Ben Platt‘s Tony Award for best actor in a leading role in a musical on June 11 probably outstrips winning at color war at Camp Ramah in California. But those victories rank a close second for the openly and actively Jewish 23-year-old star of Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“Winning color war with the Adom (Red) Team was one of the biggest accomplishments of my whole life… I led Adom to Maccabiah victory… I’m proud of it, so I’m not going to stop talking about it,” Platt said in an interview at an April 2015 Camp Ramah alumni event in New York.
Platt, who grew up in Los Angeles, has performed professionally from age nine, with successes in films such as “Pitch Perfect” and “Pitch Perfect 2,” and on stage in blockbuster shows like “The Book of Mormon.” However, it was his summers at the Jewish summer camp in Ojai, California, through his teen years that in many ways made him the person he is today.
Although the camp’s musical productions (always in Hebrew) paled in comparison to others he starred in, this was compensated by the fact that Ramah was “the first place that I was allowed to decide for myself what kind of Jew I would be.”
The love Platt feels for Ramah is reciprocated. The camp community is bursting with pride, sharing, liking and commenting on social media posts about Platt’s big win. According to National Ramah Commission communications director Nancy Scheff, there is “tremendous excitement,” with posts about Platt’s Tony Award garnering the most shares and likes for any item ever posted by Ramah. A single item about Platt posted to the Reshet Ramah Facebook page targeted at Camp Ramah alumni alone was viewed by a record 71,000 people by Tuesday afternoon.
Platt’s Tony Award win comes just as Camp Ramah campers return to camp for this summer’s sessions. This year marks the 71st summer for Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism. More than 11,000 campers and staff are expected to participate over the next two months in Ramah’s nine overnight camps and five-day camps in North America, and its summer programs in Israel. A pioneer and leader in Jewish camping for children and teens with disabilities, Ramah operates Tikvah programs for campers with disabilities at all of its facilities.
Platt seems happy to plug Camp Ramah whenever given the opportunity. Last November he even sang some lines from “Guys and Dolls” — in Hebrew — for Seth Meyers in an interview on NBC’s “Late Night.”
“I played Sky Masterson four times in ‘Guys and Dolls’ in my childhood, and one of those was at my Jewish summer camp, Camp Ramah in California, and we do all of our productions there in Hebrew, so I can give you a little bit of ‘Luck Be A Lady,’ in Hebrew,” Platt told Meyers before bursting into song.
At the 2015 Camp Ramah alumni event, Platt said the musical aspect of camp was important to him and and his siblings, who are all musically talented. (Platt’s older sister Hannah Platt is currently the Program and Outreach Director at Camp Ramah in California.) But Ramah was even more crucial in helping him to develop his Jewish identity and figure out what aspects of Judaism meant the most to him.
“Obviously my family’s traditions are beautiful and I loved growing up in my family, but until I went to camp, everything was just what I was taught by the family, which is wonderful, but there comes a time when you need to figure out for yourself what is going to mean the most to you, and what will keep you connected to your Judaism,” said Platt.
“So going to camp and being your own person there, and learning how to socialize with all these other Jewish kids and discuss Judaism openly was a huge impactful thing for me, and that is kind of the reason that I am still very close to my Judaism,” he said.
The actor’s love for Camp Ramah is shared by all members of his family. He and all his four siblings went to Camp Ramah in California, and to Ramah Israel Seminar, a six-week trip to Israel for rising high school seniors. Photos on Platt’s Facebook page indicate that he opted to also go to Poland for 10 days with Ramah prior to arriving in Israel for Seminar in the summer of 2009.
Platt’s mother, Los Angeles Jewish community lay leader and philanthropist Julie Platt, is a past board chair of Camp Ramah in California. In a November 2015 interview with the Jewish Journal, Julie Platt, who grew up in a tiny Jewish community in Wichita, Kansas, said that her own most formative Jewish experience was attending Camp Ramah.
“It changed my life. I remember no place feeling more at home as a Jew than surrounded by that environment. For me, it was like Disneyland, because I didn’t have any Jewish kids around me in Wichita, so to go and make Jewish friends all summer long was just indescribable. I counted the minutes [during the school year] till it was time to go back,” she said.
Her son, too, considered his summers at Ramah an anchor in his life. Because he worked in theater from a young age, he was in and out of school during the academic year.
“The one constant was that every summer I would go to Camp Ramah. It was this continual sort of support system where I would go back every year to grow as a person. I felt like outside of camp I was trying things and experiencing things, and then I’d go back to camp and sort of workshop myself a bit more,” he said at the Ramah alumni event.
At the event, titled “From Camp Ramah to Broadway,” which also featured Camp Ramah alumna and Broadway actress Caissie Levy (who will star on Broadway in “Frozen” next year), Platt performed “Touch Me” from “Spring Awakening.” It was the song he sung as a teenager at the Ramah Israel Seminar talent show in Jerusalem in 2009.
“I remember that performance. We knew we were in the presence of someone going places. We have a lot of talent on Seminar, but I still remember Ben’s performance clearly all these years later. Everyone was on their feet when he was finished,” recalled Rabbi Ed Snitkoff, Ramah Israel Seminar director.
‘We knew we were in the presence of someone going places’
According to Snitkoff, there are some among the hundreds, if not thousands, of Seminar participants he’s met over the years, who stand out — and Platt is among them.
“He was a leader among his peers and a wonderful participant. When I think of him on the program, I remember how he always had a big smile on his face,” Snitkoff said.
Snitkoff is certain Platt’s outspokenness about his Jewish identity and quickness to share his Camp Ramah experiences is making a positive impression on current campers.
“He’s an inspiration to the kids,” the rabbi said.
Platt’s words and actions have also motivated Jewish educators like Snitkoff, who see in the Tony Award winner an example of what they strive to achieve through their work at camp and on Israel programs. Snitkoff gives much of the credit to kids’ families and communities, but is thrilled to play a part in helping shape young Jews like Platt.
“When I see Ben talking proudly about being Jewish and singing in Hebrew something he learned at Camp Ramah on national TV, it has me in tears. This is what keeps me going. It’s a source of energy to keep doing this job, to keep working in this profession of bringing kids to Israel,” Snitkoff said.
It’s especially poignant for Snitkoff to see Platt, who is from a Conservative family, reach a pinnacle in the world of secular culture.
“We [in the Conservative movement] educate Jewishly and Zionistically people who live in the general culture. We don’t want to separate ourselves [from the mainstream]. So in this way, Ben is a true role model,” he said.
For many young adults establishing their careers, summer camp and color war are a faint memory of summers past. But not for Ben Platt. His experiences at Camp Ramah taught him to “be part of a team and community that is bigger than yourself,” a lesson he takes with him into every production he works on — including the Tony Award-winning “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“I try to emulate the way that my Adom Team felt with every cast, because it’s this unified determination and drive for this common goal, and it’s a beautiful thing, and I definitely carry that with me,” Platt said.
These heartwarming sentiments not withstanding, one commenter on Camp Ramah in California’s congratulatory post about Platt’s Tony Award win had very practical considerations in mind.
“Someone better start working on the Hebrew version of ‘Dear Evan Hansen,'” he wrote.