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Ramah gets set to open a Jewish sports camp in Fairfield

By Stacey Dresner

FAIRFIELD – For many years Camp Ramah has provided Jewish summer camp experiences for kids that inspire Jewish commitment.

But Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Ramah’s national director, says that some campers and parents were looking for something a little more…athletic.

“We recognized over the last several years that many families who are seeking a deep Jewish involvement at summer camps like Ramah also really wanted sports camp,” he explains. “All of our camps have sports programs which are constantly evolving and improving, but none of them are specifically sports camps. So parents have had to choose between Ramah and a serious sports camp.”

These families will no longer have to choose, with the opening of Ramah Sports Academy (RSA), billed as a “premier Jewish sports camp” aimed at “empowering Jewish athletes to achieve their greatest potential.”

“We are opening this camp in order to increase the number of families that would be eligible for Ramah, which in the end increases Jewish commitment,” Cohen says.

Located on the campus of Fairfield University, RSA will run three two-week sessions this summer, beginning June 27.

“We looked at over 100 locations including universities and high school boarding schools all throughout the Northeast from Philadelphia to Boston. Fairfield was the perfect partner for us,” Cohen says.

It doesn’t hurt that the beautiful, bucolic campus provides relatively easy transportation from the New York, Boston and Philly areas.

The school’s sports facilities are also outstanding, Cohen says.

“Their sports facilities are absolutely magnificent,” he said. “Any parent walking into that site will see high-level fitness equipment, incredible fields, professional level courts and indoor and outdoors spaces. It is really top-notch. Facility-wise we will now be able to compete with any top-level sports camp. Which is necessary because parents who are seeking a Jewish experiences don’t want to compromise on the level of sport facility and coaching.”

Campers will stay in one of the college’s dorms, which includes a dining room and kosher kitchen that will be used exclusively by Ramah. The camp is now in the process of kashering the kitchen and bringing in new dishes.

“They showed us the dorm that would be dedicated to Ramah and it was in a quiet, wooded corner of the campus. It’s a Jesuit school and that’s where the Jesuit priests used to live. They would have their own meals over there, which is great irony for a Jewish sports camp,” says Cohen.

The camp will concentrate on five sports: basketball, baseball, soccer, swimming and tennis.

The director of Ramah Sports Academy, Rabbi David Levy, was previously the international director of USY – the yough movement of Conservative Judaism – overseeing all youth summer programs and year-round operations in North America, Europe and Israel.

Levy has had a lifelong passion for sports and is pursuing his athletic coaching certification at SUNY Cortland.

He came on board RSA early on.

“It was really exciting because for me it combined a few passions – my passion and the joy I take working with Jewish youth, the love I have in my personal life for sports, and also my second career as a sports parent of Jewish children,” he jokes. “I have two sons who are heavy duty into their sports. So it all kind of came together in this opportunity.”

Other coaches include Associate Director Yoni Shear, who majored in athletic training at the University of Kansas and has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Pardes Institute Jerusalem. Before joining RSA, he was a full-time Jewish educator, first at Carmel Academy in Greenwich and then at Rockwerm Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio where he now lives with family. He spent 30 summers as a camper and staffer at Ramah in the Poconos.

Bonnie Schwart Nolan, the second Jewish woman to ever swim across the English Channel, serves as the business manager and head swim coach at RSA. She was in the Johns Hopkins University varsity swim team and now serves as financial analyst and director of aquatics at the JCC in Manhattan.

And finally David Mendelowitz, varsity basketball coach at Solomon Schechter School of Long Island and soccer coach since 2009 with Pro Soccer Kids, is athletic director.

Head coaches in the five sports have also been hired.

“We’ve hired head coaches that each have extensive experience, as athletes and coaches in their sports, and most importantly experience working with kids. Because I think that is the real sweet spot there, that they have credibility in their sport and the love of teaching their sport to kids,” Levy explains.

In the afternoons, the campers will participate in elective activities like art, dance, fitness and swimming, or enjoy sports that are not their major sport concentration.

And of course there will be Jewish content.

“Because it is a Ramah camp, there will be Jewish educational sessions each day, Shabbat, morning prayers, blessings after the meals, birkat hamazon, Hebrew and a lot of Zionism,” Cohen says.

Most importantly, says Levy, campers will learn Jewish values through sports.

“I think aside from the obvious benefits of exercise, the ability to be part of a team, to be both coached and coachable in terms of being able to learn with teammates, to work together on improving their game is tremendous,” he says.

“As a Ramah camp, we feel there is great overlap between the values and the passion that is a part of sports to what we believe can be part of a young person’s Jewish life.

“We are following a values-based curriculum where we are introducing different middot on a regular basis around camp and then testing them both in the field and in our Jewish study time.

“So for example, if one of our values is kavod – respect – we’ll be having our coaches talking to the campers about where respect is found on their fields or in their pools or on their courts. And then in our Jewish study period, there will be Jewish educators saying, ‘You saw respect on the field today, where do we see it in Jewish tradition and how did that play out?’ So we are really trying to build strong connections between campers’ love of sports and what joy and meaning they can take from Jewish life as well.”

Ramah Sports Academy can accept approximately 100 campers per session; the camp already has almost 100 kids signed up for the first session and around 60 spread out between the second and third sessions. Kids from 16 states and five countries have enrolled so far.

If the camp is successful this first summer, they are already talking to Fairfield University about using an overflow dorm for next year.

CAP: Rabbi Dave Levy

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