Rabbi Joel Seltzer started daydreaming last fall about returning to summer camp. On rides from his home in Providence, R.I., to visit relatives in New York, he and his wife would turn off the radio and just trade stories of their time at Camp Ramah in the Poconos.
Seltzer had heard the camp was looking for a new director, but back then, he said, he thought of himself as a pulpit rabbi. He had been at Temple Emanu-El in Rhode Island for more than three years and loved it.
In Providence, he had a learned congregation, with a strong presence from nearby Brown University. Seltzer became a rabbi, he said, in large part to educate people about Judaism. Would leaving the job, he thought, mean leaving “the frontlines” of Jewish professional work?
Still, much of Seltzer’s life had been shaped by experiences at the Conservative-movement Jewish camp. Growing up in Cheltenham and attending Congregation Adath Jeshurun, he was part of the strong Philadelphia contingent at the camp.
His parents met there. His siblings went there. His in-laws went there. He and his wife had spent different summers trading crushes with one another and eventually getting together when they were staff members. When his wife returned home to Long Island one summer talking about a serious boyfriend at camp whose last name was Seltzer, her parents asked, “Bob and Mimi’s son?”
The only position he would consider leaving Rhode Island for, he said, was a post at Ramah in the Poconos. “After the interview, my wife asked me if I thought I got the job. I said ‘I don’t know, but I know I talked about camp for like three hours, and that felt amazing,’ ” Seltzer said, who began his post over the summer, succeeding Rabbi Todd Zeff.While considering the position, he said he had spent a lot of time thinking about where he could have the most impact as a Jewish educator and rabbi.
Seltzer said he realized that at a synagogue, you get students for a few hours of Hebrew school or Sunday school, or maybe a Shabbat service. At a Jewish day school, the kids return home for dinner and then don’t come back until the next morning. But at a summer camp, the children don’t leave for seven weeks. The Jewish educational experience is immersive, Shabbat services are one religious activity among many and everything is tethered to Judaism. Those facts are what sold him. “The greatest moments are when you see a child connecting to Judaism in a meaningful way,” he said.
His first encounter with Ramah came in 1988. His father, Bob, had decided to leave his law practice and enter Jewish non-profit work. (He now works for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, in the same building with his son.) His parents decided to take the family to the Poconos for the summer. Dad was in charge of the camp kitchen; mom headed the nursery.
Seltzer said it was conversations with his counselors at Ramah that first made him think about becoming a rabbi.
After high school, he studied religion and history at Florida State University and then attended the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His wife, Eliana, is a Jewish educator now teaching fifth grade at Kellman Brown Academy. They have two daughters, Ayelet, 3, and Talia, 1.
Seltzer sees time at camp as an investment; it’s what leads children to careers like his. He talked about “Ramah weddings” and shivah minyans filled with former campers and staff.
Two of Seltzer’s campers from his years as a counselor died at young ages, one in Lebanon as a lone soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, the other from leukemia. At a minyan for the latter, when Seltzer saw the familiar faces, he saw the bonds that had been forged at camp.
“Yes, the ‘Ramah experience’ takes place in a camp setting,” Seltzer said, “but the notion of Ramah as ‘just a camp’ does injustice to it as the major force it is in Jewish life. Every Ramah director is the director of a ‘cheder under the elms.’ ”
One of Seltzer’s main goals is to make camp possible for more children through scholarships. During off-season, much of his time will be spent fundraising. Even though he has only been on the job a few months, camp has never left his mind.
“At camp, you have almost 400 kids experiencing Jewish life summer after summer,” he said. “They’re making the strongest friendships, connecting to Judaism and, God willing, if you multiply that over a decade or two, the impact that you can start to think about as an educator is inestimable.”