Thank you to

  • Rabbi Steven Abraham from Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, NE, and his family
  • Rabbi Rebecca Ben-Gideon from the Madison Jewish Day School, and her family
  • Emily Briskman and Laura Cusack from the Israel Education Center of the JUF of Metropolitan Chicago
  • Rabbi Mitch Cohen, National Ramah Director
  • Rabbi David Glickman from Congregation Beth Shalom in Overland Park, KS
  • Dr. Lena Kushnir and Tami Warshawsky from the Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago, and their husbands
  • Julie Marder from CHUSY Region USY, and her family
  • Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose from Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis, MO, and his wife
  • Sarah Rosky from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
  • Dr. Rebecca Schorsch from the Chicagoland Jewish High School, and her husband
  • Sue Shrell Leon from Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, MN

for joining us for a visit this week!

In the first b’rachah (blessing) before the Shema, near the formal beginning of the morning (Shacharit) service, we read the phrase:  מה רבו מעשיך ה’ (mah rabu ma’asecha adonai) – How numerous, God, are your creations?

For many campers and staff over the last fifteen years, the slightly-too-loud chanting by one of our senior staff of this often-mumbled prayer was their first introduction to it.  For our new generation of campers, the words are part one of our favorite songs, a call-and-response melody written by veteran Rosh Aidah(Division Head) and one of our artists-in-residence this summer, Josh Warshawsky. The phrase itself is deliciously ambiguous – the Hebrew word רב (rav), from which we get the title “Rabbi,” can mean “many,” “great,” “strong,” “enough,” and “varied.”  The root of מעשיך, ע.ש.ה (asah), can mean “to do” or “to make.”  In other parts of our liturgy, we proclaim God’s shem rav – great name and ask for shalom rav – a sufficient (or encompassing?) peace for us and the world.  Rabot machashavot b’lev ish the Psalmist writes – many/varied are the thoughts in a human’s heart.  We pray of our ahavah rabbah – great love – for God.

In context, the phrase refers, quite clearly, to the natural world: the entire first blessing before the Shema is a celebration of the natural world with an emphasis on God’s creation of light which we appropriately recognize and proclaim every morning.  This is the first and most obvious meaning of mah rabu for us at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, proclaiming the awesomeness of our natural habitat.  For the trees, the bald eagles, the lake, the sunsets, the sunrises, the cloud formations, the stars:  mah rabu!

As if that were not enough – it surely is – mah rabu refers to more than the natural world we are blessed to appreciate and charged with protecting.  As we are reminded by the hymn L’cha Dodi which we sing as part of Friday night services: “sof ma’asei, b’machashavah t’chilah” – the final creation, the original thought.  Human beings are one of God’s great creations.  At camp, too, we celebrate the richness and diversity of the more than five-hundred fifty children who have taken up residence as campers this summer, the two-hundred-plus staff members, and the hundreds of guests.  We celebrate the diversity of our homes and families, synagogues and schools, hopes and dreams, talents and challenges.  We celebrate the diversity of ways we learn and act, of causes near and dear to our hearts, stories told about us and those we tell about ourselves.  As the Jewish community continues to evolve and develop throughout the Midwest, the entire United States, and abroad, we welcome and represent that diversity at Ramah, welcoming third generation Ramah campers alongside other children whose family’s Jewish journey has only recently begun.  As we live together in rustic cabins, somewhat disconnected from the outside world and her cultural demands, sharing space and resources with many others, we find time to proclaim, about ourselves and others:  mah rabu!

