At Camp Ramah Darom, waterskiing lessons are preceded by morning prayers, often on the waterfront and sometimes even on the boat. Athletic sessions begin with an emphasis on gratitude over cut-throat competition. There’s a focus on leadership and respect for fellow players. And the same cool coach who ties campers into the harness for rock climbing helps them strap on tefillin.
“There’s a very distinctive Jewish experience that emerges from following the Hebrew signs to the archery range, hearing Hebrew phrases sprinkled into the instruction, which adds texture and framework to the activity,” said camp director Geoff Menkowitz.
He stressed that Ramah Darom’s emphasis on athletic excellence is instrumental in advancing its mission “to foster and nurture Jewish identity and build the next generation of Jewish leaders.”
The process of acquiring skills and the resulting boost in self-esteem teaches children how to persevere through challenges and find fulfillment in hard work, Menkowitz said.
“Archery is one of our signature programs,” he said. Campers can learn from the sport to “stand still, grounded and in control.” It’s a positive experience to “focus on a special goal. It all translates into leadership.”
Reiterating that sentiment is Yale Nogin, archery range master and sports coach for the past five summers. “We begin each session of archery at Ramah Darom by thanking G-d for the ability to be strong and focused and allowing us to go straight at our goals and targets in life. We give ourselves a moment to connect to G-d’s strength within us and recite an ‘Archers Prayer’ together.”
In addition to the sport itself, Menkowitz said, “all the coaches and specialists are dynamic Jewish role models who inspire kids” with the thrill of Shabbat or a love of Israel, Menkowitz said.
Take Rabbi Jonathan Berkun. In addition to being the rabbi of a large Conservative synagogue in Miami, he’s a certified waterskiing coach who led that activity at Ramah Darom last summer. Having a rabbi as an instructor shows that Judaism is not only expressed in a certain place and time, but should be fully integrated into a fulfilling life, Berkun said.
“I help campers develop waterskiing skills in an environment filled with Jewish values, Jewish learning and Jewish celebrations. It’s also a very spiritual experience just being in the beauty of nature out in the water.”
Water, itself, has many biblical references, and there is a standard blessing for a new experience and milestone, the “Shehechiyanu,” that thanks G-d “who has kept us alive, sustained us and enabled us to reach this moment,” Berkun said. Whether campers are learning a new skill or advancing their abilities, waterskiing instills euphoria, joy and the pride of accomplishing a new goal, he said.
Another Jewish life lesson that comes into play in sports is missing the mark but succeeding after a string of failures, he said. It’s one of the prevalent concepts of the High Holy Days, when “we stress that life is not measured by the number of times you fall down, but in the number of times you get up and try again.”
The focus on sports as an avenue to Jewish life and leadership was apparent last summer when the camp piloted its four-week Athletic Edge lacrosse and rowing camp, providing the same competitive athletic preparation as other secular sports camps, but in a Jewish setting.
“Many play soccer on traveling teams. When they experience soccer [at Ramah Darom] it nourishes them Jewishly and teach values and leadership skills they don’t get in other places they are playing soccer,” Menkowitz said.
“What’s unique about Ramah Darom is that we use sport instruction to inspire kids to be able to lead their communities.”
While campers in the Athletic Edge program may continue their athletic training, other sports offerings at camp don’t necessarily translate into year-round activity.
“What I have really seen is that kids participating in our high level of archery program are not necessarily motivated to shoot arrows when they’re home or continue visiting the range, but it is definitely inspiring them to celebrate Jewish life throughout the year,” Menkowitz said.
“What is powerful is that we leverage sports instruction with the outcome really being kids who are launched into a Jewish life filled with meaning and purpose. … In this way, Ramah Darom hits the bullseye of Jewish education.”