A New Community

It’s been one day since the Session Two campers made their way through the front gate for the first time this summer. The drive up the main road to camp feels longer than it really is, the anticipation of what lies ahead sparking energy in the air. It’s been a day since each cabin united for the first time, a day since the first camp meal, a day since the empty cabins filled with signs of their inhabitants. Camp has only been in session for a day, but many feel like they’ve merely returned to their natural environment, already settling in to their home away from home.

Ranch Camp has a way of bringing many different kinds of people together, a sentiment immediately evidenced by the cheers that flooded the dining hall and the rising of voices together as everyone sang the Ranch Camp song in the opening circle afterwards. For many campers, this is the first time they’ve had these experiences. For others, this sense of community is a principle factor in their decision to return year after year. No matter if this is a camper’s first year or fifth, all share the same sense curiosity and excitement for what the next week and a half has in store.

After lunch (chicken sandwiches and potato wedges, the first delicious and filling meal of many) and the song circle, the remaining hours of the day were dedicated to settling into camp. The voices of every age group carried across the commons of North and South Village alike as cabins retrieved their luggage, ready to make their bunks their own. Once every building was satisfactorily decorated, everyone jumped into the afternoon’s activities. Each group got a chance to hop into the pool, cooling off from the hot day while cheering on their cabin mates during the swim test. Equally as anticipated was a trip to the corral, an integral part of the camp experience, getting a chance to ask about the activities and take a look at some of the horses grazing on the hill.

Cabin photos and check-ins at the Mir Pa’ah, or health center, were interspersed with bonding time. High-energy games and get-to-know-you activities solidified the bonds already forming between campers, and the discovery common interests sparked animated conversation as groups walked from one activity to another. The voices of the community could be heard from every corner of the inner forty acres of camp, the property in its natural state. Camp feels like such a different place than it does during the off season, or even intersession. Filled with friendship and community is the way Ranch Camp is meant to be.

Though campers spent the day in their cabin groups, the community as a whole is in no way divided by age or gender. This is evident during meals or when split into activity groups, but the diversity and inclusivity of camp is most obvious at one certain time of the day: evening program. No matter what cabin, program track, activity group, or age unit a camper might be in, each and every one participates in the same program after dinner. This is one of the only times when every member of camp is involved in the same activity at once, and the energy and enthusiasm this brings is nearly palpable as everyone gathers in the commons to begin. The first night’s evening program was Bombardier, a game that combines trivia, tag, and teambuilding into a friendly competition that has something for everyone to enjoy.

By the time the sun was making its way past the horizon, the first day of Session Two was drawing to a close. It had been a day full of enthusiasm and anticipation, energy and activity, friendship and fun. It was the kind of day that felt like more than one, any anxiety or worries from the morning now a distant memory. As camp quieted down, every camper drifted into the peaceful sleep that comes after a long but incredibly satisfying day. They rested well with the knowledge that the next morning would come with just as much excitement as the last, as will every morning here at camp, each day carrying the promise of many more new experiences and an ever stronger community.

The Songs of Ranch Camp

Saturdays, like Fridays, are different from every other day at camp. The continuation of Shabbat celebrations from the previous night transforms the day into a space separate from the rest of the week, a time in which campers are able to reflect on the achievements and successes of the previous few days while spending quality time with friends and newfound family. This Saturday, however, was especially different; it was not only Shabbat, but the last full day of Session One.

The day broke on a community filled with a quiet but tangible energy, the excitement of going home mixing with a reluctance to leave camp to create that bittersweet feeling many experience during the last few days of the session. A traditional walk-in breakfast of bagels and lox preceded the gathering of the entire camp in North Village, where voices one again rose in song together before everyone took the journey to Eddie’s Corner. Saturday services, like those held on Friday nights, take place outside. Eddie’s Corner is an alcove of trees and flowers, cool morning air warming off the wooden benches with bright rays of sunlight streaming through the branches above. The morning started out a bit cold and gray, but the music of prayer that joined everyone together seemed to draw the blue sky out from behind the clouds. The sun itself broke through and shone down with a sudden beauty just as the Torah was taken out of its ark.

