‘My love affair with camp’

‘My love affair with camp’

Amy Skopp Cooper of South Orange becomes director of the National Ramah Commission

Staffers and day campers show how they love Ramah; they're at the central lawn at Camp Ramah Nyack. (National Ramah Commission)
Staffers and day campers show how they love Ramah; they're at the central lawn at Camp Ramah Nyack. (National Ramah Commission)

There are defining moments in national history, the times when everyone old enough to be sentient remembers where they were.

Pearl Harbor. Kennedy’s assassination. September 11.

Amy Skopp Cooper is very much from New Jersey, but the defining moment that affected both the country and her own development happened when she was 10, in 1973. The start of the Yom Kippur War happened just a few months after her parents and their four children — Amy’s the oldest — made what turned out to be a not-fully-successful aliyah.

For the full disclosure that you, our readers, deserve, before you start reading Ms. Skopp Cooper’s story and think that disjointed bits of it, anecdotes here and there, might sound familiar, you should know that you’re right. Her mother, Rosanne Skopp, is a writer whose stories of aliyah, of New Jersey and Israel, of Weequahic and the Catskills and the Newark diaspora, enliven our opinion section nearly every week.

Amy Skopp Cooper is onstage at Ramah Nyack’s zimriyah — its annual music festival — in 2018. (All photos courtesy National Ramah Commission)

Here, Amy tells them from her vantage point, and how those complicated experiences took her from a childhood in Clark — and Jerusalem — to the leadership of the National Ramah Commission.

The Skopps — Rosanne was a teacher-turned–real-estate-broker, and Alvin, then as always a chemical engineer, and their children, the youngest just 3 — made aliyah in March 1973.

“It was wonderful and challenging,” Ms. Skopp Cooper said. “Even as a 10-year-old, I appreciated that it truly was a start-up country. There were new immigrants pouring in, and we lived in an absorption center.

“One of the first things we realized is that we were able to recognize probably 10 different languages in the first couple of weeks there. Growing up in Clark, all I heard was English. But we were meeting Jews from all over the world.

The Ramah Israel Seminar goes to Masada every year (except when covid does not permit. This photo, like all the others here, was taken before the pandemic.)

“And no one spoke the same language. In an absorption center, you all learn together. You are all in fourth grade together.

“It was combined with an amazing sense of freedom. Israeli kids walked to school alone, got on buses alone, did a lot of things that we never could do alone in Clark. You’d go home from school, say ‘I’ll be back in a few hours. Goodbye!’ and no one would know where you were.”

There were disadvantages too. “Not only dealing with the language” — thrilling but frustrating at times — “the school system was really different than what we were used to. So trying to keep up, to understand the nuances of friendships with kids who were all very different — that was a struggle that all new immigrants had.

“And then the war broke out.”

Staffers gather for a national training program in Ramah California.

She’s not only thought about the war but has written about it often over the nearly 50 years since it happened. “But I still get choked up about it,” Ms. Skopp Cooper said. “That siren on Yom Kippur afternoon at 2 o’clock feels like it could have happened just a few years ago. It is that vivid.”

What did it feel like? “I don’t think I could have articulated it as a 10-year-old, but I have a friend who lived in the same building we lived in, and she had lived there since 1967. The first night of the war, right after Yom Kippur, I went downstairs to see my friend, and she was curled up in a tight ball, saying ‘It is happening again. It is happening again.’

“I am sure that what she was feeling, and what I was feeling, was the existential threat of the war.

“Then we started feeling the impact of the war in the weeks that came after. My aunt had someone in her building who died. My father already was too old to be drafted, but my Israeli friends’ fathers left on Yom Kippur day. There was fear in Jerusalem. There were enforced blackouts. The whole city was dark.”

Campers and a counselor jump into the lake together at Ramah New England.

Fourteen months after they’d moved their family to Israel, “my parents decided to return to the States,” Ms. Skopp Cooper said. “I’m sure part of it was the war. Part of it was that the first year of anyone’s aliyah is really hard,” so when you add war into it, well, the decision was almost inevitable. “So they returned, with their four kids, to suburban New Jersey — and we were just not the same four kids we were when we left.

“Struggling to fit into public school was really challenging.

“From the moment we left, in 1974, my family was going back and forth to Israel constantly,” she continued. They’d all go back every summer. “We all were sort of struggling with home. With the idea of home. Where was home? Where do we fit in? We were no longer fitting in right in suburban New Jersey.

