Susie Alpert Drazen is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.S. in Education and received an M.A. in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her professional career has been devoted to the Jewish community, as a teacher, program and educational director, as well as the Executive Director of the Omaha Bureau of Jewish Education from 1987-1998. She also served as the Director of Community Services of National Council of Jewish Women, New York Section.
Susie currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin, and is the Director of Development at Menorah Park of Central New York. She met her husband, Rabbi Paul Drazen, z’l, at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, where they both served on summer staff for many summers. Their children, Gila and Yonah, were also Ramah campers and staff members.
Ramah Reflections by Susie Alpert Drazen, Nivo 1970
52 years ago, on a rainy Tuesday morning in late June, I got on a chartered bus in front of Congregation Cnesses Israel in Green Bay, Wisconsin. My parents, with the generous help of my synagogue, Beth El in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, sent me to spend a summer at Camp Ramah.
I had never been away from home before aside from spending the night with my grandparents or going to a slumber party, I didn’t know anyone, and I was terrified. It was still raining when we arrived, and someone who didn’t even speak English carried my trunk and duffel bag to my cabin. (It turned out he was the camp’s woodworking counselor.) I unpacked, made my bed, wrote my Hebrew name on masking tape over the nail on the wall where I would hang my towel, met the girls in my cabin & wondered how I would get through the next 55 days.
Three days later, on Friday of that week, I had had enough. It was still cold and rainy, I was horribly homesick – I even missed my brother – and everyone but me knew what was going on and was having a good time. I just wanted to go home. My work assignment that day was my first time as a meltzareet (waitress for my cabin), I spilled something on my foot, and someone in the kitchen yelled at me. I was done. After lunch, I left the Chadar Ochel and was stomping across the Kikar, trying to remember how to get back to my cabin. “No one can make me stay here,” I muttered. It had stopped raining, but I was too angry to notice, and I was crying. Suddenly, I was face to face with a very tall man who looked vaguely familiar. He spoke to me and said in his very deep voice, “Shalom, Sue. Ma nishmah b’ Sheboygan?” (Hello, Sue. How are things in Sheboygan?) I was stunned. I don’t remember if I said anything, but I remember thinking, “He knows me! He knows who I am and where I am from.” Then I noticed the sun came out, and I said to myself, “OK, I’ll stay.”
I know it sounds like Allan Sherman’s Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, here I am at Camp Grenada, but that is what happened, and so began the journey of a lifetime. By the way, the gentleman who spoke to me was Rabbi Burton Cohen, the camp director. He didn’t just know me. Somehow, he knew every camper, and knew something about each one. He still has a remarkable memory, and I will never stop being grateful for his wise tutelage. Four years later, he hired me as a junior counselor when I began college, and then when I moved to New York for graduate school he hired me again as the Personnel Coordinator at the National Ramah Commission. We are still in contact. Burt has been a generous and caring mentor to my husband Paul, z”l, and to me for many years. (He considers himself our shadchan/matchmaker.)
Rabbi David Soloff assumed the mantle of director in 1975, and blessed Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for the next 45 years with his wisdom and passion for transforming lives through Jewish education and Jewish community. Paul and I were privileged to work with him for many years (and I think he also considers himself our shadchan). He also knew every camper. I have a good memory for names and faces, but I wish I knew the technique our menahalim (directors) put to such good use!
The Foundation for Jewish Camp tells us that the key to the Jewish future is Jewish camp. Research—and nearly two decades’ experience—shows that this is where young people find Jewish role models and create enduring Jewish friendships. It’s where they forge a vital, lifelong connection to their essential Jewishness.
Jacob Cytryn, the current executive director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin says,
“Our mission is simple: creating the next generation of engaged Jews. We’re doing so by creating the greatest friendships of our campers’ and staff’s lives, and we’re doing it within an amazingly powerful immersive Jewish environment that builds on the greatest fun and exciting energy of an overnight summer camp.”
In Genesis, chapter 32, verses 2 & 3, we read:
ב וְיַעֲקֹב, הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ; וַיִּפְגְּעוּ-בוֹ, מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים.
2 And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.
ג וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם, מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה; וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, מַחֲנָיִם.
3 And Jacob said when he saw them: ‘This is God’s camp.’ And he called the name of that place Mahanaim.
I have been privileged to daven in many synagogues in many cities. I have davened in Jerusalem, but for me, that mosquito-ridden piece of swampland in Northern Wisconsin, מחנה רמה, will always be the holiest place I know, and for me, it will always be מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים, God’s camp.
It was there that I found my true self, made lifelong friends, even met the man I would marry, and found teachers who opened the door for me to find a treasure of learning and knowledge.
And that is just my story: the story of one kid whose life was changed forever because her family and her congregation gave her a chance to have a different kind of summer.
Thank God for all the families and all the congregations, and to Camp Ramah, who have helped so many of us find our true selves, and to find the place we consider מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים. God’s camp.