Just like last week’s Shabbat, campers and staff alike felt the sense of community even more strongly after services ended, but the ties that connected the community were even stronger this week. As everyone reentered the main campgrounds and split off into their cabins to begin packing, shouts of joy and laughter echoed from one building to the next. Though the day was dedicated to packing, time was easily found for one last game of gaga or trip to the art room. Campers packed with determination, already looking forward to the afternoon and the promise of chocolate canteen and free activities. Though clothing and bedding had been already packed up, enthusiasm and excitement had not, and campers jumped at the chance to participate in their favorite activities once more.

The afternoon, already going by too quickly, soon became evening. Coming straight from their activities, campers reunited with their cabin mates outside of the Chad as everyone gathered for dinner. The last dinner of the session would be one to remember – as the doors of the dining hall opened up, a transformed room was revealed. Glittery banners adorned the walls, stars hung from the ceiling, and glow sticks decorated the tables. It was Hard Rock! Named after the well-known café, this program is a staple on the last day of camp, a themed dinner to end the session with a bang. The theme of this particular Hard Rock was “Galaxy,” and campers enjoyed a meal of baked ziti and garlic bread while watching their counselors, dressed as aliens, act out the story of the Ranch Camp planet.

The meal eventually came to a close, but the camp did not yet split back up into their cabins. Instead, everyone gathered in the Mo once more for the last program of them all: campfire. The only evening activity held twice a session, campfire is an integral part of camp. With one at the beginning of the summer and the other at the end, it brings closure to the summer, the completion of a circular journey. Campfire began with Havdalah and then moved seamlessly into the many songs that have made their place as tradition at Ranch Camp: Mountain Dew, Lean on Me, Riptide, and The Circle Game, to name a few. In the Mo, a building already rich with history, the many voices of the Ranch Camp community echoed off the walls instead of dissipating into the evening. Though it was cold outside, everyone was warmed by the sound of the community together for the last time, a sound rich with memory and meaning.

It seems, sometimes, like the singing at camp never stops. We sing the welcome song when campers first arrive, we sing while we pray before and after meals, we sing when someone says the word “announcement” in the Chad. We sing to celebrate birthdays and lost teeth. Services on Shabbat are full of song, as are the Havdalah ceremonies and song circles on Friday evenings. We sing at Degel before breakfast and again before bed. Programs like Maccabiah and capture the flag are marked by songs of ruach (or spirit) and camaraderie. We sing at campfire at the start of the session, and we sing at campfire at the end of the session.

Though the campers may pack their bags and leave the camp property, the tune of these songs will stay with them. When they eat their next meal or lose their next tooth, the songs they learned at camp will remind them of these experiences here. Next Friday, the camp Shabbat services will rise up in their minds. These songs are so much more than just words and tunes. They hold memories in their lyrics, purpose in their melodies. They cannot be held in hands or packed away, but kept in spirit, something that brings comfort when next summer feels too far away. On Sunday morning, as the last goodbyes are said and the front gate swings shut, the words that we have sung here together will hold ties strong as everyone goes their separate ways, hearts full with the songs of Ranch Camp.

Yom Yisrael

JCC Ranch Camp is located on 380 acres of land in the Black Forest of Colorado. With the exception of the trips programs, most members of the camp community spend the entire two weeks of the session on this beautiful property, surrounded by nature, tucked away from the worries of the outside world.

This may make Ranch Camp feel secluded, but in truth, the campers who come here often get the opportunity to learn even more about the world around them than they might in other places. This education comes largely in part from our diverse group of international staff. From England and Ireland to Uganda and, most notably, Israel, campers are able to interact with these staff members in a day-to-day way that helps them put faces and personalities to the nameless nationalities they learn about in school. Spending time with so many people of different backgrounds (including other campers) fosters acceptance and the idea of normality in diversity in a way that is effortless and natural.

