined ten years at Ramah in the Berkshires and Ramah in the Rockies, did anyone mention the Occupation. We don’t talk about it because we want to pretend it doesn’t exist every summer.
In my three summers on staff, none of our programming ever attempted to address the Occupation. Instead, on Yom Israel in 2016, staff instructed campers to build mock settlements as a fun competition that demonstrated how Jews built Israel from nothing. No one mentioned that people lived on that land before. In our dining tent, we have a map from The Nachshon Project showing where all the famous Biblical characters lived in Israel/Palestine — stealthily laying claim to the idea that only Jews have a historic right to the land. We have maps of Israel across the camp to emulate the Israel Trail, but not one of them outlines the Green Line. This past summer, during our staff training session on Israel, we talked about our feelings and relationship to Israel, but never about the Occupation. The unspoken agreement about the Occupation was: it’s complicated, difficult, and not appropriate for a summer camp.
This is an educational and moral disaster.
Rabbi Cohen responded in Haaretz to our campaign the day of the Speak-Out and Teach-In I participated in last week: “We [Ramah and IfNotNow] don’t differ on the importance of teaching our teens and staff about the difficulties of the occupation.”
But if that is true, then the attempts made have been at best inconsistent and inadequate. In the past I’ve made excuses for Ramah because I want it to be the leader in the American-Jewish community that it claims to be. I told myself that the rest of the work Ramah does outweighs these issues. I was scared to disagree with the place is so central to my identity.
But I can’t maintain this lie anymore, which is why I went to the Speak-Out and Teach-In outside the National Ramah Commission last Tuesday. I joined because I want to see systemic change, and I know our community can do better than individual private meetings that superficially deal with this issue. We have to hold Ramah accountable and we can’t do that in a private setting. We want change for this summer, and we need public support for that. This is why we have invited Rabbi Cohen, to a public forum to talk with alumni and members of the Jewish community.
When I return to Ramah this summer along with 11,000 other people, I want our work and community to truly be holy, Kedoshah, by truthfully and thoughtfully educating campers and staff about the realities of the occupation.
I also want to address how we should educate campers and staff on the Occupation this summer. We must acknowledge the reality that millions of Palestinians live under Israeli military rule. IfNotNow has compiled a list of some resources we can use to teach campers and staff how to think critically about Israel. But this is just a start, it shows that this kind of education is possible and that other Jewish educators are doing it.  We need to upend the idea that Israel education and all Jewish education cannot include discussions about the Occupation. For those at Ramah who are professional Jewish educators, addressing the Occupation is as part of their job as teaching campers how to lead shabbat services — and we must hold them responsible for that.
Sylvie Rosen is an IfNotNow member and Ramah camp counselor.

7 thoughts on “Why A Ramah Counselor Spoke-Out About the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters Last Week

  1. Everywhere I look this deep divide exists among Jews everywhere. I don’t see real signs of opening for real connecting around such conflicting approaches and beliefs.
    I can only see a miracle that might open hearts and minds anytime soon, nothing less.
    It saddens me no end.
    Good luck in your efforts to bridge the awful gap.

  2. Kol Hakavod to you for speaking out about the absence of this issue at your summer camp. A couple of points:
    1. Perhaps, instead of simply condemning the Ramah program for failing to even mention the Occupation in the camp’s summer programming, you should develop a serious, detailed, and age-appropriate, proposal to introduce the topic to campers.
    2. You mentioned that during staff training there was an opportunity to talk about your feelings and relationship to Israel, but not about the Occupation. Why didn’t you and others on staff use that time to dig into a discussion of the Occupation as something that is inextricably intertwined with your feelings about Israel? It sounds like that was a missed opportunity.
    3. When talking about the Occupation, it is not enough to simply oppose it; it is important to also take a position on what should emerge in its place. In other words, it is easy to be against it and a lot harder to articulate a positive vision. That is the failing of IfNotNow — i.e., its “in your face” opposition to the Occupation coupled with a refusal to take a specific stand on, and articulate a vision of what it favors to replace, the Occupation. Hopefully, you all will do better with the Ramah programming.
    Good luck.

  3. Maybe it is not their mission… and what’s wrong with that. This seems to be a command or else that they take this issue on.
    At what point is the mission so watered down that it become irrelevant? The same thing is happening with Christianity. Some churches focus on the spatiality yet feel tremendous pressure to worship social justice. I do not see any thing wrong with both issue… Let the people decide. and give them a choice… otherwise form ones own mission that they want. It is not complicated. There is room for all concepts of missions.

