Lesley (Hoffman) Goldenberg is the Assistant Director of Family Education at Congregation Temple Israel in St Louis, Missouri. She served as the Education Director at Sutton Place Synagogue in NYC for 13 years, after graduating from the William Davidson School at JTS with her Master’s degree in Jewish Education. A camper in Ramah Wisconsin’s first ever Chalutzim in 1992, Lesley was a camper, counselor and Rosh Aidah. Lesley and her husband Matt currently live in St Louis, Missouri with their 7 year old Joey and their 3 year old Rosie. Lesley can’t wait for her kids to be old enough to be campers at Ramah!
by Lesley (Hoffman) Goldenberg 1997
Nostalgia can be a funny thing. There are the usual things that make me feel nostalgic for my days at Ramah – a text from a camp friend, watching my son Israeli dance to one of my old favorites from kikar dancing, a Facebook memory that pops up of an old cabin picture. There are meals and songs and smells (some good, some more like the post-breakfast emptying of the septic tank) that make me long for being at camp and having my friends and campers all there together, in some magical and impossible space and time, just for a day. But nothing makes me more nostalgic for camp than the weather.
After all we’ve been through at camp, the close friendships, intense conversations, and deep questions about Judaism and God, it sounds petty to say that weather is what makes me long for 54519.
There were many days where I’d rush out of my New York City apartment in the summer and feel a chill in the air. The sky was blue and the sun was shining and I was never quite sure if I needed a jacket or a sweatshirt or if a regular shirt would do. I’d send a text to a camp friend living in the city – “enjoy this typical Ramah weather! Wish we were on the kikar together.” It would remind us of those mornings when we’d wake up in our cabins freezing cold, where we’d throw on sweatpants and sweatshirts and head for morning t’fillot. By the end of breakfast, we were peeling off the layers and adjusting to what would surely be a perfect Ramah day, sunny and in the 70s.
Then there were the gross rainy days schlepping my son on the Second Avenue bus heading to nursery school. The air was always humid on the bus, commuters were dragging and I would find myself staring outside longing for those wet days at camp. In the ‘90s, we’d bring huge, brightly colored ponchos to camp for weather like this but we didn’t wear them much. Rainy afternoons were meant for staying in the cabin, writing letters on our beds, listening to music on the mirpeset (porch), and cheering that we didn’t have to get in the lake.
And when my family and I talk camp, it’s the distinct Ramah sky and trees and air that so many of our stories revolve around. My dad loves to tell us that when he attended Ramah in the ‘60s, there were always rumors that back in the very early days of camp there would be snow flurries towards the end of the summer. (He’d also explain that, because of the exact latitude of Ramah and the fact that it ended the third week of August, such rumors were scientifically possible, but we’ll skip that part.) So one Saturday night of Visitor’s weekend, in 1995, when parents were allowed to stay at camp until 11pm, my parents said the thermostat on their minivan read 33 degrees as they were turning onto County K. This was the lowest anyone in the Hoffman family had ever seen the temperature drop up at camp. My dad always reminisces that seeing the temp on that late night made him think that old stories from his counselors about snow on the kikar during the summer were actually true.
The last summer I was a Rosh Eidah was also my last summer at camp. We came together one last time as a Hanhallah to daven, and say our goodbyes. I distinctly remember feeling that morning chill in the air; it felt like it would stick around this time. The first night when the Roshei Aidah arrived at camp that summer, we woke up to frost on the trees. And now it was mid-August, my Doch (end-of-summer report) was written and I knew I’d be driving down Buckatabon Road for one last time as a staff member. Morning t’fillot were cold and we were all exhausted from a long ten weeks up at camp. I drifted a bit and was jolted awake by an unfamiliar sound in the north woods, the blowing of the shofar. It was the first day of Elul, the High Holidays were just around the corner. The shofar did its job – it woke me up to the moment I was in, my last morning t’fillot as a staff member, with some of my closest friends in the world, at my most favorite place in the world.
So is this how Ramah impacted me? Definitely not. I went to JTS as an undergraduate, and got my Master’s degree in Jewish education, and chose to run a Religious School for the past 15 years because it was the closest profession to being a camp counselor that I could find. And my camp friends are still my most favorite people to be with in the world! But after all of my travels, I still think Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is the most breathtakingly beautiful place I’ve ever visited, whether there’s frost on the trees, rain and mud on the kikar or not a cloud in the Conover sky.