Every summer when I get back to my life in New York City, I am flooded with emails and phone calls from friends all asking the same question. Unfortunately it’s not, “How was your summer?” or “Which color won Yom Sport?” or even “How is Jacob Cytryn (a member of my aidah) doing as Director?”. The question I get asked is none of those and always the same: “Is camp still the same place it was when we were there?” My friends loudly lamented the demise of the small softball diamond (where the current volleyball court sits), the old chadar ochel (dining hall, replaced by the new one several years ago), the fact that candy from the chanutiah (canteen) actually used to cost money, or that there’s no longer a tree covered in bubblegum on the Kikar (central field).
To be simplistic about it: they value nostalgia over progress. And don’t get me wrong. There is a sacred place in my heart for nostalgia. Standing in the Bet Am (community gym/theater space), arm in arm with the same person who stood next to me in Halutzim in 1992 singing the Himnon Ramah (the Ramah anthem) in 2014 is a magical moment of nostalgia for me. Swimming the last 50 meters of the island swim back to camp, emerging on the shore of our agam (lake) is always a nostalgic (if breathless) moment for me. Playing staff softball on Shabbat afternoons, standing in the same, shadeless right field, waiting for someone to pop it up my way – that is nostalgic for me, too. I come back to camp every summer in part to relive those moments, to recapture those feelings of nostalgia. But the rest of my time at camp, in between those moments, are spent doing the opposite of reflection, of finding the past: my job this summer was to push people forward into new, scary, creative places they’ve never explored before. In short, my job was to help madrichim (counselors) change camp. (Gasp now, you nostalgia seekers!)
How does my work manifest itself? I push our madrichim beyond their comfort zones, attempting to cultivate a culture that resonates with George Bernard Shaw’s famous quotation (paraphrased): “Some see things as they are, and ask why? Others see things that never were, and ask, why not?” This summer we focused on pushing counselors to make exceptions the norm, to break longstanding customs at camp. Since I was a kid, almost every week madrichim would spend the first few minutes of a program reading off a list of names of chanichim (campers) who would be in different groups for that program. This summer, we modeled different ways of separating groups (pre-made lists posted along the walls, groups by birthdate or birth day of the week, etc.). Since I was a kid, nearly every Shabbat afternoon I ever experienced was used for discussion groups. This summer, we pushed madrichim to engage with their chosen themes in different ways (presentations, chevrutah learning, mock trials, etc.). We literally tore down the desk in the Merkaz (the programming center in camp) where the programming advisors have sat since time immemorial – you always knew where you could find them. We did away with that desk this year, making more room for madrichim to meet and plan together, with the advisory staff now floating constantly, like butterflies going from flower to flower, program meeting to program meeting). Why did we put so much emphasis on the ‘new’ this year? Because, as it were, one must do more than tread water in order to pass his/her swim test. One must make forward progress, advancing in the water.
In this week’s parashah we read the following words: לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא (lo bashamayim hee, it is not in the heavens) and a few lines after that: בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ (b’ficha uvilvav’cha la’asoto, it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it). We are empowered this week to remember that we must make our own decisions, take responsibility for ourselves, and innovate. Our actions are not always dictated by ‘heaven’, by God. Rather we have the talent, the ethics, the knowledge, the heart to take positive action in the world. And this is just as true at camp. For me, “Lo bashamayim hee” means that we are not bound to how things have been done in the past. “But we’ve always done things this way” is not a good reason to continue doing them. It is our job to make forward progress in the water. You know what? The small softball field caused lots of broken windows since the batter faced the (now also gone, in a renovation nearly 15 years old) Bet Am. The old chadar ochel was cramped, hot, and inefficient. And the bubblegum tree on the kikar? Gross! Forward progress isn’t always a bad thing. If you finish your swim test – you get to do the island swim! And feel that nostalgia all over again as you near the shore of Camp Ramah.