Thank you to
for joining us for a visit this week!
Last Saturday night into Sunday, we commemorated the fast of Tisha B’av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, when Jews around the world observe a day of national mourning for various tragedies that have befallen our people through the millennia. On Tisha B’av we recite Megillat Eichah (the Book of Lamentations), which we read liturgically as a series of elegiac poems written in the wake of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians on Tisha B’av in 586 B.C.E. The first verse of Eichah begins:
In the first years of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, there was a contest to write the camp’s anthem. A young staff member named Moshe Greenberg penned the winning entry, a gorgeous poem rife with layered allusions to classical Jewish texts that we still sing today and that continues to inspire and provide direction for our work here. Rabbi Dr. Greenberg (ז”ל) would go on to be arguably the greatest scholar of the Hebrew Bible of the second half of the Twentieth Century, a giant whose students and writings continue to reap rewards even after his passing a few years ago. In the first verse of המנון רמה (Himnon Ramah, the Ramah anthem), Greenberg wrote:
Greenberg parallels Ramah to the desolate Jerusalem – why? I believe he was making a wry commentary made all the more powerful by an inverted metaphor. He knew that every summer Tisha B’av falls during the summer and that nearly every year campers and staff would read Eichah as they spent time at Ramah. Writing in the years after the horrors of the Holocaust had first been uncovered, he must have appreciated the irony of his usage of badad, the Hebrew word for alone or desolate. In Eichah, Jerusalem is described as empty and disconnected, a world capital devoid of its ties to other cities and bereft of its “spouse,” the Jewish people. At Ramah, filled with the vibrancy of a renaissance in Jewish life, camp is filled up with joy and song, yet our geographic isolation (even more so in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s than today) allowed for him to use the same word. Camp Ramah, for Greenberg, would serve as the phoenix rising from the ashes; but it would do so in isolation. Our apartness was – and is – essential to the power and efficacy of our mission.
As part of my graduate studies, a number of years ago I read Leslie Paris’sChildren’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp. In tracing the origins of the institution familiar to us all today, Paris notes that the first camps, opened in the final decades of the 1800s, were created to provide children with something they could not receive at home. In an increasingly urban America, the smog and heat of the cities led to “open-air” camps, and in increasingly technologically sophisticated America there were concerns among many that children – especially boys – would suffer from a lack of connection with nature.
Nearly 150 years into summer camping, we continue to justify ourselves similarly: why schlep so far to Camp Ramah? What are the benefits of being so badad? This week at camp was filled with examples of the power of our disconnectedness, of that crucial part of our magical recipe that Greenberg highlighted for us.
Every year I am pleasantly surprised when we get to the end of Eichah and begin one of the Kinot (songs of mourning). As the entire camp seems to join in singing from the first or second note, I marvel at the transmission of knowledge at Ramah from one generation to another, a knowledge that testifies to our camper’s embrace of a rather arcane piece of Jewish ritual, one that will nonetheless carry them successfully to future Tisha B’avs they choose to experience in any corner of the Jewish world.
The separateness of summer camps has also enabled them to be an incubator for social change movements. Sitting apart from the general culture, summer camp plays a countercultural role for our campers and staff. In every generation that role manifests itself differently, and it is no coincidence that many innovations in the Jewish world over the last hundred years began in summer camps, including early support of Zionism and the State of Israel, a commitment to speaking Hebrew, the move towards more congregational singing, egalitarianism, social justice causes, and civil rights. I was reminded of this three times last night. First, during one of the most moving scenes in recent camp history, Nivonim’s (11th graders) performance of Hairspray in Hebrew, scenes of civil rights protests from Baltimore and elsewhere were projected on a screen behind the singers. While the projection began with familiar scenes from the context of Hairspray, in the 1950s and 1960s, they eventually came into visual dialogue with scenes from the traumatic racial moments of the last year. Later, we heard from two groups of Bogrim (9th graders) campers: one had spent a week with expert outdoor educator Josh Lake connecting with and discovering the magic of our natural surroundings, while the second created a moving performance about social change and where we get our food and the costs of food waste. Finally, the Rosh Aidah (division head) for Machon (10th graders) recounted powerful experiences from Machon’s recent trip through Wisconsin where they volunteered at a not-for-profit farm that provides food for the roughly 25% of children who live in the city of Milwaukee who go hungry. Later in the trip they had the impromptu opportunity to interview several Jewish members of a baseball team that plays in a regional league populated mostly with Division I college players. The players’ responses about Jewish peoplehood and identity both highlighted the different cultural norms for them than for our Ramah campers and the profound ties that bind all of us together as Jews.
