Pre-Camp Shabbat Letter from the Director

For us at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, like so many educators and parents, we know:  the journey is far more important than the result.  The process is more important than the product.  It isn’t where you’re going but how you get there.  Yes.  And also:  it’s about the type of process you experience along the way.

This week’s Torah reading, Sh’lach L’cha (Send forth), like all parashiot (weekly readings) in the last three-and-a-half books of the Torah, finds the Israelites in the midst of a long journey, over forty years, from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land.  And the central narrative of the reading is one of an additional journey, that of a group of scouts chosen to enter into Israel and return with a report about both the tribes who live there and the land itself.  This secondary journey ends terribly for the Israelites, as the scouts report demonstrates a major inferiority complex and paranoia.  As readers, we are left with the question:  What went wrong?

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On Tuesday, we began our Staff Week, and the last three days have been filled with dancing and singing, deep conversation, lots of name games, and focusing on our work at hand: orienting around two hundred educational staff members to their roles this summer.  Most of our time is spent in focused meetings led by our supervisory staff (Roshes) in small groups, covering the developmental stages of campers, expectations for a specific job, lesson-planning and program development.

In our first camp-wide program, on Wednesday morning, we began with three “TED”-like talks, each of which emphasized a different pillar of what it means to be a successful staff member – and camper – at Camp Ramah.  These three pillars are: caring for other people’s children, understanding our role as Jewish educators, and pushing ourselves to be good team members and to exercise leadership.

Longtime senior staff member Jon Adam Ross (known universally in camp as JAR), began with a wide-ranging talk about leadership and stepping up, using the best Biblical equivalent, the word הנני, Hineni, which literally means “Here I am.”  JAR began by reflecting on a number of humorous and instructive episodes from his long mentorship under and partnership with our CEO, Rabbi David Soloff.  Other highlights included a retelling and analysis of a well-known midrash (interpretive story) about the splitting of the Sea of Reeds that focuses on the character of Nachshon, and a selected reading and discussion from astronaut Chris Hatfield’s brilliant memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.  Again and again, JAR hammered home his question: How do each of us prepare ourselves to answer our call to step up, not knowing from whom or exactly when the call will come?

Our second talk was given, virtually, by one of our Educators-in-Residence for the summer, Shalom Orzach.  Shalom, who will join us for ten days near the end of the summer for a special project (more on that in future weeks!), is one of the great Jewish and Israel educators of the moment.  His ELI talk, filmed earlier this year, explored how Israel education should be both timely and timeless – of complete relevance for the moment and tying us to our eternal values.  You can watch Shalom’s full talk here.

Finally, Assistant Director Yael Bendat-Appell took our makeshift stage to deliver a moving and inspiring reflection on what it means to take care of other people’s children.  Yael’s talk, which had many of us wiping away tears throughout, began with personal details about and pictures of her two children, Adin and Orli, and then shifted to her own graduate training in general and special education.  Yael concluded with the following charge:

So, why did I share with you the intimate details about my children and my family’s particular story? Not because my story is more dramatic or interesting or noteworthy than any others. I promise you; it’s not. I told you my own personal story to help you understand that each and every family has their own version of mine. Each family, and each child, is a whole world unto itself; far beyond what the outside eye can know. Our children represent our greatest challenges and triumphs. By sending a child to camp, each parent is entrusting us with the most precious and intimate aspect of their lives. They do it because deep down, parents know that this particular place, in Conover, Wisconsin, can help their child become the best person that she can be. Because ofyou and the love and care that you will show them this summer.

Every person in this room has a unique job, a unique role to play, in taking care of lots of people’s children this summer. From the essential basics of health and safety, to teaching self-care and hygiene, helping kids learn how to dress appropriately for the weather, protecting their skin from sunburns, and keeping them hydrated…to the more profound: teaching kids what it means to live in community; to respect others and treat them kindly, to cultivate a sense of adventure and independence; to push kids gently to try new things and develop new skills; guiding kids as they explore and discover new parts of themselves.

It’s an incredible responsibility to Take Care of Other People’s Children. But it is also an immense privilege and gift that parents are willing to share their children, their worlds, with us.

God willing, when Visitor’s Day comes– not only will the parents have a chance to thank you for the work that you are doing; but that through your work, you will have come to love and appreciate their child, and you will feel the desire to also thank them.

These three talks were a wonderful way for us to start our week of staff training together. Even more than that, I believe, they can help you – our parents, grandparents, alumni, board members, and other stakeholders – appreciate what it is that Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is providing for more than five hundred fifty children this summer.

First and foremost, we are here to embrace the responsibility and privilege of taking care of other people’s children, providing them a safe space to grow and challenge themselves while we support them.

Second, we are here to enact an ambitious agenda of Jewish education, exposing your child to the joys of 24/7 Jewish living and helping them find new insights, new knowledge, and new skills.

Third, we are a leadership incubator for the Jewish people. Our staff represent the best and brightest from their college campuses and Hillels; service in the I.D.F.; long-term educational programs in Israel; and more. They serve not only as counselors to our campers but as role models for them: before we know it, our current campers will assume – and, if history is any indication, surpass – the impressive feats of our current staff.

Each of these three goals is not about the end result; instead, our focus here is on the journey and the process. We are confident that, if constructed, guided, and nurtured correctly along the way, the diverse results will take care of themselves.

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In the final verses of the Sh’lach l’cha, we find an answer to the question of what, exactly, went wrong on the mission of the spies. In a section that becomes the third paragraph of the Sh’ma prayer, we read the following verse:

ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם.

Do not go forth after your hearts and your eyes. (Numbers 15:39)

The verb used here, latur, is the same one in God’s instruction to Moses to send the scouts into Israel. It is a verb that appears to be synonymous with other similar words about the Israelites’ journeys, specifically the word masa/n’siyah. But it becomes clear that this word – latur – refers to a misguided journey, one doomed to failure from the start.

About halfway through the summer, just before our full-season Visitors’ Days, we will read another Torah reading, one that describes in tedious detail thirty-eight years of the forty year journey through the desert. In that reading it will become clear that as negative as the verb latur is to describe a misguided journey, the verb linso’a, from the other root, is positive. As we read that selection, near the very end of the book of Bemidbar (Numbers), we come to understand that some journeys are redemptive in and of themselves.

Throughout this Shabbat and into Tuesday afternoon when our first group of three-hundred fifty campers arrive, we will continue laying the groundwork to enable each and every member of our Ramah community to embark on a healthy, productive, and inspiring journey this summer.

Shabbat Shalom.

Jacob

 

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