Enhancing Judaism

Two new internship programs boost interaction with young people.

Steinsaltz Ambassadors from Israel: Ido Sinchon and Amitai Tzuriel
Steinsaltz Ambassadors from Israel: Ido Sinchon and Amitai Tzuriel

Two innovative internship programs, the Ramah Fellowship and the Steinsaltz Ambassadors, are enriching Detroit’s Jewish educational institutions with young adults intent on sharing their love of Judaism.

The Ramah Fellowship program, funded by the Davidson Foundation and being piloted for two years in Detroit, has a simple premise.

Jewish communal professionals know that Jewish camps are a great way to build Jewish identity, said Rebecca Starr, who works part time as mentor and supervisor to the three fellows. What if they could bring the camp model to a community year-round?

Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism, operates eight overnight camps, three day camps and several Israel programs.

The fellowship grew out of the Ramah Service Corps, which started three years ago and employs students who work part time in several Jewish communities. Detroit’s Ramah Fellows work full time.

The fellows, all Ramah alumni, arrived in September and are working with six Conservative congregations, Hillel Day School, Frankel Jewish Academy and University of Michigan Hillel. They’ll be here through the end of the school year and then will work at one of the Ramah camps.

A slightly different philosophy motivates the Mekor Chaim/Steinsaltz Ambassadors program. According to the program’s website, the Ambassadors aim to “model how to love being Jewish in a deep, natural, joyous and unapologetic way.” The program started in 2005 in Highland Park, N.J.; this is its first year in Detroit.

Two ambassadors in Detroit (also two in Washington, D.C.) were recruited at the Tekoa, Israel, yeshivah run by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, renowned for his translation of the Talmud into English. It’s a hesder yeshivah, a five-year program where students combine advanced Judaic studies with service in the Israel Defense Forces.

Ramah ‘Pillars’
The three Ramah Fellows live together in a house in Royal Oak they call the Bayit (“house” in Hebrew), where they host meetings and events for students and young adults in the community. The Steinsaltz Ambassadors share an apartment in Oak Park.

The Ramah Fellows say their work falls into three “pillars”: recruiting new campers for Camp Ramah, engaging with the local community and working with young Ramah alumni, primarily at U-M.

Ramah Fellows Hillel Buechler, Eli Jacober and Darrien Sherman, with mentor/supervisor Rebecca Starr (second from right)
Ramah Fellows Hillel Buechler, Eli Jacober and Darrien Sherman, with mentor/supervisor Rebecca Starr (second from right)

“No two days are the same,” said Darrien Sherman, 22, the only Ramah Fellow from Detroit. She grew up in Bloomfield Hills and Congregation Shaarey Zedek and graduated from U-M. The other Ramah Fellows are Eli Jacober, 23, of Oakland, Calif., and Hillel Buechler, 23, of Dix Hills, N.Y.

Sherman works with Congregation Beth Shalom and Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Jacober with Adat Shalom Synagogue and Congregation B’nai Moshe, and Buechler with Congregation Beth Ahm and Congregation B’nai Israel. They’ve also worked with the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.

Starr said the fellows have given a face to Camp Ramah, where local enrollment has been declining in recent years. For 2014, enrollment is up.

The enrollment boost may be due in part to a half-off tuition offer for first-time campers, part of the Davidson Foundation grant. But parents are learning about the discount from the Ramah Fellows.

Buehler said he and Jacober were amazed at how vibrant the Detroit Jewish community is and how much support it offers to educational programs.

Detroiter Sherman is seeing the community from a different perspective.

“It’s nice to come back to the community that was part of raising me and to be able to give back,” she said.

Ambassadors’ Goals
Amitai Tzuriel, 21, one of the Steinsaltz Ambassadors, says his program’s motto is “let our people know.”

“Rabbi Steinsaltz believes we all have to take a step forward in learning and Jewish involvement,” he said.

Tzuriel, who comes from Ma’ale Adumim, and his colleague, Ido Sinchon, 23, from Tekoa, arrived here in September and, like the Ramah Fellows, they will be here through the end of the school year. They’ve been working primarily at Akiva Hebrew Day School, but they’ve also done programs with students at Adat Shalom and Wayne State University’s Hillel.

“We teach Judaic studies and do informal education,” Tzuriel said. “We try to provoke questions and get the students to think about what we do as Jews. We want them to feel that whatever practice or tefillah (prayer) we’re talking about is something that belongs to them personally.”

Rabbi Tzvi Klugerman, head of school at Akiva, said, “They bring a higher level of knowledge and training to the job. They have brought a passion and level of engagement with Torah that has made a noticeable difference in their interactions with the whole school from the Early Childhood Center through the high school.”

They also bring that passion to adults who want to learn with them, Klugerman said.

Tzuriel teaches Torah and Hebrew to small women’s groups. One meets at Young Israel of Oak Park and the other in a private Oak Park home. He’s starting a third class, in kabbalah, at a home in Huntington Woods.

“We’re available for anyone who wants to learn in an open and free environment,” Tzuriel said.

Anyone interested can contact the program administrators through its website, www.letourpeopleknow.org. 

 By Barbara Lewis | Contributing Writer