Camp Ramah dwells apart in Conover, WI, for a reason. Our “aloneness” allows our community to grow even closer, and for the impact of our counselors, adult staff, and special guests to be magnified. Whether we are learning how to observe and enact our Judaism, developing our own sense of ourselves as Jews, or learning social and independent-living skills, each of us takes advantage of the uniqueness of our surroundings. Where else can we learn to live with other peers in a communal cabin we are responsible for cleaning? Where else can we disconnect from our cellphones and Facebook accounts? Where else can we challenge gender roles in our society, to resist and reframe messages about interpersonal behavior, appearance, and wealth?
Yesterday afternoon I witnessed an amazing basketball game between theSolelim (7th grade) and Shoafim (8th grade) young women. As the entire aidotgathered around center court, boys and girls, the girls on their respective teams gave us a game for the ages. At a high level, the two evenly matched teams entertained a growing crowd that witnessed an eventual Shoafim victory by three points. As we continue to work on promoting a healthy place for both genders at camp, this type of game – played at a high level and with meaningful cross-gender and multi-aged communal support – could not have happened at Ramah even a few years ago. In many of our communities at home, we would also struggle to find this level of communal buy-in for girls’ sports.
I could go on and on with these stories, each their own gems of what happens here on a daily basis, in this place that an esteemed colleague coined during a visit this week as “the most incredibly intentional educational playground” she knows. That phrase is a great compliment to our senior leadership team and lay leadership that shoulder so much of the responsibility for creating that intentionality, making it possible to dream big, and then implementing our vision. At the same time, so much of what that colleague witnessed was actually notintentional, at least not directly. We set up an intentional structure here that, each and every summer, as a testament to our staff and campers, takes on a life of its own. We set the parameters and we help infuse the system with stimuli and ideas. And yet, when things are truly working, the machine seems to run itself, energy building on energy.
As we enter the last week of camp, I feel compelled to share not just the beginning brilliance of a young Moshe Greenberg’s understanding of Ramah – that we would be effective precisely because we dwell at a remove from our surroundings. In the third and final verse of our camp anthem, which we sang last night after the Nivonim play, Greenberg combines two Biblical idioms to express the full-flowered vision of Ramah’s impact on the world. An institution designed to be apart from the broader world, a nearly-closed laboratory for creating mentsches, Jews, professionals, and Americans, would also be destined to perform miracles for the world. He concluded the anthem:
Borrowing a word we are most familiar with from the “signs and wonders” that God did for the Children of Israel in Egypt – mofeit, and a phrase from the blessing given to our matriarch Rebecca as she leaves her home to marry, that she would represent, or produce, numbers beyond count, Greenberg makes clear that the essence of Ramah, it’s physical loneliness, would be contrasted with thedestiny we know to be true: our success can only be judged by what those who dwell apart for each summer do with the rest of their year, and with the rest of their lives.
May the holy work that our campers are part of for the summer spill over into their lives at home, and into the world in which we all live.
Suggested questions to ask your camper early next week via e-mail:
Halutzim: What did you learn about yourself or your aidah mates during “Where’s Waldo” Day?
Solelim: How did “Life” Day teach you to work as a team/family?
Shoafim: Which important cause did you choose to support on “Northwoodstock” Day?
Bogrim: What Shavua Bogrim (Bogrim Week) clinic did you participate in? What was your favorite part of the week?
Machon: What was your favorite part of the Machon trip?
Tikvah: What special activities did you do this week while Machon was away from camp?
Nivonim: What was your favorite part of performing Hairspray?
Atzmayim: Why are résumés important?
Our Rosh Hinuch (Education Director) Lea Wohl Segal, is new to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, but not new to Ramah. She staffed Ramah Israel Seminar and Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim for 10 years. She lives in Herzeliya, Israel. She has an MA in Jewish education and is a Jewish educator in Israel. She was an education officer in the army and received the rank of lieutenant.
When I was a child, my father told me a story that happened in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s synagogue; a story about a boy who did not know how to pray and did not even know the shape of the letters but who wanted to pray so much that he played his flute during the Yom Kippur prayer service. All the other worshippers were very angry at the boy and tried to quiet him, but the Ba’al Shem Tov stopped them and said that the boy’s prayer was the purest of all and on its merit alone the Gates of Heaven were opened.
