In this week’s letter Jacob will cover four separate topics: an overview of the first few days of camp, a short d’var Torah on this week’s Torah reading, some reflections on Rabbi Paul Drazen’s (z”l) recent passing, and questions for parents to ask their campers early next week. 

You may also be interested in reading the following blogposts that went up earlier this week:

It Happens in a Moment

Shabbat Shalom!

First Few Days of Camp

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The first two-and-a-half days of camp were magical.  The moment our campers descended the buses in the parking lot on Tuesday afternoon they were encompassed by two lines of staff members holding clipboards and welcoming them with open arms.  Bags dropped off at cabins, belongings quickly unpacked, the sports courts and kikar (central field) were quickly filled with our campers as our campus came alive.  Your children consumed first sno-cones then a delicious dinner of hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, and baked beans; the carnival atmosphere was palpable as the Roshei Aidah (division heads) welcomed their chanichim and chanichot (campers) to our 2018 season.

On Wednesday campers moved swiftly from activity to activity.  Our waterfront staff did amazing work as nearly everyone in camp passed their swim test on the first try; counselors and Roshei Aidah jumped in the water with their campers to do the swim test with them – some as many as four times through!  Campers wary of the water – much warmer than usual, cooler than some would have liked – were met with supportive counselors and swim staff who helped usher them into the water with care.  Aidot (age cohorts) learned their Zimriyah (Song Festival) songs, rocking out to music related to our summerlong theme, Ayin L’tziyon, about which I’ll write much more next week.  Sports staff took each aidah through awesome relay races, our dance staff taught the new kikar dance, and kids learned about our offerings this summer in omanut (art), nagarut (woodworking), drama, and radio.  And the smiles and excitement coming from campers and staff alike as they walked out of their first time ever in our brand new mitbachon (teaching kitchen) were amazing!  The kids are so excited at this new activity and we look forward to showing it off to you when you visit this summer. 

All activities started on Thursday: drills on the soccer, tennis, basketball, and softball fields; lots of blobbing and “bloobing” action on the waterfront; cooking in the mitbachon; radio broadcasts; Hebrew and Jewish Studies activities, and much more.  Today the activities continue and, as of 1:30 this afternoon, preparations for Shabbat begin, first with forty-five minutes of Kikar Dancing, then a traditional pre-Shabbat lunch of pizza, carrots, celery, ranch dressing, and chocolate milk.  Cabins are cleaned, showers are taken, kids get dressed for Shabbat.  And we’re off!

D’var Torah

Major themes of the Book of Numbers, almost all of which we read during camp, are loneliness, longing, and jealousy.  Both the Israelites and Moses seem to have major inferiority complexes and a constant need to harp on a perception of the past that may or may not be true.  Two weeks ago, when we celebrated Shabbat with about thirty members of our hanhalah (leadership team), we read about Moses’ kvetching to God that he could not bear the burden of leadership alone.  That same week we read the jarring kvetch of the nation that they wish they were back in Egypt where they ate so well – watermelons and garlic and onions.  Last week, as our Rabbi-in-Residence Aaron Melman shared in a d’var Torah, we read about the Israelite scouts sent to report on the Land of Israel.  Ten of them provide an exaggerated report out of Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver’s Travels depicting a surreal landscape of giants and fear.  And two lonely dissenters, Caleb and Joshua, challenge the others’ perception.

This week we read of a rebellion fueled by jealousy and mistrust.  Korach, whom the text reminds us is from a different, less-privileged sub-tribe of the Levites than that of Moses and Aaron, and Dotan and Aviram, descendants of the first-born Reuben who has been denied his birthright of leadership, do not understand why God has denied their access and status.  They seem to throw God and Moses’ promise at Mount Sinai – “you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” – back in their faces.  Who made you so special? We are all holy!