“In the summer of 1977, when I was 13, my parents asked me if I wanted to go to camp,” she said. That camp was Young Judaea’s Tel Yehuda in the Catskills.

Campers show their art projects in Ramah Poconos.

“The first night, I was sitting with a bunch of kids, just being welcomed to camp, and they started playing Israeli folk dance music, and all of these kids jumped up and ran to start dancing. I remember the feeling so clearly. There really are kids like me in North America!

“I found them. I hadn’t known they were there until that moment, but then I found them. And that became my love affair with camp. Camp is where you really can find an affinity group of kids where you can be your most authentic self.”

Ms. Skopp Cooper moved from public school to what was the Solomon Schechter School of Essex and Union (it’s now the Golda Och Academy) for the second half of high school.

“I realized that in addition to loving camp, I also was longing for a religious framework that wasn’t what Young Judaea offered at that time,” she said. “I was a junior in high school, and I went to a USY international convention.” United Synagogue Youth, Schechter schools, and the Ramah camps all are part of the Conservative movement.

“So there I was at the convention, in Rye, and there was a sign saying that anyone who might want to work at a Ramah camp that summer should go to the meeting downstairs. So I went downstairs.”

Staffers and campers sit together at the Tikvah program at Ramah Wisconsin.

And that was the beginning of the love affair between Amy Skopp Cooper and Ramah camps that actively flourishes today.

“I spent the next seven summers at Camp Ramah in New England,” Ms. Skopp Cooper said. (Had she started Ramah as a camper, she’s have been sorted by region, and sent to Ramah in the Berkshires, where New Yorkers and New Jerseyans go.)

She’d outgrown being a camper, but Ramah camps don’t let niceties like someone’s age get in the way of their camp experience. It offers aged-out campers jobs, and those jobs increase in complexity and responsibility each year. Ms. Skopp Cooper climbed the ranks; the first year she was an educational assistant. “I had rather lofty goals, but the job meant that I spent most of my day working a ditto machine.

“Young adults I tell this story to have no idea what a ditto machine is,” she added parenthetically. “And in those days, if you needed 50 copies, you might as well make 70.” Sustainability was not yet a consideration. So she went at her job with gusto.

Campers and staffers paddle a canoe on a northern lake in Ramah Canada.

“Within days, I had fallen in love with Camp Ramah, the same way that I had fallen in love with Tel Yehuda,” she said. “I always have gravitated to these kinds of communities.”

She knew what she wanted; this, she said, is a story that she tells often. “The first oneg Shabbat, I went over to Debbie Hirshman, the camp director — she was extraordinary, no matter how big the staff was she knew everybody by name — and I know that this could have been construed as very chutzpadik, but I said, ‘Debbie, I absolutely love being here, and I think that one day I would like to be a Ramah director.’

“And she looked at me, and said, ‘Then we should sit down and talk about it.’

“I share that story because it also was a formative event in my life, and because the lesson is that we should take young people seriously. We should really encourage and nurture their ideas, when they begin the leadership journeys that they might be on. We should support them in every way possible.”

Campers learn to put on tefillin at Ramah Nyack.

Ms. Skopp Cooper earned her undergraduate degree at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; she continued to go back and forth between the States and Israel. “My whole life is Ramah and Israel,” she said. “That is who I am.”

Ms. Skopp Cooper met her husband, Mark Cooper, who was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at Ramah in New England. By that point, they were roshei edah; to translate from Ramah-speak, they were division heads. “He was more interested in dating, and I was more interested in being a rosh edah,” she said. They both found themselves near Boston, where she was the assistant to the director of Ramah New England — a full-time job — and he had his first pulpit, as an assistant rabbi to Harold Kushner, at Temple Israel of Natick.

Rabbi Kushner, now Temple Israel’s rabbi emeritus, is a well-known and beloved public figure, the author, among other works, of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Both Amy Skopp and Mark Cooper learned a great deal from Rabbi Kushner. When he performed their wedding, in 1985, “I brought my entire edah to sit with Rabbi Kushner,” Ms. Skopp Cooper said. “How many kids had the opportunity to sit with him and ask him questions about theology? It was an amazing friendship.”

Ms. Skopp Cooper earned a master’s degree in Jewish education and Jewish communal service at Brandeis, and began working in formal education, teaching at Hebrew College. The family moved back to New Jersey, where Rabbi Cooper first headed Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen, and then Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. From their base in Essex County, Ms. Skopp Cooper worked as an educator at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn.

A camper leads morning tefillot at Ramah Nyack.