Several days before I left for my shlichut at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, we – as educators – lamented the fact that it was not possible to have a bar mitzvah ceremony for children with special needs at Beit Hanasi, the president’s residence. We heard the call of orthodox rabbis to boycott the ceremony and the proposed compromise to hold the bar mitzvah only in the presence of an orthodox rabbi.
In the past month I have been exposed to the selfless and amazing work done by the staff of the Tikvah program at Ramah Wisconsin. The educational staff of the special needs campers see the dedicated educational work done by the Tikvah staff and today I was privileged to participate in the bar mitzvah of one of the campers, surrounded by his entire family and the Ramah family.
This morning, the bar mitzvah boy led the Shacharit prayers and he also read the Torah portion in his sweet voice. He was the shliach tzibur for an entire community – family, campers, and staff members who all felt that he was their hero.
If the President of the State of Israel, Mr. Rubi Rivlin, were here at camp he would also have shed an emotional tear with us. If the Chief Rabbinate would have sent one of their representatives here for the opportunity to hear what pure prayer is, such a ceremony could have taken place in Israel, as well.
The Ba’al Shem Tov knew how to listen to the prayer of a boy. The Ramah Wisconsin community and the Conservative Movement in Israel know how to listen, and how to teach and make it possible for every Jewish child to have this privilege.
I hope that my call from here, somewhere in northern Wisconsin, will be heard in Israel, as well.
“ונאה תפילה זו לשמה; זכה היא בכל אמריה”
“This prayer is pleasant. It is pure in all its utterances.”
Lea Wohl Segal
Head of Education
Camp Ramah in Wisconsin
Thank you to
for joining us for a visit this week!
In the first b’rachah (blessing) before the Shema, near the formal beginning of the morning (Shacharit) service, we read the phrase: מה רבו מעשיך ה’ (mah rabu ma’asecha adonai) – How numerous, God, are your creations?
For many campers and staff over the last fifteen years, the slightly-too-loud chanting by one of our senior staff of this often-mumbled prayer was their first introduction to it. For our new generation of campers, the words are part one of our favorite songs, a call-and-response melody written by veteran Rosh Aidah(Division Head) and one of our artists-in-residence this summer, Josh Warshawsky.
The phrase itself is deliciously ambiguous – the Hebrew word רב (rav), from which we get the title “Rabbi,” can mean “many,” “great,” “strong,” “enough,” and “varied.” The root of מעשיך, ע.ש.ה (asah), can mean “to do” or “to make.” In other parts of our liturgy, we proclaim God’s shem rav – great name and ask for shalom rav – a sufficient (or encompassing?) peace for us and the world. Rabot machashavot b’lev ish the Psalmist writes – many/varied are the thoughts in a human’s heart. We pray of our ahavah rabbah – great love – for God.
In context, the phrase refers, quite clearly, to the natural world: the entire first blessing before the Shema is a celebration of the natural world with an emphasis on God’s creation of light which we appropriately recognize and proclaim every morning. This is the first and most obvious meaning of mah rabu for us at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, proclaiming the awesomeness of our natural habitat. For the trees, the bald eagles, the lake, the sunsets, the sunrises, the cloud formations, the stars: mah rabu!
As if that were not enough – it surely is – mah rabu refers to more than the natural world we are blessed to appreciate and charged with protecting. As we are reminded by the hymn L’cha Dodi which we sing as part of Friday night services: “sof ma’asei, b’machashavah t’chilah” – the final creation, the original thought. Human beings are one of God’s great creations. At camp, too, we celebrate the richness and diversity of the more than five-hundred fifty children who have taken up residence as campers this summer, the two-hundred-plus staff members, and the hundreds of guests. We celebrate the diversity of our homes and families, synagogues and schools, hopes and dreams, talents and challenges. We celebrate the diversity of ways we learn and act, of causes near and dear to our hearts, stories told about us and those we tell about ourselves. As the Jewish community continues to evolve and develop throughout the Midwest, the entire United States, and abroad, we welcome and represent that diversity at Ramah, welcoming third generation Ramah campers alongside other children whose family’s Jewish journey has only recently begun. As we live together in rustic cabins, somewhat disconnected from the outside world and her cultural demands, sharing space and resources with many others, we find time to proclaim, about ourselves and others: mah rabu!
