Shabbat Letter from the Director #8 2019

Thanks to

  • Campers from Nivonim 1969 for their 50th reunion

  • Joel Braunold, Executive Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, who served as our Berger Israel Scholar-in-Residence

  • Tamar Cytryn, Director of Jewish Studies and Campus Life at Chicago Jewish Day School

  • Hazzan Joanna Dulkin from Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, MN

  • Rabbi Gesa Ederberg and four campers from Synagogue Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin, Germany

  • Wendy Goldberg, Louise Schoenberger, and Julie Zeissman from Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School

  • Jeff Goodman, Business Manager from the National Ramah Commission

  • Rabbi Aaron Melman and Elisa Rotman from Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, IL

  • Rabbi Michael and Erica Schwab from North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL

  • Charlie Sherman, Head of School at Am Yisrael in Northfield, IL

  • Rabbi Todd Zeff from the Nachshon Project

  • ALL OF OUR AMAZING STAFF!

for spending time with us at camp this summer!

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I have long dreamed of doing what feels impossible: documenting in full all programming in camp over a 24-hour period.  From the planned to the spontaneous, the ropes course and camping trips to the sports courts to omanut (art) and nagarut (carpentry), the task has always felt too great.  And the events of the last few days have underscored for me how powerful and compelling it could be.

As I sit in my office in the Beit Am complex right now I hear the familiar tones of campers practicing piano and drumming away, counselors in conversation about their campers and programming for the last few days of camp, and a whistle from the waterfront calling the boats back in near the end of the activity block.  Campers to my left are painting farewell letters and notes to our Omanut/Nagarut complex which will, in a little more than two weeks, be taken down as we begin constructing its replacement.  It has been an amazing 38 summers of fun, creativity, skill-building, and meaning-making in that space.

Yesterday was a magical day around camp as the Shoafim boys performed Spongebob Squarepants: The Movie: The Play! to a captivated audience, about two dozen campers raced boats from Bauer’s dam through Upper and Lower Lakes Buckatabon all the way back to camp (approximately 2.5 miles), and over one hundred campers participated in final rehearsals for last night’s dance festival, the Rikudiyah

After dinner last night we gathered all together in the Beit Am auditorium for a wonderful song session with many camp favorites.  Singing and dancing was followed by a moving ceremony as we awarded the 2019 Derech Eretz award winners.  This project, dedicated in memory of beloved alumnus Asaf Leibovitch (z”l), surfaces values of mentschlichkeit, kindness, and caring every summer, provides camp-wide programming on these themes, and then recognizes one camper from each aidah who has exemplified them over the summer.  After watching a video with pictures and reflections on Asaf from his family and those who knew him at camp, we watched as a counselor of each of the winners explained why they were deserving of the award.  As I announced the winners – Adrianna Castiglione, Matthew Azulay, Ophir Zeitouni, Johnathan Grimm, Benjy Kaufman, Lily Agbodza, Sam Milbank, and Jen Levin – my eyes filled with tears regularly, from pride in these amazing young people and, just as frequently, the shouts of excitement from their friends, siblings, and larger Ramah community underscoring how proud camp is of each of them. 

After the Derech Eretz awards we transitioned into the awesomeness of the Rikudiyah itself – a combination of impressive dancing, shout-outs to inside jokes, and good old-fashioned camp-style fun.  As the formal dances ended the entire camp began a long round of “Kikar dancing” (which was replicated earlier today) in a room filled with positive ruach (energy).  Campers over the years have adopted different rituals for some of the dances, whether calling out in a mix of Hebrew and English “kadimah [forward], achorah [backward], hip, hip” or rolling on the ground instead of skipping to their right and left.  The energy in the room was ecstatic.  Once the Kikar dancing was done we took a few minutes with Bogrim, Machon, and Nivonim to recognize the two engaged couples in camp this summer – Rosh Yahadut (Jewish Studies) Shani Abramowitz and Yoetz Joseph Eskin, and Assistant Director Adina Allen and Artist-in-Residence Josh Warshawsky.  Staff and campers alike danced with the couples, lifted Josh and Adina into the air, and celebrated the pure joy in the air.  So much of what we do at camp, indeed part of the magic of camp, is expressing excitement and passion for acontextual artificial constructs: song sessions, Kikar dancing, etc.  Showing our campers that the same energy they express at camp for the thrill of it, in song and dance and other means, can be channeled “IRL” (in real life) is one of the most powerful messages about life and lived Judaism we can give them.

With simchah dancing ended many of the Bogrim, Machon, and Nivonim campers went swiftly to the Sifriyah (library) for the last mishmar of the summer, a Thursday night tradition filled with soulful singing and divrei Torah in anticipation of Shabbat’s arrival.  Sitting in the Director’s house, all the way across camp, I could hear the singing as these campers poured their hearts and souls into both their time at camp which they feel slipping away and the energy of Shabbat that arrives every week.  Another lesson in how camp translates to “the real world.”  After mishmar our staff joined us in one of the chadrei ochel (dining halls) for our end-of-summer staff party with its “Oscars” theme.  While the slideshow and thank you to the staff were well received, our end-of-summer staff gift, the announcement of the winners of various Oscar categories, and the prodigious special snacks truly stole the evening.

All this in one day! 

Tomorrow morning we’ll read the last two parashiyot (portions) in Sefer Bemidbar (Book of Numbers).  We will read about, among other things, the peripatetic wanderings of the Israelites during the last thirty-eight years of their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness.  We will have completed the entire book of Numbers while up at camp this summer, the book of the Torah defined by ongoing leadership lessons and wandering.  It is fitting that, every summer, these stories make up our summer Torah readings and wonderful that this summer they have made up all of them.  For Bemidbar, like summers at Ramah, is about embracing the process without being too focused on the product, navigating and growing from interpersonal relationships, learning new lessons and making mistakes under someone else’s watchful protection. 

At the end of the Torah service tomorrow each of our aidot will chant together חזק חזק ונתחזק / chazak chazak v’nitchazek / “Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened.”  This is the traditional way of closing each book of the Torah and will resonate even more as we are also closing the summer.  Our call of strength to each other and commitment to draw strength from each other is a profound statement about the nature of community and a community’s basic requirements for survival.

In a beautiful image, on Monday morning in the wee hours most of the kids in camp will participate in services for the last time and, with bleary eyes before heading to the buses, will hear the first words of the next book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, which consists of Moses sharing three separate valedictory addresses to the Israelites.  Just hours before beginning to tell their stories of the 2019 summer at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, they will hear the beginning of Moses’ stories about the Jewish people and his life. 

I can think of no more fitting echo for our campers and our community of the ways in which the rhythms and messages of camp are meant to reify the lessons of our lives and our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jacob