The Israeli delegation, known throughout camp as the Mishlachat, add another layer of Jewish experience to camp. From the Shigaon song to the Israeli culture activities, the Israeli staff add their own special touch to Ranch Camp. Of all of these contributions, one is perhaps most notable: Israel Day, or Yom Yisrael. This Thursday marked the first Israel Day of the summer, a day dedicated to learning about the faraway country through up-close activities.

The campers woke with no inclination that today would be any different from the others. Degel, the morning circle, began as usual at 7:45, and the community moved through the songs we sing together, voices rising in unison, the perfect way to start the day. As soon as everyone entered the Chad, excitement began to rise in the air, the white and blue decorations and delicious smell of a traditional Israeli breakfast hinting at something special. Though the announcement soon came, many placed their guesses correctly, returners especially enthusiastic to take part once again in this classic camp holiday. Breakfast was shakshuka, eggs cooked in a sauce of chopped tomatoes and spices, paired with pita and potatoes. Campers dived in with adventurous tongues, finishing fueled and excited for the rest of the day.

The morning activities continued on as planned, campers engaging in friendly competition on the sports field, getting colorful at tie-dye, or taking a dip in the pool. After a filling lunch and relaxing Menucha, the Israel Day activities started for real. Instead of the usual chugs, or free choice activities, campers had an opportunity to participate in each of the four activity blocks offered. They learned some traditional Israeli dancing, made their own traditional pita bread, competed in a trivia challenge, and participated in some more active games to express their enthusiasm.

Dinner came all too soon, but the adventures of Israel Day were far from over. All of the knowledge and eagerness gained by the campers in the afternoon tied in perfectly to the evening program, the Shuk. As the previous meal was cleared away, campers left to their own cabins to prepare, and arrived back into the Chad to find the dining hall transformed into a traditional Israeli marketplace. Every cabin set out their own handmade goods to sell to their friends, ranging from pocket Hebrew-English dictionaries and friendship bracelets to face painting and snacks. Campers spent faux shekels at the stations that called to them, rotating with their cabin-mates to “sell” their own products as well. The night ended with a feeling of satisfaction, everyone heading to bed with the contentedness that comes with the knowledge of a day well spent.

The opportunity to learn about the world in an environment free of judgement or expectations is something that is rare to come across in most people’s daily lives. That’s not true here at Ranch Camp. Days like these make sure that campers have those safe places, that they know they are welcome and encouraged to ask questions and make observations that will be accepted and validated. Israel Day highlights this aspect of our community, but this acceptance doesn’t disappear on regular days. Learning happens every day at camp, and it’s only natural for that knowledge to come with questions and concerns that are different for every person. Each one of those people knows that here, their questions will be answered, their backgrounds respected, their opinions accepted. Here, they know that they are safe to be themselves.

A Ranch Camp Shabbat

Sunday morning began as a fresh start, the Havdalah ceremony the night before separating Shabbat from the rest of the week. As campers spread across camp to enjoy their activities, their spirits were still lifted and their hearts still content from the Shabbat celebrations that began on Friday.

Though JCC Ranch Camp is, as the name suggests, a Jewish camp, not every member of the community is Jewish or even religious. This, however, does not hold anyone back from enjoying this very special time at camp. In fact, the diversity among both campers and staff alike lends itself to making Shabbat celebrations at camp a unique experience, which is hard to get anywhere else. People from all walks of life have the opportunity to discuss what Shabbat means to them. From returning campers sharing how celebrating at camp is important to them, to new campers finding another facet of camp life that bonds them more closely to their new community. Non-Jewish campers are able to connect to their spirituality in ways that are comfortable for them, and Jewish campers get to experience services they may be used to in a new environment, praying surrounded by the trees around them, the sky above them, and the roots of flowers and grass beneath.