In an oft-overlooked section of the earliest chapters of Genesis, the Torah traces lines of genealogy that attribute the discovery of different ancient technologies to the earliest generations of humanity. In Genesis 4:19-22, we learn that the creation story does not end with Adam, Eve, and the first Shabbat. Rather, it continues, as humanity partners with God to continue developing the rudimentary components of civilization as laid out by the Torah: shepherding, music, and metalwork. From this we embrace the diversity of activities and programming at Ramah that helps shape our campers and staff as fully human, from the basketball court to a kayak, potter’s wheel to trombone. And this week was quite a week for mah rabu as we experience it around camp: a rich series of interactive programs on Wednesday including an exploration of personal feelings and expression inspired by the recent Pixar film Inside Out (for Halutzim/6thgrade), another celebrating diversity and the relative merits of conformism and non-conformism inspired by the Divergent series of books (Shoafim/8th grade), and a third exploring the consequences of Jewish power through a simulation of the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist attack and its consequences (Machon/10thgrade and part of Tikvah); a walk-off hit during a softball game and a missed buzzer-beater in a basketball game (both between Solelim/7th grade andShoafim); a phenomenal performance of A Chorus Line demonstrating the individual and collective talents and energies last night (Bogrim/9th grade); an amazing program for all female campers in camp where everyone learned a salsa dance; the performance of the Nivonim English play, an original piece of experimental Jewish theatre based on themes from Kohelet/Ecclesiastes; an intensive camping trip for a dozen members of Machon (10th grade) and Tikvahwho had opted to “major” in outdoor education during the first half of their summer. To all these we say: mah rabu!
The energy will continue into the coming week as we enter a special period of programming for many of our aidot. This weekend the combination of Shabbat and the commemoration of the fast of Tisha B’av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, when both Temples were destroyed in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.) will be filled with aidah-specific programming related to our summer-long theme: “What does it mean to be a Zionist in 2015?” In a number of the aidot, all the campers and staff share the responsibility of reading the scroll of Eichah(Lamentations), with each individual taking 1-2 verses to chant in the special melody. We estimate that over two hundred campers will chant some part ofEichah during our communal reading on Saturday night or the aidah readings on Sunday morning. On Monday, the Bogrim begin “Shavua Bogrim,” a week of specialty programming anchored by four clinics run by professionals in theatrical performance, creative writing, culinary arts, and outdoor education, and enhanced by their own counselors. Also on Monday, Machon and some members of Tikvah depart on a four-day trip through the state of Wisconsin. AsNivonim prepares for its musical next Thursday night, they will also begin, late in the week, a culminating project for themselves as campers and for our summer-long theme with renowned Israel educator Shalom Orzach. Half of the Halutzimcampers will go on their camping trip next week, and special aidah projects for Solelim and Shoafim also continue.
These lists of highlights, deserving as they are of our exclamations of mah rabu!, actually serve to obfuscate the true miracles that surround me as I write these letters each week. They are the quieter moments of members of our music staff working with one or two campers on their flute lessons or first ukulele lesson, the sounds of Israeli music that accompany the Kikar dancing that engages so many of our campers – older and younger, male and female alike – Friday afternoon before lunch, and the walks I see campers taking with each other or with one of their counselors on the road past my office.
Ultimately, the words of mah rabu are meant to remind us of the “big wows” that we too often take for granted – the sunset, the miracle of life, the highlight – but also to remind us of the little moments that we barely even notice. In these small moments are the miracles that build our relationships and our lives, the love shaped relentlessly, like a quiet stream carving its way through a mountain. To the moments quiet and loud, emphatic and empathic, playful and serious, let us all appreciate another week, and another Shabbat: mah rabu.
Suggested questions to ask your camper early next week via e-mail:
Halutzim: What was the theme of your Yom Emojscar (Emoji Day Oscars) video? Which emotion did you get to pretend to be?
Solelim: How does this week’s Torah portion relate to our own personal life narrative?
Shoafim: What faction was your child a part of during Yom Divergent?
Bogrim: How was A Chorus Line? What did you enjoy on your Yitziah (outing)?
Machon: What role did you have during the Simulation on Wednesday? What did your group do?
Tikvah: How did you spend your day on Wednesday? (Answers may include: Tikvah Yom Meyuchad, Machon Simulation, Atzmayim Day Off, or Nivo Camping Trip)
Nivonim: Male campers: What was a highlight of the camping trip? Girl campers: What was your favorite part of Y’mei Banot (Girls’ Days)?
