What is it about Camp Ramah?
Specifically, what is it about Camp Ramah’s theater program? A bunch of Jewish teens performing simplified Hebrew translations of classic musicals can apparently lead to the Great White Way. And this isn’t about a lone example—there is soon to be three different Camp Ramah alumni on Broadway at the same time—all of them in leading roles.
For one, Caissie Levy (Ramah Canada) is set to belt “Let It Go” as Elsa in Frozen starting in the spring. Ethan Slater (Ramah New England) is getting his big break as the titular character in the stage adaptation of Spongebob Squarepants this November (yes, it’s actually supposed to be good). And if Tony winner Ben Platt (Ramah California) is still starring in Dear Evan Hansen several months from now, that will be three Ramahniks at once. So what gives? What’s in the water, or bug juice, or whatever the heck it is they drink at Camp Ramah?
“Camp is a place where the arts are cherished and artistic talent is prized and cool,” says Ben Goldberg, who was Rosh Drama at Ramah Poconos 2013-2014. “It’s also a freeing environment for many children to try something new and take a risk, like singing in Hebrew in front of the whole camp.”
Goldberg recalls how students who would never audition for a show in English would participate in Hebrew-language productions. He says it “has the unintended consequence of making it less risky to participate, since no on understands anyway.”
(I didn’t go to sleepaway camp, but the drama teacher of my Jewish Day School was a Rosh Drama at Ramah a long time ago. Having been in both her Hebrew and English language productions in High School, I can only describe her approach as intense, but in an encouraging democratizing sort of way that could get talent from an ordinary nerd like blood from a very awkward adolescent stone.)
While Ramah does love to brag on its famous alumni, talk to any Ramahnik and you’re likely to get fond reminiscences of, say, the time the camp made the questionable experience to produce Hairspray with no black cast members. But even the former campers who have made it big talk about camp as a formative experience. Caissie Levy, for example, who has been in starring roles on Broadway for several years now, wrote about her camp experiences back in 2009: “Ramah, in general, was a musical place and that really influenced me. Whether we were singing birkat hamazon, davening Shabbat Minhah, or having an oneg in the hadar, there was always song. That had a big impact on me.”
And Ben Platt? He went on late night TV to actually sing a bit of his Hebrew cover of “Luck Be A Lady.” And back in 2015, he and Levy appeared in concert together at the Jewish Theological Seminary to benefit Ramah’s arts program.
But Platt represents what Goldberg thinks might be the strongest part of a correlation between Ramah and later fame: class.
“Jewish summer camp is a luxury good,” he says. “Parents who can afford it for their children are likely to be the kind who will support their children’s decision to go into the arts, including bankrolling the years before their kids ‘make it.’”
Certainly, Platt would be the prime example—his father Marc is a prominent theater and film producer. In fact, father and son were both Tony nominated this past year (Papa Platt produced Indecent). Ben was as well-connected as any actor to ever step into an audition room.
But regardless of whether it’s talent alone, or talent plus money plus stage parents that puts these kids over the top, it’s pretty neat to have proud Jewish camp alumni onstage. And in a few months, they’re going to be both Spongebob and Elsa. It’s like the roster of a kindergartener’s dream team come to life. Plus, Spongebob and Elsa can both sing classic Broadway musicals in Hebrew.
Update: We heard from a reader that there is a current Ramahnik on Broadway: Rachel Katzke (Ramah Nyack and Berkshires) is in the cast of The School of Rock. While she had to take off most of the summer from camp so she could perform, she was able to come back to camp for one week. She wears her Ramah backpack to all her performances.
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Gabriela Geselowitz is a writer and the former editor of Jewcy.com.