The Gift of (and to) Ranch Camp
Although summer at JCC Ranch Camp began with a notable amount of rain – and adverse weather in general – it would take more than hail warnings and flash flooding to dash the buoyancy each and every staff member and camper felt at being back at Camp.
Per usual, camp activities ranged from horseback riding to art projects; mornings at the ropes course were followed by afternoons spent splashing in the pool. Friendships were born, memories were made, and lives were changed for the better.
But Ranch Camp is about more than just basking in summer fun (and staying hydrated, which is something you’ll hear Camp Director Ryan Bocchino playfully shouting into the camp-wide intercom for all to hear). A summer at the Ranch is a unique opportunity for campers of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs to learn about Jewish life, connect with Judaism in a new (or familiar) way, and learn about the timeless traditions and values that make up the foundation of Ranch Camp.
Jewish life at Ranch Camp looks like you’d expect – and perhaps, sometimes comes from unexpected places. Each week, campers attend Shabbat service at Eddie’s Corner, a beautiful grove just on the outskirts of the main campus. A rotating Judaics activity is also available on a day-to-day basis for campers interested in participating. Signs and directions are posted throughout camp in Hebrew, and values such as Kavod (respect) and Kehila (community) can be seen embodied in every interaction between campers and staff alike.
This summer, Jewish life at Ranch Camp became even more impactful.
“It was a series of wonderful coincidences,” says Rabbi Irv Elson, when asked how he came to know and affect change at Ranch Camp. A Chaplin in the military for 35 years, Rabbi Elson now dedicates his passion to the JWB Jewish Chaplain’s Council.
“JWB is an organization that creates meaningful Jewish life for Jews in the military. We work with rabbis, the department of defense, veterans, and so many other entities,” Rabbi Elson elaborated, all in the effort to protect the rights, promote spiritual fulfillment, and foster community for the countless Jewish individuals and families in the military.
Part of JWB’s mission is to connect members of the military with nearby JCCs.
“As part of that effort, I went to visit the US Airforce Academy in Colorado Springs. Since I was in the area, I also stopped by JCC Denver to raise awareness about JWB and our mission – one of which is to give scholarships to children of Jews serving in the military, so that they can attend JCC summer camps.”
When JCC CEO Mike Sophir heard about this, you can imagine his answer: “Well, we have a GREAT camp!”
And so was hatched a plan for Rabbi Elson to visit Ranch Camp, and the Ranch Camp staff to visit and tour the nearby Airforce Academy in the Springs.
“The visit to the Airforce Academy was wonderful, and as one of the coincidences, Ryan Bocchino and I got to discussing Jewish Life at Ranch Camp,” Rabbi Elson recounts animatedly. “He mentioned one of the things Ranch Camp has a hard time with is finding a Torah to have at camp. And I said, ‘Well, we have plenty of those!’”
JWB has over 100 Torahs that were recovered during WWII, by Chaplains who would find them in liberated towns and cities. After the war, the Chaplains brought them back to the JWB, and they are now placed in different bases, on military ships, make regular appearances in the spiritual journeys of so many Jewish people across the world. In addition, JWB has several “extra” Torahs which are waiting to be homed.
“I said, ‘We would be glad to donate – give on permanent loan – a Torah to JCC Ranch Camp.’”
With the dedication of the Torah from Rabbi Irv Elson and JWB, campers at Ranch Camp will be able to interact with a Torah that is steeped in meaning and history.
“It was such a fun, special day where we were really able to celebrate Judaism in and out of camp, all in one moment,” recounts Ryan Bocchino, Director of Ranch Camp. “Rabbi Elson…knew how to make our community laugh and was able to have some fun with the dedication. It was really special to have the kids engaged in the service and the kids present in the dedication, with each unit able to make an ‘aliyah’ (going up) to the Torah and being able to be present for each reading of the three segments of the week’s ‘parsha’ (torah portion).” Even from the moment of its arrival, the new addition to Ranch Camp had a profound impact.
But wait, there’s one more miraculous coincidence.
Rabbi Elson continued, “Once we got to the camp for the dedication, we were walking out to the area where they have the services, called Eddie’s Corner. I asked who Eddie was. Turns out, he had been a camper at Ranch Camp who was later killed in action in Vietnam.” For Rabbi Elson, this was all he needed to hear.
“It was so special to have a military Torah dedicated to that camp, in that place. Most campers didn’t know the story themselves, so the dedication gave us the chance to provide context, tell Eddie’s story, and the incredible stories of the countless Jews currently serving in the military.”
“Since 1776, the American Jewish community has sent some of the best and brightest of our sons and daughters to serve in the military. It is my hope that, as the young people at Ranch Camp do their worship, they can keep in mind the kids – not much older than themselves – who are out there defending our nation.”