Atzmayim: How can we be helpful to someone who is in mourning?
Thank you to
for joining us for a visit this week!
Solelim’s (rising 7th grade) awesome performance of Peter Pan on Tuesday evening got me thinking; and this week’s parashah (Torah reading), the dual-portion of Matot-Masei that ends Sefer Bemidbar (the Book of Numbers), got me thinking some more. Here are some thoughts about home, journeys, transformations, and growing up.
I cannot remember my first encounter with Peter Pan as a movie, televised play, book, or adaptation; Peter Pan was always there as a character in my imagination though, as I’ll get to shortly, I strangely associated a different fictional character with him, for good reason. I remember a hard-cover “Children’s Classic” version of the book on my bookshelf, though not reading it; seeing Mary Martin “fly;” the less-than-wow-ing Disney movie version; and the modern classic Hook with two of a millennial’s great Peter Pans in front of and behind the camera, the late, great Robin Williams and the visionary Steven Spielberg. But the idea of the man-child who refused to grow up, he who “suffered” from a “Peter Pan complex,” I first internalized from a different source, one of my father’s heroes of his own adolescence, Captain James Tiberius Kirk of Star Trek. The Shakespearean, Machiavellian, and ultimately optimistic plot of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which I saw with my dad about six months before my first summer at Ramah, makes the Peter Pan analogy explicit: after another stunning victory against all evil, as the original crew of the Enterprise prepares to return to earth “to be decommissioned,” Captain Kirk issues one last order, with which the movie ends. After prompts of “Course heading, Captain?” the response is, of course: “Second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning.”
I doubt I am the first boy who would eventually become the director of a summer camp who became enamored with the myth of Peter Pan, and I had other heroes of my youth – real and fictional – who reinforced the type: Indiana Jones, Michael Jordan, Brett Favre. I grew up on stories about my father – told always by my mother – that painted him with the same brush. And, really, who wants to grow up?
Though the camp’s mailing address is surely not “Second Star to the Right,” we are a Neverland of sorts, a word I cannot help but think J. M. Barrie borrowed from the Greek word utopia, meaning “no place.” These magical realms of transformation where our dreams are played out, utopias and never-neverlands, do not exist; perhaps a place like Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is the closest thing we have to them. Never-neverland and utopia become screens on which we project our hopes and desires, imbuing them with unbelievable meaning and import. Camp has that same energy, the power to transform and the power to bring us back to an earlier time in our lives when all was possible. This is perhaps best encapsulated in the Chinese/Japanese fairytale The Stonecutter, which one of our camp mainstays, Jon Adam Ross (JAR), has been telling to Nivonim (11th grade) campers for the last thirteen summers as a way to reflect on growing up and longing to recreate the experiences and memories of their youth, at camp and elsewhere.
At this point in the summer, our camp community seems to operate like a purring engine. The energy needed to ignite the pistons is behind us and things happen seamlessly. Independently, aidot (age divisions) and anafim (program areas) generate their own programming and each specific instance is richer than the next. Our campers, boys and girls, revel in the daily and weekly routines that are punctuated, every day if not every few minutes, by another wow moment in an activity, with their cabin, alongside a dear friend, or in their own learning and growth. Time seems to stand still, until it doesn’t.
Our community is built on shared core values and made possible by the diversity that fills in the rest of who each one of our campers and staff are around those values. Campers thrive, with cool Jewish role models, surrounded by friends and challenged intellectually and creatively. They make new things – literal things, yes, but also ideas and projects, games and initiatives. They spend their days laughing, singing, and having fun under the sun in a place where Jewish living is joyful.
Earlier this week our Shoafim (8th grade) campers participated in a program where they completed the sentence, “I love camp because ….” Here are a few of their answers:
The magic of camp for these children is the way they are pushed to do new things within the loving embrace of a caring community. Walking around camp during a normal programming day, these moments are everywhere: on the volleyball court, the ropes course, learning how to sail. The highlights of the summer embody these values even more, from the musicals to sports games, services by the lake on Fridayafternoons, and so much more. Camp is a home away from home for some, a place to build Jewish identity for others, a place to discover themselves for even others. Camp is a temporary utopia, a place to both enjoy being young and play grown-up, to fall back into familiar rhythms and be pushed towards being the adults they will someday become.
