Reflections on T”u Bishvatby Jacob Cytryn, Director

This Shabbat, we read from parashat B’shallach, celebrate the holiday of T”u Bishvat, and celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.  We look forward to welcoming over 400 revelers to Morgan Manufacturing in Chicago’s West Loop.  More information is available here and walk-ins are welcome.

My remarks here this week will focus on T”u Bishvat and planting the seeds for the amazing 2017 season before us at Ramah in Wisconsin.  If you are interested in some of my thoughts about this weeks parashah and its connection to Ramah, please click here for a D’var Torah the Jewish Theological Seminary, under whose educational auspices we operate, published this week.

T”u Bishvat, the 15th day of the month of Sh’vat, is designated as the new year for fruit-bearing trees for the purposes of various tithing and counting laws.  Theoretically, it is a rough estimate of the period, on the Israeli calendar, at which point most of the rain will have fallen; a harbinger of the dry season and sprouting to come.  For many of us, it is a holiday to celebrate the natural world, to plant new trees, and to partake of various types of fruit and, specifically, produce that is native to Israel.

Though the first seeds of the 2017 summer were planted long ago – Ramah marriages and family traditions, Family Camp and Ruach Ramah participation, and the opening of enrollment in July 2016, just to name a few – my annual trip to Israel from January 23-February 2 represents a turning point as we begin to solidify a significant percentage of our staff, both new and returning.

During my ten days in Israel, I had the pleasure of spending time with 2015 and 2016 Rosh Eidah Daniel Warshawsky (Nivo ’09) as he was making his final preparations to be sworn into Chativat Hatzanchanim (The Paratrooper Brigade) in the Israeli Defense Forces as a chayal boded (lone soldier), and 2015 and 2016 Rosh Eidah Louisa Kornblatt (Nivo ’08) who is living and working in Tel Aviv after making aliyah in August of 2015.  I met with seven of our veteran staff currently spending gap years after high school learning in various settings, including United Synagogue’s Nativ College Leadership Program.  I met with two senior staff members who are part of the third cohort of the prestigious Nachshon Fellowship at Hebrew University, as well as Rosh Omanuyot Habamah (Director of Performing Arts) Josh Warshawsky (Nivo ’06) and Rosh Shirah (Head Songleader) Sam Blustin, both of whom are spending the year in Israel as part of their training at our movement’s Rabbinical schools.

I met for the first time our new Rosh Sport, Dedi Bitton, and his wife Rotem, and reconnected with long-time staff members, dear friends, and mentors such as Rabbi Ronnie and Minda Garr, Guy Eisenberg, and Hezi Mizrachi.  I spent significant time with Rosh Machon 2017 Daniella Elyashar, our new Program Director Gal Atia, and many of our veteran shlichim (Israeli staff members) at a Ramah movement-wide Shabbaton where we had the second largest delegation with 29 (!!) representatives.  I even got to spend quality time with Rabbi Aaron Melman of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook who will be in camp for a majority of the upcoming summer and happened to be in Israel as a part of a Jewish United Fund of Chicago’s mission, and our camp’s President, Jon Sherman.  Jon deserves a special shout-out for planning a trip to Israel to coincide with my own and spending time watching the process of interviewing new shlichim.

This year, as ever, the most special moments are in getting to know our new shlichim as Gal and I, this year assisted by Jon, Daniella, and veteran shlichim Einav Dvir and Reut Rosenberg, spend three full days conversing with them.  We begin our conversations asking about their religious background and knowledge of Conservative Judaism which leads into a discussion of the religious culture and norms of Ramah in Wisconsin.  Then we ask them about themselves and their biographies before segueing into their backgrounds in specialty areas and a host of questions aimed at assessing their role as part of a team, ability to adjust to a new culture, behavior under pressure, and more.

In three days we met some of Israel’s best and brightest, elite athletes in tennis, swimming, and sailing; elite soldiers in the finest units; curious religious seekers on a journey from their secular or religious backgrounds; warm and fuzzy-emanating beacons of energy and ebullience; alumni of Conservative Movement programs in Israel; grandchildren of Ramahniks; and more.  All are intrigued and curious to experience American Judaism, though most have minimal exposure to it; all are eager to bring their sense of Israel and Zionism to our campers and staff; all are in for a life-altering summer as so many of our veteran shlichim can attest.  We look forward to welcoming the 2017 mishlachat and learning much more about them in the coming months, especially as Adina, Daniella, and Gal work closely with them at a week-long training seminar in late March.

Spending time in Israel every year is a gift, one of the many perks of being a Ramah director.  In addition to spending time with part of Tamar’s family and old friends, re-familiarizing myself with the landscape of heavily American-influenced southeastern Jerusalem (with a major focus on the restaurant scene), current trends in Israeli politics and intellectual life, and Hebrew as a speaker and listener.  I spent two-and-a-half years living in Israel, a majority of that in the same neighborhood in Jerusalem where I center myself for these visits.  One of my great prides is being able to provide walking directions to passersby on the street and to do my best to fit in as anything but a tourist.

During this year’s trip, with my phone constantly buzzing with “Breaking News” from back home, and rising tensions in Israel over domestic and foreign politics, things felt even more off-kilter than usual while battling jetlag, concern for Tamar and our kids navigating at home, and the seemingly endless days of meetings.  Two fleeting moments left me with hope, moments that, in addition to the over forty-five staff members (American and Israeli, new and veteran) we left Israel with, give me confidence that our seeds will sprout beautifully this summer and beyond.

Walking home one day through the German colony, I watched as a young boy – maybe six years old, wearing a kippah and tzitzit – masterfully directed his father to parallel park their car in a particularly tight spot.  Earlier that day, on my way to a restaurant with my in-laws, we passed a school for English and marveled at a young woman in her twenties, dressed in the modest-yet-modern outfit of the “national religious” (dati le’umi) component of Israeli society, teaching a class of four men:  two ultra-Orthodox, one Arab, and one secular, all of whom appeared to be older than her by years and, for two, decades.

Pondering on this T”u Bishvat the seeds we plant for the summer, these two quick moments reminded me of different seeds planted nearly seven decades ago, just after the founding of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin:  David Ben-Gurion’s vision of a modern Israel where Jews would perform all roles in society (even assisting with parallel parking!) and where different streams of Jews and of the world would coexist, ever-developing.

Shabbat Shalom.