The opening verses of this week’s Torah reading (Deuteronomy 26:1-11), from parashat Ki Tavo, are the ritualized, lyrical retelling of Jewish history. Originally intended to be recited in the Temple during the holiday of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), the Rabbis borrow them and transform them into one of – if not the – central pillars on which the entire Passover Seder rests. Though often overshadowed by the longest aliyah in the Torah, the tochechah (curses) that we read later on in Ki Tavo, these opening verses demand our attention. They represent, for the Israelites approaching the end of their fortieth year in the desert, the soon-to-be-realized dream their ancestors have nurtured for generations: to inherit the land first promised to Abraham. The commandment and description of the ritual of the first fruits highlights how close we are to the end of the Torah and how far away the Israelites still are from being established enough, militarily and agriculturally, to make the ritual a reality. It is striking that in the proverbial “calm before the storm,” awaiting the entrance into the Promised Land, we are given this glimpse of gratitude and memory.
For camp and for us as Jews, we sit now in an in-between time of the year. In our office we are still processing and evaluating the summer, following up with parents and staff, while simultaneously working to lay the groundwork for next summer and the over 250 campers already enrolled for 2016. As Jews, the month of Elul preceding the high holidays is the last month of the year and also a month of preparation for the reckonings of judgment and celebrations of joy just around the corner. Standing here, as it were, between 5775 and 5776, it is time, too, for gratitude and remembrance.
At this in-between moment, I want to recognize two tremendous partners of mine and supporters of the camp, in disparate ways, who sit at an in-between time as well. As many of you know, Yael Bendat-Appell will be stepping down from her full-time duties as Assistant Director at the end of September. She will be staying involved at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin moving forward on a part-time, year-round basis. Yael’s work with our staff and campers over the first three summers of my directorate has helped push the camp in fruitful and positive new directions; her support and guidance to me as a trusted adviser, colleague, and friend has been invaluable. Yael has brought an outside lens to the work we do at Ramah Wisconsin, helping us appreciate who we are and how we do things while nudging us to be better versions of ourselves. She has formed deep connections with our camper families and staff members,especially with the members of the hanhalah (senior leadership team) over the last three summers who have come to rely on her wisdom and guidance. At our final staff meeting the last week of camp, we heard from a number of senior staff who reflected movingly on the ways Yael has served as a role model and mentor to them as educators, caretakers, women, and leaders. The innovations and successes of the past few summers would have been impossible without Yael, and on behalf of our community I express to her our deep thanks for her work as Assistant Director and our excitement for what lies ahead.
Seventeen summers ago I arrived at camp as an overeager junior counselor. In those first few days of what would be a challenging summer for me as I grappled with the dual obstacles of adolescent ambition and inexperience, I encountered one of the individuals who would help usher me through my counselor summers and serve as one of the most important guides along my personal and professional trajectories, Staff Trainer Nina Harris. Nina, who had been my father’s camper when he was a Rosh Aidah (division head) in the late ’70s, was returning to camp for the first time in about fifteen years, and neither one of us could imagine that seventeen years later we would still be working together – and I look forward to extending that streak in 2016 and beyond. During that first summer on staff I also have some fleeting memories of Nina’s husband, Arnie, brand new to camp, driving around on a golf cart. Over the ensuing ten years, as both the Harrises and I kept returning to camp summer after summer, we developed deep relationships professionally and as friends. Arnie morphed from the “guy on the golf cart” who occasionally gave out snacks into a dedicated board member, the chair of our Milestone Campaign, and, for the last four years, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s President. As Arnie steps down from that position as of October 1, we know that he will continue to be involved, meticulously and fiercely advocating for the camp that, since 1999, he has adopted as if he grew up swimming in Lake Buckatabon and dancing on the Kikar, and that he has led, tirelessly and wondrously. One of the essential things that makes Camp Ramah in Wisconsin unique is the peerless partnership between our professional and lay leadership; Arnie has long-established himself as heir to that mantle that so many legends of our communities have held before him, and that will continue with his successor Jon Sherman. Arnie, the challenges and opportunities of the last ten years – the building projects, leadership transitions, economic crisis, and more – were made manageable by you, your lay colleagues and our donors. Our Ramah community will be eternally grateful. Thank you, as well, for all you and Nina have done to support and nurture me, and for the privilege of working with you as Director.
As we continue to look back and unpack the memories and impacts of our 2015 season, our thoughts turn to the year ahead of us. Who will experience Ramah in Wisconsin for the first time, like Yael and Arnie once did, and contribute immensely? Who will feel the impact of the vibrant Jewish living that begins in the summer and radiates across a lifetime? Who will become part of our stories, of narratives of thanks and remembering? We look forward to the year ahead as one that will enable us to further expand our reach, and to celebrate what we have achieved. For the first fruit ritual dictates, upon the conclusion of recounting our history and giving thanks to God for the bounty the land has provided us: ושמחת בכל הטוב / v’samachta b’chol hatuv / and rejoice in all the good.
Jacob Cytryn, Director