These themes of places, real and mythic, also lie at the core of our Torah reading this week. As I wrote about five weeks ago, on the Friday before our first campers arrived, this week we parenthetically close two separate journeys in the Torah. The first is from the first major eruption of dissent in the wilderness in the story of the twelve spies (Numbers 13), where we see the contrast between the verb used to instruct the spies to journey into the land, לתור, latur, and the verb used in most other places in Numbers for journeys, לנסוע, linso’a. The second is a far larger loop, tracing back to the days after the escape from Egypt and the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. When we chant the section of the Torah celebrating that journey and victory (Exodus 15), we use a special melody, one that we use once again in the seeming laundry-list of names of each stop on the Israelites’ forty year wandering through the desert (Numbers 33). The use of this tune helps hammer home the subtle message the Torah has been making throughout the Book of Numbers: the journey itself is a type of redemption, the move from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan River overlooking the Promised Land. Even more, the place names themselves are wrapped up in figurative meaning, as their names evoke for us the episodes that happened within them. Thus, one of the locales,kivrot hata’avah – graves of craving, harkens us back to the nation’s thirst for meat in the desert and the disastrous repercussions of that incident. The journeys we go on are not only physical, from home to second home and back again; they are also spiritual and metaphorical, we work through challenges and overcome impediments placed in our way.
For the hundreds of parents, siblings, grandparents, relatives and friends of our eight-week campers who will join us on Sunday and Monday for our Visitors Days, we look forward to welcoming you into our haven in Conover, Wisconsin, to experience some of the magic. The real magic will manifest itself once our campers are back in their primary homes, as they demonstrate the learning and growth they have undergone during another summer at Ramah. And perhaps next summer we will have created a GPS hack so that the final directions up to camp, down what we formerly knew as East Buckatabon Road, will say, ever so gently: Follow the second star to the right, and Camp Ramah is just ahead.
Suggested questions to ask your camper early next week via e-mail:
Halutzim: How was your first day of camp? Who are your counselors and bunkmate?
Solelim: How does the theme of trust connect to this past week’s Torah portion?
Shoafim: What did you sign up to help out with during tzedakah week?
Bogrim: Tell me about ‘70s Day! How many centuries did you move through and what was your “dream profession?”
Machon: How was “Social Movements Day?” What did you write down for “ask me about my commitment to ______?”
Tikvah: What did you enjoy more this week: Ninja Night or Radio Schlep?
Nivonim: Male campers: What did you like about Y’mei Banim (Guys’ Days)? Girl campers: How was your camping trip?
Atzmayim: What new independent living skill do you learn or work on this week?
Thank you to
for joining us for a visit this week!
How is a story like a river? How is a river like a story? From the start, you cannot see the end. And the end may not be clear, or definitive, or satisfying. It may open up into another story, or fizzle into nothing. And the beginning may not be clear … because it is likely the end of a different story. But we have to start the telling somewhere. Our “map-maker” selves have to decide where the river begins and ends. The river begins. The river forms over time. It lives and grows day by day. The river cannot make decisions. A river cannot stand still. A river cannot flow backwards. Except when it can. Hmmm. You never hear the same river twice. Every time you hear a river you hear something new. Just like you never step in the same story twice. It is constantly changing and what was once familiar is different because you are different. There are stories that we tell ourselves, like memories, and like memories, they are fluid. A story has a life with each person it touches. And with each person whom it touches, it changes a bit as they pass the story along. A story starts at a single source and from there it grows to those it is shared with. Rivers flow – so do stories. Rivers can be barriers or unifiers – so can stories. Rivers can change and stay the same – so do stories. Rivers have unknown depths – so do stories. Rivers empty out into oceans. Stories empty out into our collective unconscious, our culture, our souls. We sit beside our rivers and imagine where they’ll take us. We sit beside our stories and imagine where they’ll take us. (The Underwater Palace, adapted by the Northwoods Ramah Theatre Company, 2015)
This beautiful meditation on rivers and stories is the prologue to a provocative and gripping play seen on Wednesday by over two-hundred fifty members of our Ramah community. In its 11th residency, the Northwoods Ramah Theatre Company, our in-house professional theatre troupe, returned to an adaptation it created in its first summer, 2005, of a short story called “The Underwater Palace.” In re-imagining it for 2015, our actors and director explored the fairy tale with fresh eyes, challenging its assumptions and modernizing it for a similar population viewing it a decade later. In doing so, they helped highlight the unmistakably Jewish veins in the story, however subtly they may have been presented, like the comparison in the prologue. One of Rabbinic literature’s favorite tropes is the comparison of water to Jewish learning (especially Torah) and “living waters” to our lives. The language here is consciously evocative of our lives as flowing in directions we cannot predict, and of the stories we tell ourselves, including those ritualized and sacred, as evolving as we evolve, whether we like it or not.
