In the wake of what, for me at least, was a jarring roller-coaster of an election season, and one that produced a significant amount of anxiety about the fabric and future of our American democracy, I have found myself doing serious reflection on whether and how a place I have called home for twenty-five summers, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, can calm my nerves. Camp is my home because it is a place that has embraced me emotionally while challenging me intellectually and inspiring me spiritually; I believe and hope that it has played that role for many others. In this spirit, I share some perspectives on the lessons I take away from my relationship with Ramah, lessons I hope resonate with you as parents, campers, staff members, alumni, and any other combination that makes you a member of our Ramah Wisconsin family.
It took me until I had the great honor of co-officiating at a wedding of one of my first campers to realize that our synagogue at camp, the Ohel Yitzhak, a beloved space for generations of Ramahniks, is designed like a chuppah, a wedding canopy. The rectangular shape of the central part of the sanctuary, its thick wooden pillars, coupled with the vaulted ceiling far above and the panoramic view of the woods through the ubiquitous windows is a clear echo of the chuppah which is itself supposed to represent the open home of our founding ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. Our mission is to welcome in Jewish children and young adults with diverse backgrounds and beliefs, from diverse places, and to forge a community together based on a sense of shared priorities and a commitment to sacrifice part of our idealized visions for the world so that we can all live in harmony together. We draw campers and staff from across political and religious spectrums, and we embrace the difficult but holy task of creating a space and time where everyone feels comfortable to express their opinions and learn from each other.
A number of years ago, we developed four core values of Ramah in Wisconsin, and they have never been more resonant to me than over the last months and as I face the weeks ahead.
- קהילה קדושה – kehillah kedoshah / holy community
Our camp community is a Divine community, sharing in the special nature that God ascribes, in the Torah, to Shabbat, to the Land of Israel, to the People Israel, and to Godself. Like other holy communities, we care for and support each other, and we embrace and build our identity on the precept that we are stronger together than apart.
- בצלם אלוהים – b’tzelem elohim / in the image of God
As the Mishnah teaches us, one of the reasons that God created a single human being is that, as those created in the image of God, none of us should be able to say: “My ancestor is greater than yours.” Each and every human being is a reflection of the Divine essence and possesses the great potential that accompanies that great responsibility. We embrace difference and diversity not for its own sake, but because each and every member of the Ramah community is of equal and supreme worth.
- בשבילי נברא העולם – bishvili nivra ha’olam / for my sake was the universe created
That same section of the Mishnah goes on to state that each and every one of us are, in fact, a version of Adam, and that in such we should acknowledge and embrace the idea that for our sake the entire universe was created: we are that important. At camp, we strive to not only accept individual difference and general diversity, we also value each and every individual as meriting all that went into creating the entire universe. We embrace our campers and staff for who they are, and we strive to help them realize how valuable they are to us, to God, and to themselves.
- תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם – talmud torah k’neged kulam / learning Torah is the equivalent of them all
We are but mortals, and need constant intellectual sustenance to improve who we are and to better understand our world. With an understanding of Torah that spans the breadth of intellectual curiosity, we embrace the intellectual exercise of engaging in the study of ideas, the unfolding carpet of knowledge in every generation, and the unique adrenaline rush of vigorous discourse with a peer. Camp is a place where we are constantly stimulated intellectually, where study and dialogue sit at the center of our universe. Many Rabbinic teachings present the act of “Talmud Torah,” of learning, as being equivalent in value to the rest of long lists. The message is clear: without an open mind and a commitment to fuel that mind, we have nothing else. That statement is perhaps the clearest distillation of our founders’ and leaders’ belief in what would make Camp Ramah in Wisconsin a unique summer camp, and why it remains so to this day.
Shabbat Shalom, Jacob