These themes are the stuff of a great contemporary TV show, ripe for binge-watching.  The opportunity to develop these themes over the summer – and there are at least six Shabbatot at camp that deal explicitly with them – is amazing.  First, these are themes that speak in real and immediate ways to our camper’s lives and the social and emotional realities for them outside of camp.  Second, these stories help us see our beloved and revered ancestors as real people, further cementing our relationship to Judaism that stretches back more than twenty-five hundred years.  Finally, they represent the type of dysfunctional community that is against everything we stand for.  Just as later Rabbinic literature will reject “the generation of the desert,” so too can we aspire for far more than these unfortunate dynamics, building individual campers, cabins, aidot, and an entire camp on shared leadership, responsibility, trust, belonging, and appreciation for what we do have. 

In 2003 and 2005, respectively, I lived this process as a Rosh Aidah for an exceptional group of campers, and had the tremendous honor of partnering with brilliant, creative, and committed counselors to bring the lessons of Korach and the other summer parashiyot (Torah readings) alive.  These campers, whom I met as they were about to enter high school fifteen years ago and helped to usher through their Nivonim summer two years later, will return to camp this Shabbat for their thirteenth reunion: celebrating the “Bar Mitzvah” of their Nivo year!  Many of them will be accompanied by spouses, fiancé/es, or long-term partners, introducing a new set of Ramahniks.  Nearly all of them will be encountering Ramah for the first time in ten or more years, seeing it through fresh eyes at twenty-nine.  They will be wowed by some of our new buildings, ask questions about how things have changed and stayed the same, and be moved by the fact that they no longer recognize the faces of campers or staff but feel so at home in a camp that feels the same.

Reflections on Paul Drazen (z”l)

In closing this week I wanted to reflect for a moment on the recent passing of one of our own, Rabbi Paul Drazen (z”l), who died on Wednesday evening.  Paul loved Ramah, and Ramah owes much to him.  As a camper, staff member, program director, business manager, and more from the ‘60s through the ‘00s Paul brought a joie de vivre, deep creativity, and diligent work ethic to everything he did.  As the Rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, NE, he built a sanctuary modeled after our own Ohel Yitzhak as he grew the synagogue’s own connection to Ramah. 

In his memory, I share one small piece of profound learning I heard from him during an all-night Tikkun Leil Shavuot (learning session in honor of the holiday of Shavuot) at Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, MN, years ago as I prepared to travel up to camp.  Paul challenged the traditional way we sing one line of the beginning of the Torah service: baruch shenatan torah.  Literally, these words mean “Blessed is the Giver of Torah.”  The traditional tune on Shabbat and holiday mornings, however, requires the doubling of one of the words which, in every service I’ve ever been at, is overwhelmingly the word “Torah.”  Paul rejected the theological implication of that language.  He did not believe in a God who gave two Torahs, which he understood through the lens of Rabbinic literature to be the binding documents of both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah or Rabbinic law.  Rather, he sang baruch shenatan – shenatan – torah: Blessed is God who gave – who gave – Torah.  This reflects the theology of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, among others, and is consonant with the Conservative Movement’s approach: that God’s revelation did not happen a single time but unfolds over the generations.  I have adopted this approach ever since, a reminder of the meaning-making we can find in words we may have said hundreds of times without thinking, and a testament to the care and detail with which Paul approached the world.

To Paul’s widow, Susie (Nivo ’70), and his children Gila (Nivo ’96) and Yoni (Nivo ’00), on behalf of all of us who are part of the Ramah in Wisconsin community, we send our deepest condolences. 

יהי זכרו ברוך / Yehi zichro baruch / May his memory be a blessing.

Shabbat shalom,


Questions to ask your campers this week:

Garinim: What was your cabin’s cheer during our Garinim scavenger hunt? What was your favorite station in the activity?

Solelim:  What is radio schlep and which task was your favorite?

Shoafim:  What’s “v’dibarta bam” and what did you learn regarding the power of words over Shabbat?

Bogrim:  What things have been new and different in Bogrim in comparison with previous summers? What new opportunities and responsibilities have you already had the chance to try this week?

Machon: What is your intensive? And what is an “intensive”?

Tikvah:  Were you on Team Moshe or Team Korach this Shabbat?  What did you learn?

Nivonim:  How has your perspective on previous summers as a camper helped you dream about the possibilities for the present summer?

Atzmayim:  How were your first few days at work?