As I wrote about at the outset of the summer, one of the things that makes camp so special is its transience. That transience also means that each summer is inherently fleeting, that each summer is wholly unique, and that saying goodbye is as much a part of the camp experience as sand in your bed, showering before Shabbat, ‘smores, and more.
On the last Friday of camp, in my last training session with a group of our Junior Counselors, one of them asked me if, at the end of the summer, I feel sad or relieved that camp is over. My answer, of course, was “yes.” As the Director, the relief of getting nearly seven hundred people safely home after a successful summer is nearly tangible. At the same time, on a personal level I empathize with the sadness that so many of our campers and staff feel when it is time to leave camp. I remember quite clearly my own tearful good-byes as a camper, counselor, and Rosh Aidah, my futile attempts to mitigate the pain of needing to leave camp by crafting elaborate plans for the order in which I wanted to hug my best friends.
I am not sure if it was because I was asked that question or not, but I had the most emotional response to saying good-bye this summer since 2006, the last time I was a Rosh Aidah. These goodbyes, to an exceptional aidah of Nivonim campers, to Roshei Aidah who have grown up with me over the last ten years and more, to my cherished colleagues, helped remind me – yet again – of the power of camp for myself and others. It allowed me moments of rejuvenation at perhaps my most exhausted moment of the year, a flood of emotion and adrenaline girding me for the work that remained to be done.
And then, when nearly everyone had left camp on Sunday afternoon, August 17, a few hours after our Family Camp participants and staff members, departed, I set about the newest layer of saying goodbye. Now my job at the parking lot on the last morning of the summer is to make sure that the buses leave on time, that flights are made at O’Hare and Midway, that campers and staff say goodbye to their friends in a timely fashion. For me, it is the final goodbye of the summer that I now cherish and appreciate: saying farewell to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s Torah scrolls.
During my last day in camp, just before finishing packing up my office and loading my car with files, books, and clothes for the ride home, I collect the nine Torah scrolls that remain in camp throughout the year, put them in their protective covers, and prepare them for storage in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room for the next nine months.
Throughout the summer we read from ten Torah scrolls, scattered across camp in our homemade wooden arks. One of those scrolls, belongs to the Engelhart family and is used during the year in the local communities where the extended Engelhart family lives. Each summer it is brought to Chicago and transferred to Rabbi Soloff in June before making its way up to camp. The other nine scrolls live in Conover year-round. And after twenty-three summers, these Torah scrolls, some of which I read from as a camper in the early and mid-1990s, are some of the last friends I say goodbye to before departing.
The Torah scrolls are tangible representations of the history of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and, for those like myself who learned so many synagogue skills at camp, have been with us through memorable and important moments. Three of the scrolls are recent gifts from synagogues that once sent many campers to Ramah that no longer exist, Northwest Suburban Jewish Congregation outside of Chicago, B’nai Emet Synagogue in Minneapolis and Ner Tamid Ezra Habonim Congregation in Chicago. One Torah cover was dedicated a number of years ago by alumnae from my aidah in memory of one of our friends who died of complications from leukemia before her twenty-first birthday, Regina Thorne (z”l). Others bear the names of families that have supported the camp in the past, the Rabins and Visotskys among them. Perhaps the most special is the Torah that sits in the Ohel Yitzhak synagogue and that is read from throughout the summer by our Nivonim campers. That Torah, written in stunningly beautiful calligraphy, is one of the scrolls rescued from Czechoslovakia after the Holocaust. Adorning it is a cover dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Isaac “Zicky” Bonder (z”l), in whose memory the entire synagogue was erected in 1971. Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is one of the few communities that actively reads from one of these “Czech Memorial” Torah scrolls, when four times a week our sixteen year old campers bring to life what the Nazis tried so hard to transform into an artifact of a lost civilization.
This ritual is one I cherish, knowing in part that, next summer, we will distribute the Torah scrolls during staff week to the different minyanim in camp and begin the process anew in the cyclical way that the Torah is meant to function in our lives. And though nine months may transpire between our reading in the middle of D’varim (Deuteronomy) from mid-August and that from the beginning of Bemidbar (Numbers) in early June, to so many of us the time in between seems and feels like the few moments on Simchat Torah between ending the Torah and starting fresh from the beginning.
The transiency of camp is what makes it so precious and powerful. Yet the true power of Ramah is its permanence, the connection to our tradition that we rejuvenate and make fresh again every year. That permanence is represented by these Torah scrolls, links to the past, never-changing over millennia. And as each of us changes from year to year, returning home, coming back different in some way; as each of us, eventually, has to say goodbye to the camp we have known and loved but that we can no longer return to every summer, it should be comforting to all of us that the Torahs, and all they represent, remain constant, that each year hundreds of people like us are cultivating themselves in the places we once stood.
This season of Elul leading up to the High Holy Days is one of introspection, deeply rooted in our tradition’s belief in self-improvement, the human ability to change who we are. Our summers at Ramah are one powerful way of accomplishing that change and, as the Torah scrolls do at camp, the never-changing words of the Torah, and our ever-changing interpretations of those words, represent our link to the past and the future.
Jacob Cytryn, Director