Love Your Neighbor - No Exceptions: Reflections on the Atzmayim/Tikvah Shabbaton

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Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Rosh Machon 2018 Benjy Forester. Originally from Deerfield, Illinois, Benjy spent 12 summers at camp. After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, Benjy spent a year working with JDC’s Jewish Service Corps in Budapest, Hungary and then returned to the US to study in the Hadar Institute’s full-time yeshiva fellowship. Benjy is now in Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Love Your Neighbor - No Exceptions: Reflections on the Atzmayim/Tikvah Shabbaton
by Benjy Forester

Core to Jewish tradition is the understanding that ALL Jews stood at Sinai. Not only did the generation of the Exodus witness some form of Revelation as a single unified group, but our  Midrashim (Rabbinic interpretation) assert that in fact the souls of all Jewish generations to come stood there as well to enter the covenant with God at that moment. I find myself moved by the imagery of a Jewish people standing in unison, and am comforted knowing that Jewish tradition invites my soul into that profound encounter with God as well.

This past week in Highland Park, over 40 individuals gathered from throughout North America to join together as one community and to celebrate their involvement in the special needs programs of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. This group includes current Tikvah campers and Atzmayim (vocational) participants, as well as alumni of those programs whose lives have been forever changed thanks to their summers at Camp Ramah. Additionally, a handful of staff thoughtfully planned and enthusiastically managed the entire weekend, giving up their final days of winter vacation to spend time with their beloved campers and friends.

As with any camp reunion, people could not stop smiling when they saw their camp friends’ faces. All the attendees exchanged updates and stories and simply couldn’t be happier to be back with their Ramah community. Some of these people have waited since the summer to see their friends, while for some it has been a few years since they were reunited with their Ramah family.

Our theme for the Shabbaton, “Love Your Neighbor - No Exceptions,” pushed us to think about how we relate to others and build connections, and how we can even be supportive of those neighbors with whom we struggle to get along. Through skits, discussions, and games, we practiced skills such as how to initiate and maintain respectful conversations, and we reflected on what it means to be a good neighbor. For older attendees, there was even a special chance to reflect on disability identity, thinking about what it means to be a part of a community that sometimes gets excluded, and how they can be part of the solution towards building caring and inclusive communities for all. They shared how special the Shabbaton is because they feel so comfortable around Ramah friends who understand and appreciate them for who they are.

One of the most touching parts of the weekend was watching the alumni and long-time veterans impart their wisdom to the younger generation. Similar to how all generations of Jewish souls stood at Sinai, one could look around the room at the Shabbaton and see generations of Tikvah campers who have watched Ramah and Tikvah grow and change in significant ways over the years. The oldest and youngest attendees were separated in age by multiple decades, but they were still bound together by a common experience and connection. Alumni had the chance to share their current life stories which include jobs, higher education, independent living, relationships, and beyond, and to reflect on the ways that Ramah helped prepare them for success in taking those big steps. They connected their Ramah past to their current reality, reminiscing about funny memories in the cabin that gave them self-confidence and a sense of belonging, as well as concrete life skills and values that they learned at camp, including the importance of listening to others, how to live independently, and how to succeed in a workplace. It was incredibly valuable for the current Tikvah campers and Atzmayim participants to see what life after camp can look like, and how their Ramah experience will forever stay with them. It was probably equally as powerful for the alumni to see that Ramah always has a place for them, and is grateful for the ways that they continue to play such an important role in our community.

The Tikvah and Atzmayim programs have grown over the years and have expanded the Ramah family in incredible ways. Thanks to Tikvah and Atzmayim, more children and young adults have developed the lifelong bonds, lived meaningful Jewish experiences, and created the lifelong memories that are hallmarks of the Ramah experience. Just as all of Israel stood together at Sinai, our camp community is only complete when all of its members are present and included, and when we take to heart the message to love our neighbors, no exceptions.