Last night young alumni now living in the Chicago area gathered for a Kikar Ba’Ir (Kikar in the City) event to schmooze, reconnect with old friends, and raise money for the Camp Ramah in Wisconsin Scholarship Fund. Seeing around seventy young alumni, from Nivonim 1994 through Nivonim 2005, who grew up in Indianapolis, St. Louis, Nashville, Jerusalem, Minneapolis, Columbus, Frankfurt (KY), and the Chicago area (and I know I’m missing some), was invigorating. Catching up with alumni I knew as staff members when I was a camper, close peers as a camper and staff member, and many of my former campers, it was amazing to hear their stories about where life has taken them; working in biology and psychology labs at the University of Chicago, as physicians at a major research hospital, in public policy institutes, trading firms, social media consulting, schools, law firms, social service organizations, and more.   

The conversations inevitably turned to camp, with questions about the upcoming summer often tinged both with eagerness and a wistfulness for summers past. I found myself responding, again and again, with a similar narrative about excitement for the summer and the growing urgency in the office to finalize preparations for the 2012 season. At the conclusion of my first full year of full-time employment with the camp, this Spring feels noticeably different than the prior thirteen I have experienced leading up to summers on staff. 

Upon reflection, these conversations last night reflected a weekly rhythm we all know so well:  the build up to Shabbat. In many families, beginning as early as Wednesday evening, preparations for Shabbat begin in earnest: tables are set, rooms organized (if not as clean as we might like them), menus prepared, groceries purchased, laundry done, flowers bought. When we are lucky (especially when Shabbat starts later), late Friday afternoon we can already begin to relax. Regardless, every week as the sun sets on Friday night, there we are, taken over by the spirit of Shabbat.

Most often when we tell the story of Shabbat, we emphasize the Torah’s first mention of Shabbat, in the opening verses of the second chapter of B’reishit, when we learn that God completed the work of creation, rested, and made holy the seventh day. In this week’s parashah, Emor, we encounter a source that helped the Rabbis present a different narrative about the importance and place of Shabbat in our lives. In the Kiddush every Friday night we read:

כי הוא יום תחילה למקראי קדש, זכר ליציאת מצרים

For it is a day that is first of the holy convocations, a remembrance of the going out of Egypt.

This week we read the holiday cycle of Leviticus, a familiar Torah reading from the second day of Sukkot and Passover, where the Torah repeatedly refers to מועדי ה (seasons of God) and מקראי קדש (holy convocations). In the list of holidays, Shabbat comes first, before the chronological list of Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Just as the earliest story in the Torah suggests Shabbat is an ending, this retelling, nearly smack dab in the middle of the Five Books, presents Shabbat as a beginning, recalling not the end of creation but the formation of the Jewish people in the Exodus.

Every few years, one of the Nivonim campers granted the kavod, honor, of addressing his or her peers over the final weekend of camp, will note that the eight weeks of camp represent nearly a seventh of the year – that camp itself is positioned as a Shabbat, holy with respect to the rest of the year. It is Shabbat-like in its separateness, its specialness, its particular rhythms that allow all who inhabit it to focus on the ones they love, their spiritual lives, and recreation. It is filled, like Shabbat, with song and prayer, constant eating, and great joy. It is marked by rituals throughout, none more powerful than at its beginning and conclusion.

For the year-round staff and for the many counselors, supervisors, and special guests I spend much of my time speaking with and planning alongside for the upcoming summer, a summer at Ramah is the Shabbat of B’reishit, the end to a year-long cycle of preparation. 

And for our campers and parents, who will be preparing in their own way for the summer as the school year winds down, culminating with piles of clothes neatly labeled with campers’ names, cross-checking the packing list, stopping by the doctor’s office to have the medical form signed, and on and on, a summer at Ramah, we hope, is a beginning – a beginning of friendships, of new experiences, of a growing engagement with Jewish life. Of course, with a hint of luck, it is that as well for my colleagues in our office and staff members from the most junior to the most seasoned.

For the young alumni with whom I spent last evening, Ramah was an important annual marker in their lives and I sensed that they continue to search for the “Shabbat” that will help give structure and definition to the next phase of their promising and packed lives. On my way home, I was reminded of the gift of camp, even during this season of frantic “Friday afternoon” projects, thankful for the ends and beginnings it represents.

Shabbat Shalom.