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Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Sam Weiner, Rosh Atzmayim 2018. Originally from Washington D.C., Sam has been going to Ramah since he was in Rishonim during Kayitz 2003. He has spent two summers as Madrich for Tikvah and the past three with Atzmayim. Sam is currently living in Madison, Wisconsin finishing up his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin Madison.         

A Transformative Experience: Reflections on Parashat Vayeitzei
by Sam Weiner

In this week’s parashah, Vayeitzei, Jacob has a life-altering experience.  As I examined the text, I realized that I also can pinpoint one experience that changed the course of my life – and it happened at Camp Ramah.

In Vayeitzei, Jacob must flee from his home after Esau discovers that Jacob has stolen his birthright. Jacob wanders alone in the wilderness and lies down to sleep in the middle of nowhere with only a rock as his pillow. Jacob is scared, tired, and uncomfortable, and feels lonely in such a desolate place. Suddenly, God appears to Jacob in a dream and assures him that he is not alone. God makes a powerful promise: God will watch over Jacob and his future descendants. Then we read in Genesis 28:16-17:

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!”

וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

Overcome with emotion, Jacob renames the place Bethel (literally: house of God) and gives his full trust to God. Jacob is clearly inspired by this life-altering vision and is suddenly filled with a newfound sense of purpose in his journey and reverence for this place where he earlier felt so alone.

While my story doesn’t exactly compare to the encounter between God and our biblical ancestor, I personally have found that the holy ground of Machaneh (Camp) Ramah can be a truly inspiring home away from home.  There are certainly monumental camp moments that can have a major impact on a person’s life.  It could be singing a solo in your aidah play, helping your team win Yom Sport, or leading Kabbalat Shabbat for the entire camp as the sun sets on Lake Buckatabon.  While these experiences inspire a love for camp, the real reason so many of us keep coming back is for the deep personal connections and the lasting memories we create of our own accord.

When I was a camper in Bogrim (9th grade), I lived in tzrif tet (cabin 9) which was connected to tzrif chet (cabin 8) where Tikvah (special needs) lived. Although we shared a mirpeset (porch) and sheirutim (bathrooms), my interactions with the kids in the other cabin were minimal. One day both cabins were scheduled to do the low ropes course together. I could not tell you what team-building activities we did that day, but immediately my friends in cabin 9 had an entirely different connection to the campers in cabin 8. We started spending time together playing card games on the mirpeset, talking with one another on the kikar, and becoming involved in each other’s day-to-day lives. By the end of the summer we referred to each other as “cabin night” (a combination of cabin nine and eight) which became a precursor to the much more popular term joining Machon (10th) and Tikvah into one aidah named Mikvah. I knew after that summer that when I returned to camp on staff I wanted to be a Tikvah counselor.  This past summer was my fifth year on staff, and I was privileged to be Rosh Atzmayim, the division head for the Tikvah Vocational Program.

The magic of camp is that there are so many opportunities to have eye-opening experiences. On any day at camp you might find a Machon camper discovering the creative joy of woodworking or an Atzmayim participant developing leadership skills planning a Shabbat activity or a Solelim (7th grade) camper discovering that she can swim all the way to the island.  It is inspiring to see campers and staff push outside their comfort zone and become aware of the magic of each and every day at camp. The camp experience can be transformative when we open our eyes and allow ourselves to fully embrace the community around us and the opportunities for personal growth.