My father-in-law, Rabbi Burton Cohen, passed away this morning in Chicago, the city of his birth, at the age of 93. He lived a life of great meaning and purpose, dedicated to the spiritual, educational, and communitarian values of the Jewish faith to which he was devoted. He was forever changed when, as a teenager, he went to the newly established Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. This was one of the great experiments of American Jewry, this summer sleepaway program and a few others across America.

They took the camping movement—then all the rage among those determined to improve the social and physical health of urban youth and introduce them to the pleasures of fresh air and open climes—and added philosophical and practical Zionism to it. The kids in attendance not only observed dietary laws and learned about Jewish texts. There was also a real sense that they were being trained to be citizens of the new Jewish state, so much so that for a few years efforts were made to compel everyone to speak Hebrew at all times. That did not last, but Ramah has survived and thrived for 76 years and that original camp has spawned ten others across the country. It is one of the backbone institutions of American Zionism, and given the horrors of the past year, its continued existence has never seemed more urgent or more necessary.

Burt spent his summers on the shores of Lake Buckatabon near the vacation town of Eagle River, Wisconsin. It was there he met his wife, Bobbie, with whom he would have three children and remain married for 57 years until her death in 2012. He made Ramah his life study and his profession. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1957 and became the director of Ramah Wisconsin in 1959. In 1973, he became the national director of the Ramah camp network, a position he held for 16 years before moving on to work full-time as a professor of education at JTS and the dean of its education department. His primary academic subject was the ways in which “informal” education of the kind provided by summer camps can complement and in some ways be more influential on the lives of those who experience it than classrooms and lecture halls.

Burt’s and Bobbie’s three children—Yehuda, Ilana, and my wife Ayala—were all Ramah Wisconsin campers. So, in his time, was Yehuda’s son Joe. Our three kids spent many summers there too, and our oldest will be a counselor for the third summer beginning in June. (And in a remarkable bit of what in Yiddish is called bashert, in 1949 Burt shared a sleeping porch with my father, then 19, who took his first trip outside the New York area to serve as the dramatics counselor at Ramah during the summer of 1949.)

My father-in-law was one of those unsung stand-up guys who gave far more in his life than he ever got, a man of genuine modesty and gentle spirit, who never said a bad word about anyone—and yet with his own quiet tenacity helped to build and expand a lasting and vibrant institution that has done nothing but good when it comes to helping young people make the connection to Judaism’s astonishing past, its tumultuous present, and its vitally important future. May his memory be for a blessing.

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