  4. Maybe it is not the mission to be concerned with the occupation. so, why make an issue with this as opposed to trying to change the mission… don’t like it form your own counterpart mission. Why are we so bent on forcing our ideas on others. This is the same issue facing Churches… some focus only of spirituality and others on social justice. There’s room for everybody’s opinion.
    Why are we hell bent of changing ones mission?

  5. Bottom line re the occupation:
    Israel needs a comprehensive, sustainable 2-state resolution of her conflict with the Palestinians in order to avert renewed violence and increased diplomatic isolation and criticism, respond effectively to her economic, environmental, and other domestic problems, and remain both a Jewish and democratic state. This is not only my view, but, as indicated in the Israeli Academy Award-nominated movie, “The Gatekeepers,” is also the opinion of many Israeli strategic experts, including all the living retired heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s General Security Service. Of course Israel’s security has to be a major priority in any agreement, with, for example, any Palestinian state being demilitarized.
    Many Israeli security and military experts believe there is no military solution to the Israel/Palestinian conflict, so diplomacy must be stressed if Israel is to have a chance at a decent future. I recognize the difficulties and that much of the blame is on the Palestinians, but pursuing peace should still be a main priority for Israel.

  6. I think most of these comments are not responsive to Sylvie’s post.
    What I think is important to notice is that she’s telling us that there is a culture of silence around the horrors of the Occupation in Ramah. That is a problem, especially when seen in the broader context of mainstream Jewish support for the Occupation.
    The notion that it isn’t “their mission” is a nonstarter.
    If my mission was to cultivate pride in being American but I failed to reckon with the genocide of indigenous people or with slavery, that would be unacceptable. If my mission was to profit shareholders but I didn’t talk about how my effect on the environment because it “wasnt my mission” that would be unacceptable. Im not saying that all those things are morally equivalent, I’m saying that to suggest we can focus on narrow missions without understanding the broader context is not a stance I think any of us truly hold.
    There is no room for a boardroom that doesnt talk about the environment. There is no room for a Church that doesn’t talk about justice. There is no room for an American history class that doesn’t talk about indigenous people. And there is no room for a Ramah that doesn’t talk about the Occupation.
    The response that Sylvie doesn’t propose a solution also misses the point.
    Her point is that Ramah’s silence makes them complicit. The problem she is addressing is the complicity with the Occupation, not the Occupation itself.
    We can demand an open an honest conversation without having a fully fledged policy solution. In fact the idea that we have to have a solution before entering the conversation is counter productive in two ways (1) it inhibits creative problem solving because people are so attached to their own solutions they can’t hear others and (2) it creates a high barrier of entry into the conversation. Only experts can participate and people like Sylvie can’t advocate for open and exploratory dialogue.
    Its also worth thinking carefully about who should have a voice in the policies of Israel and Palestine. Should it be American Jews suggesting what should happen in a land we don’t live in? Im not sure that’s so clear.
    Thanks Sylvie for bringing this conversation to the blog. The work you are doing is really important, emotional, and deeply felt.
    What I learned from this exchange is that its important to describe the Occupation and the American Jewish establishment’s silence and complicity as two separate things. I think that would help the intention of this kind of work really shine.

    • Simon’s comment is kind of vile, and needs a response.
      Mainstream Jewish support for the Occupation is not a good thing, and it should be called out and addressed. And, it would be wonderful if Ramah joined other summer camps, such as those run by progressive Zionist youth movements like Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim Dror, whose Israel programming includes the Occupation as a topic. Sylvie’s efforts in that regard are an important step in the right direction.
      But, Simon’s remark, that Camp Ramah is complicit in the Occupation, goes too far. It is unfair and inaccurate. It is a summer camp, for crying out loud! Calling out Jewish summer camps as being complicit in the Occupation sounds like something one would expect to read on David Duke’s blog, not here.
      Simon also thinks it is just fine to simply condemn the Occupation without taking a position on what should replace it. Problem is, there are all sorts of possibilities for what would exist in the absence of the Occupation — some of them moral and just and others that are hateful and immoral. We know that from the vile words of some of Israel’s fiercest critics. There is no way to succeed in an effort to engage a reluctant Jewish Community on this topic without making it clear that the goal in ending the Occupation is the creation of a moral and just solution for all, and not the creation of something that is also immoral and unjust.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *