Shabbat Letter from the Director #1

From the moment our first campers arrived on Tuesday afternoon, our campus, virtually empty two weeks before, has been infused with feelings of friendship, fun, and relaxation.  Few sights are more moving than that of campers with counselors or – more likely and more powerful – campers with their friends, sharing the burden of carrying their luggage from the parking lot to their cabins.  One pair of campers each shouldered one strap of a duffel bag as they walked across camp holding hands.  Other campers utilized teams of three or more to lift bags that weighed far more than any one of the individual children.  By dinner time, the Kikar, the lush, grassy field that serves as our town square, was filled with campers playing games and getting to know new friends.  Campers and counselors spent Wednesday and Thursday being introduced to all that camp has to offer, learning their Zimriyah (music festival) song, enjoying one or two organized sessions on the sports fields run by our sports staff, taking their swim tests, rotating through music, drama, art, radio, woodworking, and other activities.  Throughout the days I watched as pickup games of soccer, basketball, and tennis emerged seemingly out of thin air, only to dissipate as the next scheduled activity brought the campers, however briefly, away from the courts.  The weather has been beautiful, and today is the first full day of up-and-running programming for the entire camp as campers move into a daily schedule that includes set time on the sports fields, waterfront, cultural arts options, Jewish studies classes, and Hebrew activities.  As I sit in my office in our arts center, the sounds of campers playing flutes and trumpets fill the air.

***

The theme of the entirety of Sefer Bemidbar (The Book of Numbers) is the maturation of relationships between the different main characters:  God, the People of Israel, the Levites, Kohanim (Priests), Aaron, and Moses.  Having left the foot of Mount Sinai, the proverbial honeymoon is over and, each week, new complicated dynamics emerge.  In this week’s Torah reading, occupying center stage is the rebellion of Korach and his followers.

Their chief complaint is encapsulated in one of the first verses in the parashah:  כי כל העדה כולם קדושים, ובתוכם ה’ – For the entire aidah [is made up of] all holy people, and among them is God.  Korach wants to know what makes Moses and Aaron so special, as well as why certain hereditary groups, namely the priests and Levites, have more important roles in the community and are more closely involved in the worship of God.

The complaint reminds me of an earlier incident which we read two weeks ago, about two men, Eldad and Meidad, whom transgressed communal norms and were found prophesying inside the walls of the Israelite camp.  Having witnessed this act, which is perhaps heresy or false prophecy, well-intentioned individuals approached Moses and asked that Moses himself give the order to chastise the two men.  Moses’ response is instructive:  המקנה אתה לי? ומי יתן כל-עם ה’ נביאים. כי יתן ה’ את רוחו עליהם. – Are you jealous on my behalf?  If only that the entire nation were prophets and God would give them God’s spirit [to prophesy]!

Unexpectedly, both Korach and Moses seem to be saying the same thing:  each member of the Israelite nation has the possibility of being a prophet; each of us is imbued with holiness.  And yet, that potential remains unrealized in both of these cases.  The possibility may exist, but that possibility is presented by the Torah as remote, even dangerous, and their examples do not become instructive for us.

Though we hold onto certain vestiges of the heredity, hierarchical, and priestly Israelite religion of the Torah, our Rabbinic Judaism (itself nearly two thousand years old) puts a much more positive spin on this potential for holiness in each of us.

***

Nurturing the spark of holiness in each individual of our Ramah community and in the community itself is the primary task of our work this summer.  I share three examples to illustrate this point.

  1.  Two of our core values as a camp are being a קהילה קדושה/kehilah kedoshah– a holy community – and בצלם אלוהים/b’tzelem elohim – that each human being is created in the image of God.  This means that we embrace each individual as a representative of the divine, building an inclusive, loving community that sees within each camper and staff member that divine spark.  Additionally, as we read in the 19th chapter of the Book of Leviticus, the basis of a holy community is one imbued with acts of lovingkindness:  not placing stumbling blocks before the blind, loving our neighbors as ourselves, not standing idly by the blood of our neighbors, etc.

 

  1. We strive for our campers to see Camp Ramah in Wisconsin as a second home, as so many of our alumni and veteran campers already do.  Before our campers arrived I received a moving e-mail from a mother of a second-time camper, herself an alumna of camp.  She recounted a conversation she had with her child just before camp, as she wanted to check-in as she had last summer to see if her camper was ready for another summer.  She even shared some of the subtext behind her question:  camp is so far away, is such an investment, and it is never easy for us to part from our children.  Her child’s response took her by surprise, expressing that things are much different a year later, and that the child is now in the role to calm the mother at this time of transition.  With excitement the child was so looking forward to returning to camp and reuniting with beloved friends and counselors.  As I personally, welcomed more than three-hundred fifty campers on June 16, I heard this sentiment – “thanks for letting me come back home;” “I’m home!” – multiple times as campers descended the buses.

