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Camp Ramah’s rainmaker

David Engleberg, pictured in front of his cigar shop (Photo: Lucia De Giovanni)WHAT do fine cigars and a brand-new Jewish summer camp have in common?

Absolutely nothing, would be the perfectly logical answer.


There is indeed common ground between these two disparate topics, in the form of one David Engleberg, a Denver businessman and Jewish community activist.

At this stage of Engleberg’s life, fine cigars and summer camps are primary, if polar opposite, interests. He approaches both with a thoughtful enthusiasm that well complements his soft-spoken, low-key personality.

Not to mention a touch of wry humor.

Asked whether he might find a nexus between camp and cigar — a way for one to benefit the other — Engleberg laughs.

“Yeah,” he says, “my goal would be to have a bunch of kids up there smoking cigars, enjoying the Jewish experience.”

In other words — no such nexus is possible.

Which doesn’t mean for a moment that Engleberg is giving less than 100% to each pursuit.

FIRST, the camp.

Engleberg’s interest in Camp Ramah in the Rockies dates back 12 years, when he assumed the chairmanship of the project’s board of directors, a position he has held ever since.

The effort to develop a Colorado branch of the Conservative movement’s venerable camping system has been Engleberg’s pet project since the idea was first introduced to him by Ismar Schorsch, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Schorsch pointed out to Engleberg the irony that Colorado — “the most likely place for a camp, for the outdoor experience” — did not have a Camp Ramah. Engleberg wasted no time in getting the project off the ground.

A Salt Lake City native and Denver resident since 1992, Engleberg  has served as the camp’s main fundraiser from the beginning. That effort has so far raised some $2.5 million, enough for the camp to be operational by this summer, when it will host an expected 100 campers in what Engleberg calls a “rustic experience.”

Camp participants will live in tents and share Shabbos in a central facility in a program emphasizing outdoor activities and environmental education, all presented within a Jewish context.

Located near Deckers, Colorado on land originally intended to become the community’s Flying J ranch, Ramah in the Rockies held a grand opening last year and provided basic training for young people who will serve this year as camp counselors.

“Much of the infrastructure is in place although what’s there is rudimentary,” Engleberg says of the new camp.

“We’re having a large camp experience there, called Ramah Outdoor Adventure Camp, where kids from all over the country are coming to experience outdoor living, ecology and living as Jews in that kind of atmosphere. They’re excited about it. They can’t wait to come and have a four or eight week experience living a Jewish lifestyle in a living camp.”

The long-term goal is to build permanent cabins at Ramah, Engleberg says.

“Depending on the build-out, we need between 10 and 20 million dollars more, long-term. I would love to have it done next year but given the state of the economy, it’s going to take us longer. The fact of the matter is we’re able to have a camp this year, and we’ll have a camp next year, with what we have available right now.”

Engleberg says his passion for Jewish camping is a logical extension of his philosophy of Jewish community involvement. Shortly after coming to Denver, he served as campaign chair for the Allied Jewish Federation. Not long after that he was elected chairman of National Jewish Medical Center.

“That was a very meaningful period in my life,” says Engleberg, explaining that his experiences at both institutions taught him not only the nuts and bolts of Jewish community organization but the importance of community involvement and leadership.

“Camp Ramah is certainly a passion of mine in that I know what it can do for future adults,” he says.

“The kids who go through Camp Ramah become very interested in Israel and Judaism. They’re going to be the future leaders of American Jewry. That’s very important to me.”

His admiration of Jewish camping is not based on his own experience as a camper, Engleberg adds.

“I never had the opportunity to go to a Jewish camp, but all four of my children went to Camp Ramah [in Wisconsin and California],” he says.

“It’s been such a meaningful part of their lives. Most of their closest friends are kids that they went to camp with. There’s this whole large circle of Jewish kids all around the country that are Ramahniks. They’ve very close. Israel and Judaism have become central parts of their lives because of Ramah.”

While he has nothing against trips to Israel or any other youth-oriented Jewish programming, Engleberg is most enthusiastic about camping because of the pervasive nature of the experience.

“My kids went to Camp Ramah for six or seven years each, for eight weeks every summer,” he says.

