The Innovative Leadership of Ray Arzt, Ramah New England’s Director in the 1960s
The 1960s was a period of extraordinary growth, creativity and intellectual ferment at the Ramah camps – and especially at Camp Ramah in New England. Ramah New England was launched in East Hampton, CT in 1953 and moved to its current Palmer site in 1965. Rabbi Ray Arzt served as the camp director from 1961-1969. (He returned for an interim engagement as the camp director in 1996, and also served as the director of the Ramah programs in Israel in the early 1970s.)
Ray joined the staff of Ramah in Connecticut in 1956. There, he found “a whole new world of educational thought that was new.” Once he became the camp director in 1961, Ray was guided by his belief that Ramah could do more than provide campers and staff with an education to supplement the Jewish education that they were receiving at home – he believed that Ramah could be a place where campers and staff members developed character traits and responsibilities that in turn would enable them to shape the future of the Jewish community.*
People who were campers and staff members in Connecticut and in Palmer in the 1960s consistently emphasize Ramah’s exciting intellectual environment and the extraordinary people that they met.
Ray is humble about his own impact on Ramah and the wider Jewish community, viewing himself as a “facilitator” of innovation, debate and creativity. Instead, Ray tends to emphasize Ramah’s impact on him: “Aside from my family, the most important period in my life were the ten to twelve years that I spent in Camp Ramah in Connecticut and [in Palmer]. They have never left me. I was privileged to have been involved in such an enormous undertaking.”
Ray has reflected on his experiences as the director of the Ramah camps in Connecticut and Palmer in the 1960s:
Intellectual ferment within the camp:
In the early 1960s, Ray sought to imbue the camp with a sense of intellectual ferment and ideological debate. Campers and young staff members were encouraged to take responsibility for defining their own approach, in dialogue with others who might disagree. For example, campers were encouraged to offer their own interpretations of text, a practice that was unusual at that time.
The character of the Connecticut campus lent itself to ongoing, informal discussion. The camp was on a large site situated along a steep hill that rose from the river. Because of the distances between camp facilities, campers had a lot of unstructured “in-between time” and independence as they moved from place to place. Ray relished the informal dialogue with campers as they passed his house three times a day on their way to the Chadar Ochel (Dining Hall).
Ray takes particular pride in the “level of debate and conversation” that took place at Ramah under his direction. In Ray’s view, “a healthy establishment is one that knows how to nurture its own counter-establishment.”
The impact of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi:
A key aspect of Ray’s approach was to invite stimulating personalities to join the camp staff. One of the best known of these was Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who became a rabbi within the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic community and later became a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.
According to Ray, in 1962 through 1964, Schachter-Shalomi sought to “break the routine of tefilah in camp and make it more experiential and personalized … He introduced a range of experiences in the camp community which over the course of the next two summers … had a tremendous impact within the camp and the greater community.” Schachter-Shalomi encouraged the creation of personalized religious items, most famously the personalized, colorful tallitot that were made at the camp’s “tallisarium.” This personal approach to tefilah, which Ramah campers and staff members brought back to their Conservative synagogues, forever altered the way that many Jews approach prayer.
Social activism was a hallmark:
Early in Ray’s tenure as director, social activism became a hallmark of the camp. According to Ray, Gloria Sussman Silverman, a senior staff member of Ramah in Connecticut, “introduced the notion that true programming must take into account the giving of oneself to the disadvantaged.” This perspective led to a variety of social action projects, as well as an understanding that Ramah could have an impact beyond the borders of its sites.
Social activism as a Ramah value continued after the camp moved to Palmer. One extraordinary effort was the creation of a day camp for underprivileged children from Springfield, MA, which was run within the Palmer camp by its oldest campers.
“Educating toward responsibility” and the ethos of “participant democracy”:
In the 1960s, the desire of young people to make their own decisions about how the Jewish world should look merged with Ray’s own view that “the future of Jewish life is a direct function of the decisions that Jews make about that future.” These impulses led to a stimulating environment of debate and creativity.
Ray, as a consequence of his ongoing study with several leading philosophers of education, came to believe that the camp’s role was to develop character traits and responsibilities among the campers and staff. His objective was to “educate toward responsibility.” In this view, “the camp could only be vital if individuals in the camp [were] taking upon themselves the responsibility for defining their own future as Jews.” He believed that values couldn’t be imposed from above but could be “actualized by the choice of people to actualize” them. Given Ray’s view that “different kinds of people find different kinds of pathways to meaningful Jewish identity,” it was important to give campers opportunities to choose their own programs within the camp and to take responsibility by following through on their choices.
According to Ray, the camp was imbued with an ethos of “participant democracy”: “I created an open environment in which all staff members, including the kitchen steward, ran camp.” This approach significantly changed the role of counselors who, in Ray’s view, were “the cutting edge of a Jewish renaissance because it was their responsibility to carve out their future.”
Ramah facilitated innovation within the Jewish community:
Ray speaks passionately about the “many magnificent staff members” during his tenure as a Ramah director. Many of these people later assumed positions of rabbinic, academic and educational leadership in the Jewish community. Some went on to establish important, innovative projects, including Response Magazine; The New Jews, a 1971 collection of essays reflecting new voices from the Jewish community; the New York Havurah; and a protest in Boston that led the Jewish federations to increase their investment in Jewish education and that gave rise to Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) and other educational initiatives. Ray doesn’t take credit for the impact these staff members had beyond Camp Ramah; instead, he feels that he and Ramah “facilitated the possibility of their exerting their influence, wisdom and creativity.”
* This information is taken from an extensive videotaped interview conducted in 2013 (by Sandy Mendelson) and an interview conducted in April