 

  1. Part of the potential for camp is as a transformative educational space for our campers.  In addition to many other facets of our approach, perhaps the most memorable and meaningful for our campers is the programming specific to their aidah (division) planned by their counselors and Rosh Aidah (unit head) in collaboration with a team of professional educational consultants at camp.  Annually, each Rosh Aidah works with Yael and me to develop an educational theme for the summer, to be formally introduced this Shabbat and which will motivate the programming for the aidah throughout the entire summer.  Having spent months thinking about exactly which themes are most appropriate developmentally for a given age of campers and fine-tuning the questions that underlie each theme and its tag-line, here are our 2015 themes:

Kochavim – לך לך, והיה ברכה – “Go forth … and be a blessing”

Kochavim campers (both A and B) will explore what it means to be a “mentsch” and contribute positively to the community around them.  They will use God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) and Debbie Friedman’s famous “Lechi Lach” as core texts to explore inform their exploration of themselves and their newly forming Ramah community.

Garinim – איכה? – “Where are you?”

Based on Rabbi Art Green’s reading of the Garden of Eden narrative and specifically God’s call to Adam – ayekah, where are you? (Genesis 3:9) – Garinim will be exploring what it means to create and sustain a community.

Solelim – שמור וזכור בדיבור אחד – “Observe and Remember as in one utterance”

How can we imagine living every moment as fully present as we are on Shabbat?  Can every moment be Shabbat?  Is camp a type of Shabbat from the year?  As these campers cherish their first “full Shabbat” at camp (one-seventh of the year), they will embark on an exploration of Shabbat’s meaning in and potential in our lives.

Shoafim – קהילת השואפים – A community of aspirers

Shoafim, which means “aspirers,” will explore communities that aspire to make the world a better place.  This theme will complement the Shoafim Tzedakah Project which involves raising money during the summer and making thoughtful decisions for how to allocate those dollars.

Bogrim – אני מאמין, אנחנו מאמינים – I believe, We believe

Inspired by National Public Radio’s This I believe … series, as well as the literature of Jewish thought and philosophy, Bogrim will explore their personal belief systems as well as what it means to believe as a collective group.

Machon – הרשות נתונה, וטוב העולם נדון – “Freedom of choice is given, and the world is judged favorably”

Machon will focus on how to create their own identity and act on it, using as their guiding principle this selection from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:16/19).  How are we empowered to make our own decisions?  How do we manifest our values in our actions – with each other and with the world?  What is our role to play in shaping the future of our family, community, and world?

Tikvah – בראשית – “In the beginning…”

Tikvah’s summer will utilize the founding narratives of the Jewish people, from the Book of Genesis, to help answer the following questions:  from where do we come?  Where are we going?  And how should we treat other people along the way?

Nivonim – וזכני לגדל – “And may I merit to raise…”

Nivonim will explore their own potential, privilege, and responsibility to the world around them and each other.  As they leave their lasting legacy on Ramah and embark on their future as individuals and a collective, they will explore the ways in which the opportunities and challenges presented to them help shape who they are, and how they realize the best versions of themselves.

Atzmayim – בשבילי נברא העולם – “For my sake was the world created”

Using this powerful phrase from the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) that is used to help explain the importance of every single human being, Atzmayim will spend the summer thinking globally and acting locally, developing their own personal identity through the context of global culture and politics.

Shabbat Shalom,
Jacob

Suggested questions to ask your camper early next week via e-mail:

Kochavim:  Which fun activities did you enjoy last week, including the relay race, making a mural, new tunes in t’filot (prayers), and photo scavenger hunt?
Garinim: What song did you dance to at the dance show pe’ulat erev (evening activity)?
Solelim: What did you learn on Shabbat about conserving the planet?
Shoafim:  What new ways to be a leader in camp did you discuss over Shabbat?
Bogrim:  How was your audition for A Chorus Line?
Machon: What “intensive” are you in and how have the first few days been?
Tikvah: Which of your daily activities are you most excited for? (Options include: Tikvah Arts Festival; sport; play practice; Jewish studies class; and social skills group.)
Nivonim:  Which internship are you participating in?  Why did you choose it?
Atzmayim: How were your first few days working in town?

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