Seth Rich Memorial Camp Scholarship Fund Concert
Ozzie Nogg

According to the Foundation for Jewish Camp website, children with Jewish summer camp experiences are more likely to become adults who value their Jewish heritage, support Jewish causes, and take on leadership roles in their communities. To ensure that Omaha youngsters have the opportunity to add these essential connections to their lives, Beth El Synagogue presents Rising Stars of American Jewish Music: Banot and Noah Aronson. A Concert to Benefit the Seth Rich Memorial Camp Scholarship Fund. The event is scheduled for Sunday, March 26 at 4 p.m. at Beth El.

Twenty-seven year old Seth Rich, a rising star in the Democratic National Committee, was the victim of a still-unsolved homicide in Washington, DC, last summer. “We are honored that Seth’s memory is being recognized with the Camp Scholarship Fund,” said his parents, Joel and Mary Rich. “Seth enjoyed his years at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin so much. He and his buddies were always scheming as to what they would do bigger and better next summer — planning fun, crazy events where everyone could be involved and have a blast. It was at camp that Seth learned to work with others and respect and value their differences. Looking back on the twenty-seven years we were blessed to have with Seth, we smile when we remember the pranks and summers that he spent in camp. Camp helped make Seth who he was — a young man committed to making a difference. Helping others became a natural outgrowth of his Jewish camp experiences.”

A few days after Seth’s death, reporter Ari Feldman wrote in The Forward, “For Seth Rich, passion for service started with kosher cookouts at Camp Ramah. Strictly speaking, grilling food inside cabins has never been allowed, but for Seth the prohibition rarely got in the way of a late-night salami cook-in or a marathon grilled cheese-making session.” Ben Hofkin, Rich’s former counselor, added, “Seth had a whole kitchen in the cabin. They had a fridge for the meat, a separate grill for dairy, separate utensils. They were very serious about keeping it kosher.”

These anecdotes show that Judaism is more than a subject  found in a textbook or a practice confined to the synagogue, the seder table, or — to quote Beth El’s Hazzan Michael Krausman — “enjoyed at the Bagel Bin. At a Jewish Camp,” Krausman continued, “Judaism is a living, vibrant, evocative, growing experience. Be it dancing, singing, arts and crafts, meal time or even playing baseball, everything — every part of life — is a Jewish experience. My wife Laurel and I are both products of Camp Ramah. Our boys, Zev and Zach, have been ‘Ramahnicks’ since they were very young. They’ll tell you that they get their Jewish energy at camp and then give it to everyone back home. If you speak to kids who have attended a Jewish summer camp, they have a similar reaction and, like our boys, they can’t wait to go back for a ‘recharge’.”

Jay and Allison Gordman’s sons Preston and Spencer are  examples. Ten-year old Preston likes Camp Ramah, “because I meet new Jewish friends that I communicate with all year round. Going to camp makes me more connected to being Jewish. It’s an amazing place.” Spencer Gordman, aged 14, said, “I love being part of a family as close as Ramah. The relationships I make at camp with people around the world will stay with me forever. Also, I think the community really enjoys what we bring home from camp. Our newfound Jewish knowledge, ruach and understanding is very special. There is a certain aura at camp that stays with people for the rest of their lives.”

