Minda Wolff Garr began her Ramah Wisconsin career as a camper in 1957, and retired from her position as staff trainer and advisor after the summer of 2013. Minda is a graduate of the Hebrew University (BSW) and University of Iowa (MSW) programs in Social Work. She made aliya (the first time) in 1967, and after marrying Ronnie Garr in 1971, they returned to Israel in 1977. Minda served on the faculty of the Hebrew University School of Social Work beginning in 1982 until her retirement in 2010. She continues to teach a yearly course in holistic psychotherapy, and works in private practice with groups and individuals. She and Ronnie live in Yerushalayim, have four children and seven grandchildren.
by Minda Wolff Garr
July 6, 2020
This has been a strange summer for all of us. Masks and social distancing, as well as an unseen and unknown virus, are keeping us far from the friends and family we love, and the places we want to be.
I decided to write today, on my birthday – 45 of which I spent at Ramah in Wisconsin, on the “shores” of Lake Buckatabon. The camp “bug” first hit me before I was 9 years old. My older brother and sister had been going to camp since the early 50’s, and I knew that was where I wanted to be. I was told I would have to wait a summer – I was too young. But from the moment I got off the bus in 1957, I knew that camp was where I needed to be. I was a camper for seven years, and it seemed like my focus was always on the summer, with the rest of the year only the interval in between. I remember coming home from camp and sharing my experiences with school friends, reliving every moment in the telling, knowing they could never really “get it” without being there.
Having a summer birthday, my celebrations were always at camp – in those days it was birthday cake with freezer burn – the facilities being nothing close to what they are today. But freezer burn or not, it was always so special to get that cake. Camp got to me at the age of 10, but never would I have believed that I would be spending summers at camp well into my sixth decade. All of you who are, or have been, campers know what camp is like from the perspective of a camper. But I’d like to share what kept me coming back for so many years….
My husband Ronnie and I returned to camp in 1979, two years after making aliyah to Israel. We had three children at the time, and it was, what we thought, an adventure for one summer. As the plane flew over Rhinelander at landing, I was deeply affected by the view of the trees and lakes. As the camp car got closer to camp, I had a strong feeling of coming home – a feeling I have experienced only when returning to my parents’ home in Chicago, or when my plane lands in Israel each time I return from abroad. I guess I have had three “homes” in my life – the home I grew up in, my home in Israel where this entire country is my home, and my home at camp.
Our initial arrival at camp in 1979 was only slightly strange – it looked the same, felt the same, but it was a new and younger generation of staff. We knew some of the senior staff, but most were new to us. And – we were living not in the slums, which are now a distant memory, but in what was then the new staff family housing. But it only took a few days and the staff had become “family” for us, and we were part of creating the foundation of one more uniquely special Ramah summer experience for the campers.
Our one summer return somehow became 35 amazing summers. I loved the summers I was present as the campers got off the buses, and the camp came fully alive. There was the palpable excitement, the meetings between old friends, and the hesitation of first-time campers. I watched with awe as kids schlepped their belongings to their bunks, wondering how these little people could manage bags 2-3 times their size. And I was inspired by the counselors who appeared at their sides, to help those who were clearly in need. I loved the camp-wide events throughout the summer, watching how the individuals became part of group, and the groups who together became the “camp.” I loved the excitement of the plays – no matter how many summers I had seen all of them. Each time was a new and special group of kids. And tefilot (services) on Shabbat – I still invoke memories of Kabbalat Shabbat at the lake, when I want to breathe in an extra sense of Shechina (God’s Presence). And the final night of camp – it was always awesome to me how this large group of pre-teen and teens had become a cohesive whole throughout the summer.
This summer, when there are no camper events disturbing the homeowners around the lake, is a strange time. Ronnie and I visited camp last spring, loving the place and missing the exuberance and noise of the summer. We, and our four children, have reflected on how we would have felt if we were planning to be in camp this summer, and had been the ones to experience the disappointment and letdown of a camp closure. Unlike prior summers, none of our grandchildren were planning on being in camp this year, but I can only imagine the upset if their summer plans didn’t materialize.
I can imagine a silent camp – I have been in camp many times before campers arrived, after campers and most of the staff have left, and this past year, before the season began. I have felt the anticipation of a camp readying itself, and have experienced the almost palpable sigh as the camp emptied out and the wildlife began to venture closer in. But a summer with no campers is a summer with no anticipation and no post-camp letdown.
For all of us in this time of global Corona with all of its many manifestations, this is a time of less community, less face-time with friends and fewer shared experiences. I spent many summers creating memories. I spent many years training staff, encouraging kids who were having a rough time, and doing many, many yishunim (bed-time programs). I was the support to the support staff, and took great pleasure in watching each summer unfold in its own unique way.
This summer has become a time for reflection and contemplation. At the beginning of the outbreak, I asked a group of women whom I work with, what were the gifts in this very daunting situation. For me, the answer is the gift of gratitude. I am grateful for my loving family. I am grateful for my friends around the globe. I am grateful for the wonderful memories I have of experiences, adventures and special people in my life. I am grateful for all the gifts I have that I have been able to share with others. I am grateful for the opportunity of many, many years in Ramah, Wisconsin – the years of learning and the years of teaching, the years of receiving and the years of gifting others. I am grateful for the friendships formed in Ramah – and those friends who have remained a part of my life for so many years. I am grateful for the love of Hebrew, the love of Israel, the love of Israeli song and dance, nurtured in camp and that became a formative part of who I am. I am grateful for the gift of having spent so many summers surrounded by those very tall trees, the magnificent lake, the amazing moments of fast moving weather, the sound of the rain on the roof of my room, the feel of the breeze as it sighs its way through the trees, and the pure fun of sighting a deer, a bear, and yes, even a skunk or two.
For me, this summer is an opportunity to just “be” in gratitude, in the hopes that before long I can join in with others in creating even more memories. For those of you missing your summer experience at camp, I hope it will also be an opportunity to reflect about what camp really means for you, what you have received from camp, and what gifts of yours you can share with the camp as it moves on from this summer, out of hibernation and evolving back into the wondrous place it is.