Fridays start out the same as most other days, activity groups and cabins scattering joyfully across the camp grounds. But by lunchtime, the anticipation of Shabbat is palpable in the air. After Menucha, each unit cleans an area of camp, preparing not just themselves but their environment and their community for the Shabbos ahead. Situated as we are in so much wilderness, it’s acceptable (and sometimes even encouraged) to get a little dirty during activities, but on Shabbat, everyone gets to take some extra time for themselves, showering and dressing up before services.

The services themselves take place in the pavilions, the camp community gathered together once again. Facing away from all the other buildings, the view behind the pavilions is lush and green, pine trees rising above a large meadow where the occasional horse can be spotted – this Friday was especially memorable, as services were paid a visit by a pair of deer. As we moved through the different prayers, every voice at camp rose together in song. In between prayers, individual voices were highlighted as cabins six and seven, among others, came onstage to share what certain prayers meant to them or reasons why Shabbat at camp was meaningful to them. This camper participation is part of what makes Shabbat here so special. The kids are not merely watching the services. They are a part of the services.

Next is dinner, always highly anticipated. One of the most memorable signifiers of Shabbat for many campers, Friday night dinner is different from the rest. Cabin mates can sit together or split up as they please, perhaps taking the opportunity to reconnect with friends they have met in Chugs, spend more time with members of their activity groups, or catch up with siblings. Instead of getting up for their food, they are served a traditional Ranch Camp Shabbat dinner at their tables (brisket, potatoes, vegetables, and matzo ball soup), the delicious food made even better by the company of friends and the gathering of voices for the songs and prayers we do before and after the meal.

Every part of Shabbat at camp is unique and memorable, a clear separation between Shabbos and the rest of the week – however, the most anticipated Shabbat celebration for many campers does not come until after dinner: Israeli dance. The morning dance activities, enjoyed by all, serve a higher purpose as well. Once every activity group has participated, the entire camp knows the dances to the songs, some new and some old. This way every age group and experience level can participate in the Friday night dance together. Though the sun may edge closer towards the horizon, spotlights keep the basketball court warm and bright, a shining spot of activity and life in the otherwise quiet evening. Music blasts though speakers as the community dances together, synchronized not just physically but in heart as well. As the energy eventually winds down, spirits remain high, everyone seated in a circle together for one last song session. This is one of the only times at camp when every single person is in one place together, and the presence of everyone is felt in the words and sounds of the music.

The last song we sing is Ose Shalom, a prayer for peace. Though we may pray for peace in the world and in our lives, the peace felt at camp was already present that night. This peace, fostered by the services, the community, the wonder of the natural world, would carry the community forward to the next day. Through walk-in breakfast and services, shiur and free activities, dinner and Havdalah, the feeling of peace will always be present, making itself known through the interactions of each and every member of the community. This peace may be brought on by Shabbat, but it will stay in the mind of everyone as they wish each other shavua tov and prepare for the incredible week to come.

Shabbat Shalom, Ranch Camp!

Session 1, Day 4
June 14th, 2019

The Torah is obsessed with rules. Particularly (and fittingly) the book of Numbers, from which we are currently reading.  Many of the rules and the stories that contain them depict or delineate standards for the community of Israelites and standards for communities in general.

When we begin our staff orientation week, I share with participants that we have this amazing and unique opportunity to create an ideal community. If we can succeed in doing that for ourselves in the week we have before our campers arrive, the community we build with campers will be a reflection of that which we were able to create among ourselves.

We call the week “orientation” rather than “training” because, although there are elements that constitute training, the week is about shifting our perspective. The majority of our bunk staff are college students. It is practically their job to focus on themselves and their needs. We re-orient our perspective to put the needs of others before our own and make this a potentially life-altering experience for our campers.

We spend a good part of the week learning how to successfully communicate in this unique environment. We pay particular attention to how we resolve conflicts among ourselves. This includes addressing the conflict with the person, directly. We call this “picking a door.” If you come to me to tell me how someone has wronged you, I will tell you to “pick a door” with that person. We avoid accusatory language, and focus instead on the particular circumstances and how this made us feel.

