Many rabbis were launched toward clergy at Jewish summer camp


Among the children in this Camp Ramot Amoona photo are two future rabbis serving the St. Louis area: Rabbi Daniel Bogard and Rabbi Jordan Gerson.


A Jewish summer camp experience can build skills and character that last well into adulthood. For some kids, the camp experience was meaningful enough that it played a role in their decision to become a rabbi.

Rabbi Daniel Bogard of Central Reform Congregation credits his camp experience for doing just that.

“The two poles of my Jewish identity as a kid were CRC and Ramot Amoona,” Bogard said. “I lived for those six weeks every summer at Ramot Amoona when I was a kid. They were everything. The rest of the year just pointed toward those six weeks. I know I would not be a rabbi if it were not for that camp.”

When he got a little older, Bogard worked at Ramot Amoona for five years and eventually became song leader.

“It was the first place I really fell in love with Judaism and dreamed of being a rabbi,” he said. “I spent half a decade as a song leader, and then later administrator and summer assistant director at Camp Sabra.”

Bogard still regularly sees his former camp friends, some of whom became coworkers.

“I work with Elana Hertel, who’s the rabbinic administrator here at CRC, and we worked together at Ramot Amoona when we were 17,” he said.

His camp connections also include Shira Berkowitz, co-director of PROMO, which advocates for LGBTQ equality. It was their common love of camp that led Bogard and Berkowitz to serve on the leadership and planning team for Camp Indigo Point in Makanda, Ill., a weeklong sleepaway camp for LGBTQ  youth that is slated to launch this summer.

Like Bogard, Rabbi Amy Feder considers summer camp a significant experience in her Jewish growth.

“I never would have found my love for Jewish music or considered the rabbinate if it weren’t for Jewish summer camp,” said Feder, senior rabbi at Congregation Temple Israel. “I remember having that discussion with my classmates at Hebrew Union College, and nearly all of us said that it was Jewish camp that made us want to be clergy.”

Feder still has fond memories of Camp Kee-Tov.

“It wasn’t just that it was a wonderful Jewish camp, which it was, but since it was based in the St. Louis community, it’s pretty amazing how many connections I made that I still have today,” she said. “One of my counselors from when I was a camper, Julie Follman, serves on our TI board; another, Rachel Wallis Andreasson, is TI’s executive director. Many of the kids I was friends with at camp are both friends and congregants today.

“In high school, I became a counselor there. Not only am I still close with several of my co-counselors, but I’ve officiated at weddings and baby namings for quite a few of my campers. It’s a remarkably special twist on the Jewish camping experience, not just the Judaism that was experi enced but the Jewish community that was made, first when I was 9, then when I was 17, that built relationships of all kinds that still exist today.”

Rabbi Adam Bellows grew up in the Chicago area, so he attended a number of day camps there as well as URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Osrui in Oconomowoc, Wisc.

“For me, Shabbat Shirah was the ultimate,” said Bellows, assistant rabbi at United Hebrew Congregation. “At Osrui, it was after Shabbat dinner in Port Hall, a great, round hall. The song leaders, whom I worshipped, stood in the middle, looking beyond cool. All the campers sat around. The songs grew to roars, then quieted back down. It was a spiritual rhythm that synced hundreds of young Jews together. I would feel myself reaching a point of ecstasy like those described by the Baal Shem Tov himself. Nothing in my life has compared to those evenings of Shabbat Shirah.”

Rabbi Lori Levine attended two URJ summer camps throughout her childhood: Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa., and Kutz Camp in Warwick, N.Y. 

“The experience of a Jewish overnight camp was so special to me and really helped shape my identity,” said Levine, rabbi educator at Congregation Shaare Emeth. “Each summer, I eagerly looked forward to attending camp and seeing all of my friends from so many different cities and Jewish communities.

“The defining aspect of my Jewish camp experience was that it was always the place I went outside my comfort zone. At camp, I was braver and more willing to take risks. I never participated in sports at home, but at camp I played on the basketball team and took tennis lessons. 

“I felt safe enough in my community to climb the tower, try out for the summer musical and help lead Shabbat services in front of hundreds of people. When I returned to camp as an adult, first as a counselor and then as a rabbi, it was beautiful to watch my kids find that same safe place to challenge themselves that I had.”