“And then Ramah reached out to me, asking if I would apply for one of its director openings,” Ms. Skopp said. “I did, and it worked. I was the director of Ramah Nyack for 20 years.

“I don’t think there is anything as powerful as being a camp director, in terms of relationships with people that endure over decades.”

Camp Ramah Nyack is a day camp, the first of four such North American camps the system now includes. It has an unusual structure; the young campers, most of them too young for sleepaway camp and the others uninterested in it, go home every night, but the staff lives there all day every day all summer long. That gives the camp’s administrators and educators the opportunity to work with the young adults, unencumbered by young children’s needs. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity to work with 250 residential young adults,” Ms. Skopp Cooper said.

She took over the job from Rabbi Albert Thaler, who was also the rabbi of Temple Gates of Prayer in Flushing, Queens (and now is emeritus there). The two are close now, but it was not an easy transition. Rabbi Thaler had led Nyack for 27 years. “The senior level of staff had been with him all that time, and they had an absolute loyalty to him,” Ms. Skopp Cooper said. She, on the other hand, was new to camp, was not a rabbi, was a woman, and was pregnant. She was not welcomed warmly. “The first few years were very challenging,” she said.

Campers learn to read Torah at Ramah Nyack.

“When you come into a community like that, you have to understand it. You have to live with the culture of the community. You don’t try to change anything immediately. First you have to learn from the relationships you make, and you have to understand the beauty of what has come before you.

“Sometimes it is hard.”

But change always is necessary. It is not as if the outside world stands still. And Ms. Skopp Cooper rooted herself deeply in the Nyack community, she said.

About 14 years ago, as she remained the director of Ramah Nyack, Ms. Skopp Cooper “became first the assistant and then the associate director of the National Ramah Commission,” the organization that oversees — but does not control — all the Ramah camps, she said.

A staffer teaches woodworking at Ramah Nyack.

“It made a lot of sense,” she said. Nyack’s winter offices, like the commission’s, are housed at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and she and Rabbi Mitch Cohen, the commission director whose retirement allowed her to take what had been his job, worked together often.

The commission creates projects and curricula to benefit all the camps and helps camp leaders work together to address problems and look toward new solutions. About four years ago, Ms. Skopp Cooper said, she began to transition out of Nyack entirely and into the full-time position as associate director that she held until the beginning of this month, when she finished yet another transition, this time as the commission’s director. This process was entirely unlike the one that culminated with her as Nyack’s director — slow and seamless rather than abrupt. “I know everybody — some of these relationships span several decades — and I have been working on these projects for some time,” she said.

Like every camp and camp network, Ramah has been tested by the two covid summers, one spent shut down and online, and the other in person but odd and stressful. The system’s leaders, both at the commission and at the 10 overnight camps in North America, worked separately and together to institute the most logical, effective, and reasonable rules they could; the nine U.S. camps provided information that the Centers for Disease Control used for a study, released in October, liltingly called “Multicomponent Strategies to Prevent SARS-CoV-2 Transmission — Nine Overnight Youth Summer Camps, United States, June–August 2021.”

As the pandemic continues to morph, “we are continuing to work with our medical committees to ensure that we are going to have a safe opening this summer,” Ms. Skopp Cooper said. “We will continue to pivot once camp is open, and after, for as long as we have to. That is the lesson of the last few years. Planning now for what covid will look like this summer is impractical, but we will go into it with more confidence than we had last summer, because last summer we saw that we could do it.

Campers pet a puzzled goat at Ramah California.

“Another takeaway from last summer is that we must provide our campers and young adults with mental health support. We must continue to address the issue, and to ensure that we have all the resources in place in the camps to help kids get the help they need.

“The need is so great now,” she continued. It’s never easy being a pre–adolescent or a teenager, and rates of anxiety among those groups had been climbing even before the pandemic, but they’re only going to get worse as kids return to more-or-less-normal life without having had the experiences that normally they’d build on. “We saw kids in camps last summer who had never had a play date or a sleepover, or even a sleepover at a grandparent’s house,” Ms. Skopp Cooper said.

Knowing that, “we went into last summer saying that this might not be the summer that Ramah distinguishes itself in terms of educational innovation — and that’s okay,” she continued. “This is the summer when we simply bring kids together to play and to pray and to be. And to sing and to dance. If we do that, then we will have achieved our goal.”

The camps did reach that goal, she added. “I spent six weeks last summer at Ramah in northern California, where one of our directors was on partial maternity leave. Just to experience that summer was incredible. Just to see kids coming together was incredible.”

