Camp is a Universe
by Jon Adam Ross (aka JAR)
Memphis does not have a huge Jewish community compared to Chicago, or even the Twin Cities or St Louis. And growing up Jewish in Memphis meant being very much a part of the greater civic community. There wasn’t really a shtetl like there is in St Louis Park or Skokie. My Jewish circle didn’t feel as wide as my city circle, if that makes sense. And I think that upbringing has played a big role in the work I do and how I live my life. But then my parents decided to send me to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. It was 1992. I arrived at camp kicking and screaming. I really didn’t want to go. Praying every day? Hebrew? Wisconsin? Wasn’t that in Canada or something?
A funny thing happened to that gangly eleven-year-old with glasses, who showed up to camp in a boot cast for a heel fracture that had occurred the week before his first summer in Conover: I made connections. SO. MANY. CONNECTIONS. And those connections? They changed my life.
I grew up to be a theater artist, making plays around the country. A cabin-mate has a brother who hired me to be an artist-in-residence at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago where he worked as a youth director. Rosh Drama my Machon summer? I lived at her brother and sister-in-law’s house when I did a play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The camper who broke my leg when we fought as campers our Solelim summer? His parents housed me for nearly a year as I worked on a play in Omaha. The camper who helped me make fake pineapples as props for a Nivo musical in 1999? Her professional adult artwork hangs on my wall. The alum who was a camper when Camp Ramah first opened in Conover in the 1940s? His granddaughter babysits my 1 year old in New York City. The rabbi who married one of my eidah mates did one of the sheva brachot at my wedding. And my text teacher from Shoafim summer is still one of my mentors.
My accountant was in my eidah. My best friend was in my eidah. The only person who stood under my chuppah other than my wife and our families was in my eidah. And these are all different people! I’ve worked in nearly 40 cities around the United States. I’ve stayed at the home of Wisconsin Ramahniks in more than half of them.
This doesn’t make me special. Far from it. This is about connections that can only happen when you share the kind of intimate, sacred space that we get to share up at camp. I couldn’t have the career I have, the life I have, if I didn’t have these relationships, these connections. Camp has given me such a wider world than I ever could have imagined. Memphis is a small town. Camp is a universe.
Jon Adam Ross (Nivo 1997) is a founding artist of The In[HEIR]itance Project, a national arts organization that creates space for communities to navigate challenging civic conversations through collaborative theater projects inspired by inherited texts, cultures, histories, traditions, customs, and beliefs.. Jon has spent nearly 20 years making art with communities around the country as an actor, playwright, and teaching artist. Jon has served as an artist in residence at Union Theological Seminary, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and many other religious and educational institutions. He was a Spielberg Fellow in Jewish Theater Education with the Foundation for Jewish Camp and received a Fellowship from the Covenant Foundation to create The In[HEIR]itance Project in 2015. As an actor, Jon has performed in over 90 cities around the globe. His stage credits include: a dog, a 2,000-year-old bird, an elderly orthodox Jew, a spurned housewife, a horse, a British naval officer in 1700s Jamaica, a goat, Jesus Christ, a lawyer, a wrestler, a hapless police chief, and a cyclops. Jon holds a BFA in Acting from NYU/Tisch.