What do soccer and Judaism have in common? Plenty, thanks to the brand-new Ramah Sports Academy (RSA), launching for the first time this summer in Fairfield, Conn. The camp aims to provide a sports program that builds confidence and character, with a foundation in Judaism and Israel.
The camp is on the Fairfield University campus, and campers use their athletic facilities. The camp is open to kids nationwide entering grades four through 11. And you don’t need to be a future Olympian, either: The camp is open to athletes of all abilities.
“We started RSA because we felt that there was a great demand for a summer camp that could provide elite sports instruction in an inspiring Jewish summer community, and in the process enable us to expand the Ramah umbrella,” says Gabe Nechamkin, RSA’s board chair. “Having been involved with, and passionate about, the Ramah camping movement for many years, we learned that the traditional full summer camp model was missing some of our target demographic; some families have been following an overall trend in camping, opting for specialty camps and shorter-session camps.”
Kids choose a “major” from a list of signature sports: baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming and tennis. They participate in their chosen sport for about five hours each day, plus electives like Zumba, yoga and meditation. Yes, camp is better than when we were kids.
They live at Faber Hall, one of Fairfield’s dorms, which has a kosher kitchen. In the morning, there are prayers to start the day, and Hebrew language is woven into various camp activities. There’s also a newly developed curriculum that touches on Jews and sports, Israeli athletes, anti-Semitism in professional sports and the importance of sportsmanship and healthy competition. During Shabbat, campers play less structured sports and games. Certified athletic coaches and college-aged counselors handle daily programming. Activities focus on Ramah’s “four Cs”: coaching, confidence, community and connection.
One such counselor is Framingham’s Shayna Plotnik, who attended Natick’s Walnut Hill performing arts school. Today, she’s a senior at Indiana University majoring in voice performance who plans to go to cantorial school next year at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She’s also a triathlete. Plotnik will sing at meals and during prayer time.
“I’m engaging the campers in more than just sports. An important element of Jewish camp life is song-singing and joining with our voices,” she says.
She’s also looking forward to helping campers draw parallels between sports and Jewish life.
“Judaism gives insight into how to live life as more than a competition. Instead, competing with someone else can make a stronger bond between you and that person. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. That’s a hard lesson, but throughout Jewish history we’ve seen many stories of triumph but also stories that ended poorly, so perspective is important,” she says.
Here, she says, even non-competitive kids can thrive.
“Everyone here is so friendly and kind. They’re passionate about what they do. We just want to give every child the best summer ever, an amazing Jewish camp experience that also includes sports.”