At the core of our ability to create a successful community is assumption of goodwill. If we stop assuming goodwill and believe the other intended to hurt us or willfully sabotage us, this will color our interactions with that person and potentially poison our communal well. It takes a certain willingness to be vulnerable, but it is absolutely critical to the success of our experience here. When we do this, we find proof of what most of us believe to be true: Most of us do not seek to deceive, hurt, or sabotage. We are kind and seek kindness.

Very shortly, we will come together as a community to welcome Shabbat. We will do so as one Ranch Camp Community that takes care of each other. We will remind one another that we are kind and seek kindness. We will experience the joy of others as our own, and we will have a restful Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,


Welcome Home

Session 1, Day 3
June 13th, 2019

As the sun rose over the 400 beautiful acres of JCC Ranch Camp, the community that had just gathered the day before slowly began to wake. Birds chirped and rays of sunshine floated through the windows as each cabin emerged from slumber, refreshed and ready for the full day ahead. The cool air of the night quickly dissipated as the excited voices of campers drifted across from North and South Village. Though most weekdays at camp follow the same schedule, every activity is unique, so the campers were both ready to settle in to the schedule and excited for the new experiences each day has to offer.

The morning always begins with the whole camp together at Degel, a Hebrew word meaning “flag.” Every voice at camp rises together in song, first to sing Modeh Ani to welcome our souls back into our bodies, then for the American and Israeli national anthems as the flags are raised, and finally for a song called Shigaon, or “crazy.” Each morning the song gets a little bit longer as a new Hebrew word is added and translated, teaching campers and staff alike new words while warming up for the day. Now fully awake, the camp heads up into the dining hall, known as the Chad, for breakfast.

The morning is one of the most exciting times at camp for many. After a quick cabin cleanup, it’s time for activities, each group getting an opportunity to try everything that camp has to offer. While the youngest unit, Chalutzim, travels to activities in their cabins, the two older units, Metapsim and Toshavim, split up into activity groups for the morning. Still within their age groups, they get to mingle with campers from other cabins – since activity groups have been implemented, the camp community feels even more like a family, as campers make bonds with their peers not just in the cabin, but with those from all different parts of camp. Once in their groups, they split from the commons to their morning activities. Some trek down to archery to practice their skills and cheer on their teammates, others make their way to the art room for some traditional camp crafts, and still others find their way to the ropes course for some adventure-filled group bonding. Then there’s mountain biking, Teva (or “nature”), Israeli dance, and more, enough activities to make every new day an adventure.

The morning activities ensure that everyone has an appetite for lunch, after which is Menucha, another Hebrew word meaning “rest.” After the energy-filled morning, the break time is much appreciated, and campers have a chance to write letters, read books, work on friendship bracelets, or nap, engaging in activities that are relaxing to them. Though the camp may seem quiet in times like these, the strong sense of community is still felt, a silent but noticeable energy in the air, a fullness indicating the presence of camaraderie.

Once Menucha has finished, the cabins are nearly bursting with excitement for the second set of activities of the day: Chuggim, or free activities. Like the activity groups, these Chuggim give campers an opportunity to interact and spend time with peers of all genders and age groups, and since they are free to choose any Chug they wish, they often end up with like-minded people and spend the hour developing new friendships. The options for Chuggim usually change every day. This specific set included soccer playing, lanyard making, hiking, and yoga, to name a few. The campers choose two Chuggim, with a snack in the middle, and before they know it, it’s dinner time.

Dinner, like lunch, is a lively affair, the Chad ringing with the music of children’s voices, songs and chants displaying camp and cabin pride underlining the animated conversations between friends old and new. The rising energy is ultimately funneled into the evening program, for many campers the most anticipated event of the day. Though cabins and activity groups may have the chance to go to an activity more than once, every evening program is unique, a different surprise every night. Some are active, some are creative, all are inclusive to every ability level. Tonight’s evening program was campfire, a camp tradition as well as a camp favorite, often the image imagined by those pining for camp on the off season or those excitedly anticipating it for the first time. After running back to cabins to change into warmer clothes, everyone gathered in South Village to walk down to the campfire together. Though the sky was slowly darkening, the community stayed warm with the singing of songs and telling of stories.

