Thank you to

  • Rabbi Joel Alter from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America
  • Rabbi Michael Cohen from Beth Hillel Congregation B’nai Emunah in Wilmette, IL
  • Tamar Cytryn from Chicago Jewish Day School in Chicago
  • Rabbi David Russo and Rabbi D’ror Chankin-Gold from Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago
  • Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein from Moriah Congregation in Deerfield, IL
  • Professor Ben Sommer from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America
  • Rabbi Aaron Weiniger from Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, MN

for joining us for a visit this week!

In this week’s parashah (Torah portion), Eikev, we read one of the verses from the Torah that is most familiar to our campers and staff:  ואכלת, ושבעת, וברכת את ה’ אלהיך, על הארץ הטובה אשר נתן לךv’achalta, v’savata, uverachta et adonai elohecha, al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lach.  “And you shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God for the good land that [God] has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:10)

From this verse the Rabbis build ברכת המזוןbirkat hamazon, the blessings we recite after meals.  Acknowledging our mortal need for physical nourishment, we thank God for our food.  At camp, nearly every day our campers recite these blessings three times, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  And, while most of the tune we use to sing the entire birkat hamazon is familiar to others, Ramah Wisconsin has the longstanding tradition of reciting this specific verse, found near the end of the second blessing, the same way we chant it in the Torah reading this week.  It is one of the distinct aspects of our unique culture, one that, in musically highlighting the Biblical antecedent for the commandment and the centerpiece of the blessings themselves, underscores our commitment to not just fulfill ritual obligations but to help our campers understand why we do things and how our practices came to be.

As we approach the last weekend of the summer, this verse has been on my mind.  The way the Torah lays out this concept fascinates me:  we do not have to bless God for eating; we bless God for eating and being satisfied.  Our act of thanksgiving emerges not from feeling that we have received that which we need, but something more, a satiated feeling indicating we have eaten all that we want, or nearly so.

On Monday, our campers return home after the summer.  They will, in all likelihood, be exhausted, in the earliest phases of processing the experience they have just completed.  There will be laundry to do.  And, I adamantly believe, they will return home having been intellectually, emotionally, religiously, and spiritually fed for the time they spent with us.  With a little bit of luck, they will be satiated.  So, in the spirit of this week’s parashah, let us give thanks for the sustenance we have been given and for the feeling of fullness we have at the end of the summer.

I begin with vignettes and moments from the last week and the entire summer.  I am thankful for:

  • Our youngest current campers, the Halutzim (6th grade) whom, unbeknownst to them, have spent the last few weeks showing the rest of camp, and reminding many of us, how much fun it is to fall in love with Ramah.
  • Having been able to listen to and witness the rousing musical t’filot(services) this morning that our Solelim (7th grade) made their own this summer, under artist-in-residence Josh Warshawsky.
  • The Shoafim (8th grade) camper who says “Hi” every time she sees me.
  • The Tikvah (special needs) camper who reaches out to shake my hand four or five times a day.
  • Staff members of all ages and backgrounds who make my favorite hour of the week, a pre-lunch Shabbat learning session with our scholar-in-residence, provocative and dynamic enough to keep many of us around the circle thinking until next summer.
  • Committed campers in Machon (10th grade), Nivonim (11th grade), and our staff who will have added beautiful new public Jewish artwork to our growing collection by the end of the summer.  They did what many others before them had done – they had an idea; and they impressively took those ideas and made them happen, all the way until the end.
  • Powerful stories of individual families and campers that help make up the rich kaleidoscope and quilt of our diverse community.
  • The Bogrim (9th grade) campers who approached me to ask questions about expectations and experiences in high school as they prepare for their own high school journeys which commence in a few weeks.
  • The opportunity to have watched so many of our staff members grow into such amazing human beings over parts of the twenty-four summers I have been at camp.
  • All the dancers last night in our Rikudiyah (dance festival), and our dance staff for creating an infectious and awesome culture of dancing this summer.
  • Two Atzmayim (Vocational Program) participants who provide the best soundtracks in camp.

And continue with a macrocosmic sense of what it takes to create a summer at Ramah Wisconsin.  Thanks to:

  • You!  The parents, grandparents, and relatives of our campers who choose to send your campers to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and who partner with us to care for your children and promote the shared values we have.  Thanks as well to the parents of the over 190 campers already enrolled for our 2016 summer!
  • Our amazing staff members who serve in loco parentis during the summer, caring for our campers 24/7, creating and maximizing opportunities for fun and joy, building their self-esteem, developing their independent living and social skills, teaching them about Judaism andmentschlichkeit, serving as Jewish educators and role models for our campers.
  • All who help pay for a summer at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin: family members, friends, community foundations, Jewish federations, synagogues, and over 1100 individual donors.  With two months left in our fiscal year, we remain $75,000 short of reaching our fundraising goals – please consider donating here – as a great way to say thank you to your child’s staff member(s) and to help ensure that no child is turned away from a summer at Ramah for financial reasons.
  • The dozens of colleagues from synagogues, schools, and other partner organizations whom we have had the pleasure of welcoming to camp this summer and whom we have publicly thanked at the top of the Director’s Letter each week throughout the summer.  The Rabbis, Educational Directors, Youth Directors, School Principals, Faculty, and Teachers whom help direct children and families to a Ramah experience make Ramah happen.  Their teaching and energy for Jewish life, in addition to other educational institutions who come to camp for specific programmatic purposes, help create the level of discourse and content-filled experienced that is our hallmark.
  • Our year-round professional staff who spend nine months working tirelessly to make camp happen in every way.  We do not take for granted working with colleagues who are true partners in crafting a vision and implementing it.
  • The lay leadership of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, especially our Executive Committee, whose partnership with the professional staff is second-to-none and creates a can-do atmosphere.  It is a pleasure to work with our lay leadership, to learn from them, and to call so many of them mentors and friends.

Finally, some personal thanks, to all the different campers from every aidah who evoke memories from the past, remind me of my friends and former campers, adding each day to the trove of camp memories I hold so dear.  To the senior educators who taught me new Torah this week, from surfacing an eternal tension in Jewish thought through identifying a scribal insertion in a Biblical text to a moving metaphor of raising objects up and letting them down.  To all the campers and staff who, whether they know it or not, help keep me sane and inspired.  And, finally, to my wife and sons who tolerate my absences over the summer as well as anyone could.

As we celebrate the final Shabbat with our campers this summer, we look forward to sharing with you next week excerpts from the Divrei Torah (interpretations of Jewish texts) about camp that members of our Nivonim (11th grade) will share with their aidah (division) and the entire camp this weekend.

Shabbat Shalom, Jacob

Suggested questions to ask your camper when they return home: Halutzim: What does it mean to be a “rainbow person”?  How have you been a rainbow person this summer? Solelim: How can we bring Shabbat traditions at camp back home? Shoafim:  Which tzedakah (righteousness) organization did you vote to support in our allocations meeting? Bogrim:  What was your favorite “new game” that you played this week? Machon: What memory did you share on “Footprints Day” on Wednesday? Tikvah:  What did you do on your yetziah(outing) this week? Nivonim:  What was your experience like in the maze during “Yom Laila” (all-night programming)? Atzmayim:  How was bowling last Monday night with staff members from camp?