“Not only do you talk about living a Jewish life, you actually experience living a Jewish life. You come home and you don’t even know what you’ve learned or what you did there, but it starts to become ingrained in you.

“You start to understand the importance of Shabbos, of having a kosher home, the whys and wherefores. You become sensitive to other people, since a major part of the camp is understanding how other people feel.

“I think it’s the best experience a young person can have to learn why Judaism is important.”

NEXT, the cigars.

Since last July, Engleberg has been the owner and sometimes operator of Capitol Cigars, a retail store at 919 East Colfax in Capitol Hill.

It represents the latest chapter in the business side of his life.

A graduate of the University of Utah (BA and MBA), Engleberg, 61, ran the Salt Lake City operations of Frontier Community Health Plans before working for the firm in California.

After moving to Denver, he has worked both in healthcare and real estate, developing residential and commercial properties here.

“For the last 12-15 years, I’ve been concentrating mostly on real estate,” he says, “but for the last two years, real estate has been dead. Nobody is concentrating on real estate.”

Although he has been a lifelong cigar smoker, like his father before him, Engleberg admits that going into the retail cigar trade wasn’t actually in his plans.

“I got involved in the cigar store through a long involved process that I won’t bore you with. Basically, the fellow that owned it prior to me owed me some money and in order for me to recover my loan, I had to purchase the rest of the inventory. One thing led to another and pretty soon I’m operating a cigar store.”

At the moment, Engleberg is viewing the cigar business as a temporary arrangement, a shelter from the economic storm.

“I need to keep busy and do something during this interim period that I hope doesn’t go on forever,” he says. “I’d like to go back to do something with real estate. In the meantime, I come here every day and make sure that things are going as smoothly as they can go.”

Capitol Cigars sells an amazingly wide variety of cigars, priced from modest to amazing. Engleberg is learning more of the nomenclature and expertise every day.

“All the employees who work here are much more familiar with and knowledgeable about different cigars. We have a good staff which can help anybody buy cigars.

“Although I’ve smoked cigars all my life, I’m not an expert. I never really got involved in all the minutiae and academics of smoking. I just was a cigar smoker.”

Although he admits to occasionally smoking “bad cigars” in the past, Engleberg says he’s learning to smoke like a connoisseur.

“As I get older, I find that smoking a cigar is a very nice experience,” he says. “It’s supposed to be relaxing, it’s supposed to be an enjoyable event so now I try to smoke a better cigar.”

He adamantly denies the notion that cigar smoking is an anachronistic practice from the distant past.

“There are still plenty of people who like to put a cigar in their mouth — a $2 cigar or a $20 cigar — and just enjoy it,” he says. “We have judges who come in here, lawyers, doctors and occasionally street people. It’s a wide and varied group of people who still smoke cigars.”


“I’m trying to get them,” Engleberg says. “I’m using word of mouth and advertising. Many Jews smoke cigars, but the problem is they don’t all buy from me.”

Both men and women?

“I would say it’s almost exclusively men, but there are some women — maybe one or two percent.”


“We have the spectrum, from 21 to 85.”

Regardless of their demographics, Engleberg’s customers tend to be well-informed about their habit and often quite particular about their favorite cigar. In that sense, they are rather like those who become aficionados of such things as craft beers, exotic coffees and fine scotch.

“It all depends on your taste,” Engleberg says. “Some people like a real strong cigar, some people like a milder cigar. To some people, the shape of a cigar is more important than the taste.

“For me to tell you what you’ll enjoy is very difficult. If you give me some parameters, I can point you to a cigar that you’ll enjoy.”

Finally, Engleberg is asked whether selling cigars — in this era of virulent anti-tobacco sentiment — is a politically correct thing to do.

“Is it politically incorrect to sell alcohol?” he asks. “Is it politically incorrect to sell marijuana? Is it politically incorrect to sell tobacco? They all seem to be legal.”

Although he is “occasionally” given grief  by haters of smoking, Engleberg is undeterred, if not openly defiant.

“I believe in personal freedom and individual choice,” he says. “While oftentimes the choices we make are not the best choices for us, we still have that right. I don’t believe an occasional cigar is going to hurt anybody. In fact, one of my asthma physicians occasionally bums a cigar off me.”

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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