Halfway through, the campfire continued in a different way, as the Chalutzim, Metapsim, and Toshavim units moved to different campfires throughout the camp for unit initiations. While spending time in these smaller groups, each and every camper felt the ever-present sense of community even more strongly. The scent of kosher marshmallows roasting mingling with the burning wood, the soft sounds of nature and drifting voices of the other groups, the shining of the stars in the newly darkened sky, all came together to send one message: welcome home.

A New Beginning

The sun rose this morning onto a changed Ranch Camp – even before the first camper set foot onto the property, the air hummed with a new energy. This day has been anticipated for many months, by hundreds of people. For some of these campers, this is their first time back to camp in a year – for others, the break has been longer, and on the other end of the spectrum, many campers are joining the Ranch Camp community for the first time. But whether this is a camper’s first year or eighth, each and every one shared in the excitement that was nearly palpable in the air as Ranch Camp’s principal inhabitants finally made their way to camp.

Some came by bus, others by car, drives ranging from an hour to an interstate trip. Others waited for the first sign of camp with bated breath on the drive from the airport. So many different journeys, one common destination. Sand crunched under tires as the cars and buses made their way up the main road, the promise of summer spilling into reality as camp grew alive with shouted greetings and energetic introductions. Campers converged into groups as the members of their cabins finally arrived. Though the units they inhabit – Chalutzim, Metapsim, and Toshavim – may be divided by age, the campers are anything but separated, each age group like a sibling to the others as they all came together into the first song circle of the session. Though traditionally sung in the evenings, the Ranch Camp Song closed the circle perfectly with lyrics that resonated with everyone, the sky truly the “bluest here,” the colors truly “alive with joy.”

The rest of the afternoon, fueled by a delicious summertime lunch, showed no decrease in enthusiasm. The gleeful shouts of campers echoed between buildings as the cabins checked in at the Mir Pa’ah (or infirmary), chose their riding boots at the corral, received their Ranch Camp t-shirts, and posed for cabin photos. In between, they played games and settled into their cabins, quickly developing friendships with the people they will spend the next two weeks with.

Dinner was readily anticipated, fresh and filling, fuel for the one last activity of the night: Bombardier. Though a fairly new activity, this evening program has swiftly become a Ranch Camp tradition. A combination of trivia, tag, and teambuilding, Bombardier has something for everyone, a fact that was evident with the smiling faces of every camper who ran past. Cabins work as teams, running from trivia station to trivia station to answer questions while trying to avoid the “bombardiers,” or staff members dressed in costume. If “bopped” by a bombardier, each cabin would complete a teambuilding activity, laughs ricocheting around the playing area as campers raced to remember facts about each other or compose a rap about their new friends. Though many of the campers may have felt like strangers to one another just this morning, the opposite was true as the evening came to a close, those both returning and new heading off to bed with a full heart and peaceful mind, knowing that they are in a place where they belong.

Summer has finally begun. JCC Ranch Camp is a place free from the stressors that members of the community may be experiencing in the outside world. Here, kids aren’t graded on their artwork. They run for fun, not because it’s a gym requirement. Friendships blossom without the social pressures that may be placed on them by schoolmates. No matter what may be going on in a camper’s life, they can come here knowing that those things will not follow them, and here, they will be nothing but accepted for who they are. This is a place of new beginnings, and today was a beginning for the books. From the moment the gates opened to the first song circle, from the afternoon’s activities to each cabin’s bedtime ritual, a sense of community was felt by all, something that can only grow stronger as the session continues. The energy in the air that was present this morning will carry every member of the Ranch Camp community through these next two weeks, two weeks that will be full of moments and memories of what may very well be the best summer that camp has seen yet.