This is a scene from Ramah Nyack’s central lawn — its migrash.

Still, “we acknowledge that there are serious mental health challenges that we need to face. That will be a large part of my focus over the next year.”

One of the ways to approach that goal is to add “more qualified professional adults to join our year-round team. We need more social workers and psychologists. And we need more housing in some of our camps to bring in more social workers and psychologists.” That’s because some of those professionals might be willing to rework their schedules to spend time at a summer camp, but not to do so without their families. The housing would be for professionals, their spouses, and their kids.

“We also need more staff training for young adults.”

Although the need for more help for campers and staffers will die down once the pandemic finally becomes endemic, it will not go away, Ms. Skopp Cooper said; life will not return to exactly what it had been, and anyway there had been a need for more help all along. “Ramah always had strong camp teams, and we will continue to grow them,” she said.

Another problem that has plagued camps, along with youth groups and other organizations, is sexual abuse. “It always has been a real focus of ours, and it will continue to be,” Ms. Skopp Cooper said. “We are working together as a network to make sure that we are sharing best practices.”

HIgh school students on Ramah’s Israel Seminar hike in Ein Avdat.

She’s particularly proud of Tikvah, “a very successful program for all different types of children with developmental delays and handicaps,” Ms. Skopp Cooper said. “We have an entire network of vocational education programs.” The young people who usually are in those programs “had a very difficult two years. Many of them have not been able to find work during the year, and they have felt very isolated. We have created virtual gatherings for them, and we teach skills and the opportunity to meet with different employers.” During the pandemic, some Tikvah members have learned customer service skills, including how to greet people as they walk into the store, and to make coffee, and change. “It was kind of fabulous; last year we created an amazing coffeehouse,” where Tikvah campers learned their skills.

Last summer, Ms. Skopp Cooper said, need created a community; Ramah camps always had tight communities, but last summer was different. “Last year, we could get the Israelis who work at camp, but we couldn’t get the support staff” who come from Europe. That created a severe labor shortage. “So if you’d ask any Ramah director how many meals did you cook or serve, the answer would have been 100 percent.” There was no one else to cook, or clean, or unload the food-supply trucks, so the directors, working on the general understanding about nature abhorring a vacuum, stepped in. “There are people who identify Ramah as one of the most important communities in their lives who were at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin when it opened, in 1947, who came to work in the kitchen,” Ms. Skopp Cooper said. (To be scrupulously clear, most people who came to the nurses’ station at Ramah in 2022 were not there in 1947.) So when the call for help went out, there were doctors and lawyers who left their practices for a week or so “to peel carrots,” she continued. “We are talking about people who are prominent in their positions, professionals, physicians, attorneys.” That’s the pull of Ramah.

Amy and Mark Cooper now live across the Hudson, in Riverdale. Rabbi Cooper, who also is a mohel and a life coach, retired this summer, and Amy and Mark moved to the Bronx to bring her closer to the Jewish Theological Seminary. They still plan on spending a lot of time in Israel. “We have two kids in Israel and three who live here,” she said. Rabbi Eitan Cooper and his wife, Dita, live in Potomac, Maryland; Josh Cooper lives in Jerusalem; Yoni Cooper and his wife, Nina, live in Manhattan; Benji and his wife, Erica, live in Cambridge, Mass., and Aaron, who lives in Israel, just joined the IDF, as a recent column of his grandmother’s detailed. The Coopers also have three grandsons, who are 4, 2, and six months. The oldest will be a Ramah Nyack day camper this summer, Ms. Skopp Cooper said. That will make his the first of the third generation of his family to be a Ramahnik.

“Amy is a successful, respected professional, in terms of what she has done for Ramah Nyack and for the National Ramah Commission, and she shares generously with her colleagues within and beyond the Ramah network,” Jeremy Fingerman of Fort Lee, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said.

When it comes to other camps, “she is not competitive at all,” he continued. “She is collaborative. She knows that a strong field will strengthen Ramah, and a strong Ramah strengthens the field.

Although Ramah is not the biggest camp network in North America — that’s the JCC camps — it’s “the best brand,” Mr. Fingerman said, with “a common name and ideology.” Unlike the camps run by the Union for Reform Judaism, which despite having different names operate under a more centralized system, each Ramah camp is independent. The commission’s role is mainly advise and consent, he said, but its ability to offer guidance and oversight makes it indispensable. “Ramah gets great credit, especially for its work during covid. And Amy gets great credit for it.”

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