Last week in this space, our Assistant Director Yael Bendat-Appell wrote movingly about Shabbat and its connection to her experience in Israel working with our Israeli mishlachat (delegation) for their orientation seminar. In last week’s portion, the presentation of the cycle of holidays in our year begins with Shabbat, which gives us the moving phrase in our Friday night Kiddush prayer – ki hu yom t’chilah l’mikra’ei kodesh: for [Shabbat] is the first of the holy convocations.
This week, as we read the final two weekly portions of Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus), Behar and Bechukotai, Shabbat takes center stage again, this time in the presentations of the Sabbatical year – shabbat shabbaton yihiyeh la’aretz – shabbat ladonai: It will be a Shabbat of solemn rest for the land – a Shabbat for God. The Torah then goes on to describe the Jubilee year – literally a Sabbatical celebration of Sabbatical years, celebrated after forty-nine years.
In what can only be termed a magnificent coincidence of Torah’s relevance in our niche of the Jewish community, we read these sections of the Torah this year on the first of, you guessed it, seven Shabbatot leading up to the first campers’ arrival at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. And, as a number of our campers have noted in divrei Torah delivered at camp in the last few years, the summer represents something of a Shabbat to the rest of the year. (Admittedly, our full-season campers are in residence for slightly more than 1/7th of the year.)
The connection here is far more than simply mathematical. This week, I met with nine new camper families in Madison and Chicago, the beginning of many conversations that will continue in the coming weeks in the Twin Cities, suburban Chicago, and over the phone. In sitting with two Ethans, Micah, and Matthew, Lily and Eliza, Sophie, Talia, and Elise, I found myself with renewed energy channeling the excitement of these 3rd and 4th graders and their parents at embarking on a Ramah journey. For some of these new campers, they are walking in the footsteps of an older sibling, parent, or grandparent. For others, this is the beginning of their Ramah journey, inspired by peers, family friends, or their Rabbi to experience the magic of a summer at Ramah.
This is also the season for deep conversations with our hanhalah (senior leadership team), the supervisors who run our activity areas (anafim) and lead our divisions (aidot) throughout the summer. Though some of them are brand new to camp, others began their journeys eight to twelve years ago as young first-time campers, asking the same questions about packing lists, menus, shoe bags, bus rides, and daily schedules.
All these conversations amplify for me the power of a Ramah summer which, at its core, closely aligns with our Friday night Kiddush’s explanation of the dual primary purposes of Shabbat. Harking on the two central metaphors that pervade Jewish life, the Kiddush speaks of Shabbat as recalling both the creation of the world and the exodus from Egypt. These themes – renewal and freedom – helpfully frame our veteran campers’ appreciation of the “Shabbat” that is a summer at Ramah. Camp is a place to recharge their batteries, Jewishly and otherwise; to step back from the pressures and technological overload of the rest of the year; to create from scratch friendships and community. Inherent in the power of those images is an opportunity to recreate themselves, the freedom to play a different role at camp than they do in their social groups, schools, family life, and Jewish communities at home.
As we wind down our counting of the Omer (ten more days!) to Shavuot, we have entered the proverbial “Friday” of our year-round camp cycle. Buying new clothes, labeling them, stocking up on suntan lotion and toiletries, waiting in anticipation to find out who is in our cabin this summer and who our counselors are: these are the tasks and feelings of the next seven weeks. And with any luck, as our campers descend the buses on June 18 for the start of our season, experiencing their confluence of renewal and freedom from the rest of the year, we wish our parents, grandparents, and all who take care of our campers and help them get ready for camp, an appropriate serving of Shabbat’s greatest gift – rest.