In an oft-overlooked section of the earliest chapters of Genesis, the Torah traces lines of genealogy that attribute the discovery of different ancient technologies to the earliest generations of humanity.  In Genesis 4:19-22, we learn that the creation story does not end with Adam, Eve, and the first Shabbat.  Rather, it continues, as humanity partners with God to continue developing the rudimentary components of civilization as laid out by the Torah:  shepherding, music, and metalwork.  From this we embrace the diversity of activities and programming at Ramah that helps shape our campers and staff as fully human, from the basketball court to a kayak, potter’s wheel to trombone.  And this week was quite a week for mah rabu as we experience it around camp:  a rich series of interactive programs on Wednesday including an exploration of personal feelings and expression inspired by the recent Pixar film Inside Out (for Halutzim/6thgrade), another celebrating diversity and the relative merits of conformism and non-conformism inspired by the Divergent series of books (Shoafim/8th grade), and a third exploring the consequences of Jewish power through a simulation of the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist attack and its consequences (Machon/10thgrade and part of Tikvah); a walk-off hit during a softball game and a missed buzzer-beater in a basketball game (both between Solelim/7th grade andShoafim); a phenomenal performance of A Chorus Line demonstrating the individual and collective talents and energies last night (Bogrim/9th grade); an amazing program for all female campers in camp where everyone learned a salsa dance; the performance of the Nivonim English play, an original piece of experimental Jewish theatre based on themes from Kohelet/Ecclesiastes; an intensive camping trip for a dozen members of Machon (10th grade) and Tikvahwho had opted to “major” in outdoor education during the first half of their summer.  To all these we say: mah rabu!

The energy will continue into the coming week as we enter a special period of programming for many of our aidot.  This weekend the combination of Shabbat and the commemoration of the fast of Tisha B’av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, when both Temples were destroyed in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.) will be filled with aidah-specific programming related to our summer-long theme:  “What does it mean to be a Zionist in 2015?”  In a number of the aidot, all the campers and staff share the responsibility of reading the scroll of Eichah(Lamentations), with each individual taking 1-2 verses to chant in the special melody.  We estimate that over two hundred campers will chant some part ofEichah during our communal reading on Saturday night or the aidah readings on Sunday morning.  On Monday, the Bogrim begin “Shavua Bogrim,” a week of specialty programming anchored by four clinics run by professionals in theatrical performance, creative writing, culinary arts, and outdoor education, and enhanced by their own counselors.  Also on Monday, Machon and some members of Tikvah depart on a four-day trip through the state of Wisconsin.  AsNivonim prepares for its musical next Thursday night, they will also begin, late in the week, a culminating project for themselves as campers and for our summer-long theme with renowned Israel educator Shalom Orzach.  Half of the Halutzimcampers will go on their camping trip next week, and special aidah projects for Solelim and Shoafim also continue.

These lists of highlights, deserving as they are of our exclamations of mah rabu!, actually serve  to obfuscate the true miracles that surround me as I write these letters each week.  They are the quieter moments of members of our music staff working with one or two campers on their flute lessons or first ukulele lesson, the sounds of Israeli music that accompany the Kikar dancing that engages so many of our campers – older and younger, male and female alike – Friday afternoon before lunch, and the walks I see campers taking with each other or with one of their counselors on the road past my office.

Ultimately, the words of mah rabu are meant to remind us of the “big wows” that we too often take for granted – the sunset, the miracle of life, the highlight – but also to remind us of the little moments that we barely even notice.  In these small moments are the miracles that build our relationships and our lives, the love shaped relentlessly, like a quiet stream carving its way through a mountain.  To the moments quiet and loud, emphatic and empathic, playful and serious, let us all appreciate another week, and another Shabbat:  mah rabu.

Shabbat Shalom, Jacob

Suggested questions to ask your camper early next week via e-mail: Halutzim: What was the theme of your Yom Emojscar (Emoji Day Oscars) video?  Which emotion did you get to pretend to be? Solelim: How does this week’s Torah portion relate to our own personal life narrative? Shoafim:  What faction was your child a part of during Yom Divergent? Bogrim:  How was A Chorus Line?  What did you enjoy on your Yitziah (outing)? Machon: What role did you have during the Simulation on Wednesday?  What did your group do? Tikvah:  How did you spend your day on Wednesday?  (Answers may include:  Tikvah Yom Meyuchad, Machon Simulation, Atzmayim Day Off, or Nivo Camping Trip) Nivonim:  Male campers:  What was a highlight of the camping trip?  Girl campers:  What was your favorite part of Y’mei Banot (Girls’ Days)? Atzmayim:  How can we be helpful to someone who is in mourning?