Tailwinds and Headwinds: Reflections on Jerusalem and Berlin
by Jacob Cytryn, Executive Director
Saturday evening, February 10, a British Airways flight took off from JFK International Airport and landed at London’s Heathrow Airport four hours and fifty-six minutes later. The flight was two hours early and broke the record for shortest transatlantic flight. How? Prodigious 260 mph tailwinds catapulted the flight from west to east. Two weeks earlier my flight arrived in Tel Aviv nearly an hour early; as far as I could tell our tailwinds only hit 160 mph. And say what you will about seasonal meteorology, something was pulling me to Israel. Nine days later I flew from Tel Aviv to Berlin for my first visit to Eastern Europe, and one day later I flew back to Chicago.
What we build at our campuses in Conover, Wisconsin, and Wheeling, Illinois, every summer is a top notch summer camp experience and, as inspired by my ten days in Jerusalem and Berlin, so much more. I spent time with a dozen Americans who grew up at Ramah and are spending this year in Israel. They are having the time of their lives, most living independently for the first time and developing their adult identities in Jerusalem. They live and breathe the fun and friendship that define their Ramah experience. I sat with old friends and mentors from previous years at Ramah, leaders who have dedicated their lives to building the State of Israel and educating the next generations of Jews. I caught up with veteran shlichim (Israeli staff) from this past summer, hearing about their return to Israel, fielding their questions about camp, and hearing their stories and impressions about their time in the US and North American Jewry.
Over three days I saw parts of Israel I had never experienced before. Meeting with over forty candidates to be new shlichim at Ramah Day Camp and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, I never fail to be amazed. Seeing geographic differences come alive, the ever evolving sense of religious identity, and growing experiences with North American Jews through different exchange programs combine to create more nuanced and in-depth interviews than we could conduct even five years ago. And the individual stories – WOW. I sat with two young men named Daniel, each in the full military uniform of elite units in the I.D.F., as they told me their personal stories which both began with their parents emigrating from the former Soviet Union. One of them has a family that has been drawn back towards religion and attends, on occasion, a Conservative synagogue in the Galil where Daniel had his Bar Mitzvah. It is still unusual for us to meet candidates who have any experience with lived Conservative Judaism; until Daniel shared that he is familiar with our movement I never imagined he would be one of them. The other Daniel had a different story, one even rarer in the ten years I’ve conducted interviews: his father is not Jewish, an emigre from Belarussia who has made his life in Israel. Sitting before me was a young man with a profound Jewish identity, serving his homeland, whose first experience of kiddush was in basic training. These Daniels’ stories were nearly matched by many others, and I am already excited for our campers and North American staff to develop friendships with and listen to the stories of a group of exceptional emerging leaders from a diverse swath of Israeli society.
Then I traveled to Berlin for the most intense fourteen hours of my life. I went to connect firsthand with an amazing partner community, the Masorti (Conservative) Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue. Rabbis Nils and Gesa Ederberg met me at the airport and regaled me, in two-and-a-half hours, with a driving overview, tour, and introduction to the Jewish community of Berlin. I think I learned more about Berlin in those 150 minutes than I have ever known about any other city in my entire life. The concentration of history was astounding: the layers of the monarchy, empire, World War I, Weimar, the Third Reich, the Cold War divided city, and now the reunified modern capital, most of which seem to regularly exist on a single block. I toured the stunning synagogue which Rabbi Gesa Ederberg serves, a partially reconstructed building, built in the 1860s, which once seated more than 3,000 men in the sanctuary (!!), and which was mostly destroyed by the Allies during the war.
With this introductory whirlwind tour behind me I spent the rest of the day with the Jews of Berlin. I met with the coordinator and other affiliates of the Frankel Rabbinical College and with our very own Avidan Halivni (Nivonim 2012, Rosh Eidah 2018, 2019) who is spending the year working in a new Masorti/Conservative primary school and in the synagogue. I also met with the students and administrators of the school, our four current Ramah campers from the community, prospective parents, parents of Ramah Wisconsin alumni, and leaders of the Masorti/Conservative community in Germany. The night ended over tea in the Ederbergs’ flat, beginning to process the day, catching up on life with Avidan, and talking about our respective professional roles with the Rabbis Ederberg.
Berlin is a city which, in my short twenty-three hours between the landing of one flight and the takeoff of another, manages to both stifle with its heavy history and lift up with the cosmopolitan ease of quintessentially European culture. It is a city filled with monuments, to the Jews, the Roma, those who died in the Reichstag fire, who attempted to assassinate Hitler, who attempted to escape East Berlin, and much more. And in addition to the official memorials, there are the names of those who taught, founded institutions, or are buried in places near the city center – Heschel, Rosenzweig, Hildesheimer, Geiger, Mendelssohn, Hegel. And in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of buildings, are the small plaques known as Stolpersteine (literally: stumbling stones), bearing the names of Jews who lived in those buildings and were deported and/or killed during the Shoah.
I was reminded of Yehuda Amichai’s famous poem “The Tourists” which describes an old man sitting on a bench in Jerusalem, apoplectic that the tour group in front of him is recognizing the medieval architecture and other historical facts but ignoring the living, breathing person in front of them. Life in Berlin – the cafe in which I sat, the cabs in which I rode, the pizzeria at which a group of twenty of us had dinner – demands the toggling between attempting to stand under the burden of unbearable history and living in a progressive and modern city that, arguably, has done as much as can be reasonably expected – and continues to – to atone for the unforgivable inhumanity of a prior generation.
I flew to Israel on the powerful tailwinds of a late January trip east across the Atlantic. And I flew back into prodigious headwinds, the flight from Zurich to O’Hare taking nearly an hour longer than expected. The engines on the Airbus A330 were doing the exact same work their counterparts on the Boeing 777 had done ten days earlier. But, try as they might, I felt myself drawn into the in-between space at 38,000 feet, stuck there dwelling on what had just transpired. I began working through the stories I have shared and many others I would love to, the urgency I implicitly felt on my way to Israel having been replaced by an insistent need to intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually process all I had seen and heard, even if physically I was hurtling quickly away from Israel and Germany.
Core to our work at camp is embracing the tailwinds that draw us to each other in excitement, into friendship and into experiences that transform our lives. And recognizing that those tailwinds help gird us for the inevitable headwinds we encounter, shouldering the yoke of leadership and responsibility to move onward, assimilating new knowledge and experience, creating a new path for ourselves and others.