Other Beth El parents agree that Jewish summer camp experiences can be transformative. “Herzl Camp has been a life-changing place for our 13-year old daughter, Dina,” said Linda Saltzman. “Camp has strengthened her pride in her Jewish heritage, values and traditions. She and her camp friends share a connection that I firmly believe will be with them for a lifetime. Dina literally counts the days until camp from the moment she comes home.” According to Dina, “When I first see my friends at the bus stop, we’re all so excited to see each other, it’s like we were never apart. That’s probably because we text each other every day. The environment at camp is comforting because you can relate to other Jewish kids, and Shabbat is really fun because the prayers are upbeat. Camp is also fun because we pull lots of pranks. This one time we tied our counselors rooms together so they couldn’t open the door to get out. Herzl is one of my favorite places on earth. It’s like having a second home with all your best friends.” Melanie Schwarz, 13-year old daughter of Wayne Schwarz and Lori Kooper-Schwarz, is another Herzl fan. “Something new happens everyday,” Melanie said. “The activities schedule changes, and it’s fun to just go with the flow. Everything is so amazing, there’s no way you could have a favorite part. I love everything about Herzl.” Peyton Kelln was nine-years old when his parents, Heather and Mark Kelln, chose to send him to Camp Ramah. “In his first letter home,” Heather said, “Peyton wrote simply, ‘Dear Mom, I’m not dead. Love, Peyton,’ To us, few words equates to lots of fun. Peyton is twelve now, and Ramah continues to give him a place that encourages exploration of his Jewish identity while he makes friends from outside Omaha.”

For Jonathan Rich and his wife, Sheila, the March 26 concert to benefit the Seth Rich Memorial Camp Scholarship Fund will be bittersweet. “Seth was my cousin,” Jonathan explained. “When we send our boys, Zach and Alex, back to Camp Ramah this summer, the experience will carry even more significance.” Sheila Rich admits that, “I was not very excited to send my children away for two weeks their first year. The drop off and saying goodbye was very emotional for this mom. But each time we saw their pictures on the camp website, they were smiling, so I realized we made the right choice. Now I know they’re having a great time and when they come home they’re going to be just a little bit more grown up, more able to express their Judaism. After just a couple summers, their BESTT teachers told us that Zach and Alex went from participating in prayers to being leaders. Before going to camp, Alex said he didn’t really enjoy going to Shabbat morning services, but now he’s more confident in his skills and enjoys participating at Beth El. How great is that?”

Hazzan Krausman is quick to point out that, “Although we can sing lively melodies, have outdoor services and hold Jewish experiential programs in our synagogues and temples — all of which are extremely valuable — we cannot replicate that 24/7 love and strength of Jewish identity that comes naturally in a Jewish camp environment. It is therefore vital that we encourage our youth to attend summer camps, and also provide resources so that every child in our synagogue family — regardless of need — can receive a camp scholarship. Here at Beth El, the scholarship comes with a promise from the kids to provide a service to the synagogue when they return —  reading Torah and leading prayers, helping out with the Religious School, and assuming leadership roles in our USY and Kadimah Youth Groups. Last year we granted scholarships to over twenty-five youngsters. The monies raised at the March 26 Rising Stars of American Jewish Music Concert will help insure that our youth continue to receive pivotal Jewish camp experiences and become ambassadors of positive Jewish living.”

Concert Chairs for Rising Stars of American Jewish Music, a benefit for the Seth Rich Memorial Camp Scholarship Fund, are Mary and Joel Rich and Pam and Bruce Friedlander. Individual tickets and sponsorship opportunities are found at http://bethel-omaha.org. All giving levels include at least 2 concert tickets at no extra charge. Donations are tax deductible. For more information, please contact Hazzan Michael Krausman: hazzankrausman@bethel-omaha.org or call the Beth EL office at 402.492.8550.

In addition to Beth El’s Seth Rich Memorial Camp Scholarship Fund, co-workers, associates and friends from around the country who knew Seth and admired what he stood for have established the Seth Conrad Rich Memorial Endowed Scholarship at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin to assist a first time camper from a congregation of Beth El’s size to attend camp.

“Seth believed in making the most of each day and making the most of yourself,” Joel Rich said. “He wanted to create fun and laughter and to accomplish something that would help people. To make a positive change in their lives. His motto was, ‘Go big, go bold or go home.’ Funding scholarships in Seth’s name is only possible through the generosity of the members of our Beth El family, our friends in the Omaha Jewish community and the community at large. Celebrating life is what Seth wanted to do. The hole will always be there, but when we can think back to the legacy Seth left, that will comfort us as time goes by. We treasure your support.”