- Rabbi Aaron Melman of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, IL
for joining us for a visit this week!
The first full week of camp is nearly over and, after some moments of less-than-ideal weather, this afternoon and evening are due to be gorgeous. During this week, our anafim – programming areas – truly get up and running, as campers dig into five days of sport instruction, fun of the waterfront, and creativity in dance, music, art, woodworking, and radio. Our first camping trips went out, and our first groups tackled the obstacles on our low-challenge course and high-ropes course. Our first island swim attracted dozens of campers and staff. Yesterday afternoon Shoafim upset Bogrim, 3-2, in an epic softball match. Our oldest campers are well into their specializations for the first half of the summer: the Machon are preparing for an intensive hike later in the summer; the art and woodworking groups have begun designing their public art projects; the Tikvah Arts Festival collaboration is off to the races; and more. Our tizmoret (orchestra) is finessing the final notes for its debut performance on Sunday evening at the best night of the summer, our Zimriyah – Song Festival. Tzevet Shirah (Songleaders) have been busy at work rehearsing each aidah‘s song as we celebrate together the 70th anniversary of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s founding. Our Nivonim campers are immersed in their internships, writing and creating a new piece of intentional theatre, serving as assistants in many of the anafim.
On the aidah programming level, kids are smiling and giggling as they enjoy the best that Ramah has to offer. Tikvah played an ingenius game of human Battleship on Wednesday evening, and I had the pleasure of joining two colleagues as “sharks” for Shoafim’s “Shark Tank” in which they presented videos and proposals on topics that need fixing in our broken world. Nivonim campers helped organize a camp-wide game derived from the old classic of Capture the Flag.
On Sunday, we will welcome over seventy first-time campers for our Ruach Ramah program, accompanied by a wonderful staff. This four-night program, led by Rosh Aidah Ari Vandersluis and Coordinator Jamie Cooper, is packed with camp fun as these rising 3rd-graders get a first taste of the spirit (ruach) of camp. Earlier this week, I had the privilege of visiting the Ramah Day Camp outside of Chicago for the first time ever! It was an eye-opening experience to see the hallmarks of Ramah – great fun, great friends, professional-level instruction, deep-rooted Judaism – manifest itself in a different setting. Giving divrei Torah at t’fillot (prayers) and meeting with the Ruach Ramah campers and current Day Camp attendees who will be up at the overnight camp during the second month was an added thrill!
As this summer moves into high gear and we launch our camp-wide programming on Sunday night with the Zimriyah, I spent a good part of this week reflecting on memory and legacy, inspired by two powerful moments last weekend: participating in a chanukat habayit (home dedication) of the new Nivonim Lounge (Moadon Nivonim) and welcoming my first campers back to camp for their 13th year Nivonim reunion.
In June of 1999, I had just finished High School and was jumping out of my skin to begin my dream job: returning as a madrich tza’ir (junior counselor) to the place I felt most at home in the world, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I was blessed for that first summer with an amazing group of rising sixth graders in Halutzim. When I had been in Halutzim, in 1992, the program was brand new, and the opportunity, with several friends, to be the first counselors for Halutzim to have been alumni of the program added an additional benefit. That summer I cut my teeth on the basics of the job: empathy, attention to detail, goofy fun, making Judaism come alive. I began the process of learning how to care for kids – showers, toothpaste, changing their sheets. I started developing a sense of what it means for each child to be special, to see part of myself reflected in one camper and a different part in another, to see the magical and beautiful spark of God’s image in each and every one. I worked with a camper who spent the first week of camp very homesick – and then had more fun than anyone else the last three weeks of camp. I learned my most valuable lessons from a co-counselor from whom I had anticipated learning nothing. I was seventeen years old, on my way to Israel for a gap year, and I was smitten with this work.
Five summers later I fulfilled a lifelong dream: to be Rosh Nivonim. In that summer, which I knew would be an opportunity to enact a vision for how to end campers’ experience I had been developing for some time, the promise was sweetened by a second formal chance to work with those first campers of 1999, many of whom I had kept in touch with as we both grew up together at camp. Accompanied by an unbelievably talented group of charismatic and dedicated counselors, that summer of 2004 was one of the best of my entire life. The deep relationships with the campers – many of which went back to that first summer – created a deep trust and an openness to, on almost every occasion, roll with each other’s punches. When the summer of 2004 reached its inevitable conclusion, I may have cried more saying good-bye to these beloved teens as I had when I ended my own career as a camper seven years before.
Last Friday afternoon, though I had worked with, talked to, and stayed in touch with nearly all the reunion attendees over the last thirteen summers, a third of the aidah returned for a reunion. To be together like that, back at camp, was exceptionally special. It made me miss the other members of Nivonim 2004 more acutely, and nudged me to enjoy the time I had with this special group of kids. Their own reflections on camp and what camp had given them, as well as what they had given camp, were moving. I don’t think any other aidah in our 70 years has produced as many (seven!) Roshei Aidah, as well as multiple Roshei Anaf. Their interactions with Nivonim 2017 were fun, playful, and imbued with deep meaning for Nivo ’04. I know that, in retrospect, six weeks from now and six years from now, the stories Nivo ’04 shared will have just as deep a resonance for Nivo ’17.
The night before, as written about eloquently by Rosh Nivonim Maya Zinkow here, we consecrated the Moadon Nivonim as part of a process of turning a stunningly beautiful new campus with endless potential into a lived-in home for an aidah of sixteen year olds. Before each of the campers offered their own b’rachah (blessing) for the aidah and the new space, which will be part of an art-installation in the moadon (lounge) for the summer, the Nivonim staff asked camp “veterans” (read: old people) to come and share their own reflections. The wisdom shared was moving and powerful, encapsulating exactly what we are about at camp. One staff member spoke movingly about building relationships with everyone in the aidah because everyone is going to go off and do amazing things; another spoke about the opportunities to figure out who each of us is as an individual through camp and, especially, through Nivonim. The energy in the room as the campers entered after affixing mezuzot to their cabins and took their seats, and then the eagerness with which they listened to long-time camp veterans share perspectives on the lessons we have learned, brought me back to 2004, and to my own Nivonim summer of 1997. It connected all of us in that room to those who came before us.
Camp is about the past, and it’s also about the future. It’s about the innovations that the current Nivonim staff will make to the program, and about the even greater ones that one of this summer’s campers makes when they reimagine something as a Nivonim counselor or Rosh Aidah in 2022 and beyond. It’s about Aliza Broms, the daughter of Ross and Shira, who attended her dad’s 13th year reunion. It’s about seventy years of building blocks to reach today, and laying the first building blocks for the seventy years that begin tomorrow. It’s about the campers in camp who are currently making their best friends for life, falling in love with Jewish culture, Hebrew language, or art; learning about leadership on the basketball court or in an ad hoc cabin meeting; developing their critical thinking skills in conversation with counselors and fellow campers. It’s about the dynamic organism that is Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, shifting and evolving from one incarnation to the next, shaped by our campers and staff who join us every summer.
The latest in an ongoing written dialogue with Nivonim 2004 dating back 18 summers: Thanks for the memories, here’s to the past.
To that same Nivonim 2004 and to Nivonim 2017 in their new home:
The future is in your hands.
Shabbat Shalom, Jacob