Since I first heard this prologue in its entirety earlier this week, performed by four actors in dialogue with each other, I have not been able to stop thinking about stories: my stories, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s stories, friends’ stories, and the many, many stories created during this densely-packed and enormously generative week of the summer. Years ago, at the end of their final summer as campers, I would explicitly welcome our oldest campers, the Nivonim, into the amateur guild of storytellers that make up Ramah alumni. What are the stories we tell? How do they shape who we are? How does our retelling change over time? How do others who were there remember them differently? Does it all matter? How do we retell the stories our grandparents, parents, and counselors told us? Do we choose to make the storytelling process conscious in the stories we tell?
This week, stories abound. As Kochavim B and Garinim end their time in camp, they will return home on Monday filled with stories they are still processing and sorting out. One camper has a story of an unbelievable diving catch during a softball game, which his team ultimately lost. Others have stories of their underdog win over the older aidah(division). A new generation of Sebastians, Ariels, Prince Eric, Flounder, Scuttle, Ursula, and French chefs joined four previous incarnations of The Little Mermaid in camp lore. The entire Shoafim (8th grade) aidah opened our theatre season with amazing poise, energy, and talent, from the energetic chorus members to the aforementioned leads. On Wednesday evening we began Yom Sport (Color War), with new stories written nearly every minute, from basketball to dodgeball, home run derbies to log rolling, banner-painting to dancing, capture the flag to the classic final stages of the climactic relay race: one camper kayaking out to the island, a second camper swimming back, and then the five Nivonim captains for each team building a fire to burn a rope.
Each of these moments and each emerging story pull me back to my own stories with their different layers. As a young camper, watching in awe as the older campers led the camp; then being one of those older campers (and captaining the Red team in 1997 that finished in fourth place); then watching my own campers go through the process as counselor; then, differently, experiencing similar pride as a Rosh Eidah (division head); before moving out of direct service roles into those of an administrator. And still, the stories grow, and are retold, flowing and evolving.
Last night before the whole camp new stories were written, during the camp-wide talent show that is perhaps the greatest testament to the community we build at Ramah. For ninety-plus minutes, our entire camp – rising 4th-graders through AARP members – sit silently, enraptured, as members of each age group perform. Nearly every act is quite similar to the outside observer – a mixture of song, dance, and instrumental performance; and yet, this seeming repetition does nothing to dull the experience. A twelve-year old boy stands up in front of 500+ people, casually explains he is about to perform an operatic song in Latin, translates the Latin into English, and then sings gorgeously. Two ten-year old girls perform a flawless dance they choreographed themselves, dedicating it to a third girl who had come down with a cold and couldn’t perform. Large groups of rising 8th-grade girls and 9th-, 10th-, and 11th-grade boys choreographed elaborate routines they performed enthusiastically with no self-consciousness – and each of them volunteered to make it happen, put in the time beforehand to make their performances great, and will remember them for the rest of their lives. The show was framed by one of our Tikvah campers performing, on electric guitar, the Star-Spangled Banner in a manner that would have fit in at Woodstock, and another Tikvah camper singing a medley of songs as two of her Machon (10th grade)chaverim (buddies) danced back-up behind her.
After the talent show, ever-moved by each individual story on stage, stories that I appreciate more and more each year, I had the pleasure of joining a cabin of 5th-grade boys (2B!) for an ice cream party they won for having the cleanest cabin in camp last week. Sitting with the boys as they gobbled up chocolate syrup, crushed Oreos, and sprinkles (with an occasional bite of ice cream), I started hearing the very earliest versions of their stories, including the two boys in the cabin who were part of the winning team for Yom Sport.
The stories we tell are sometimes about the highlight moments, the stuff the Camp Director might write about in a weekly newsletter. More often they are about subtle events, one-on-one conversations with a friend or a counselor that, in all likelihood, we would not notice if we saw it happen before our own eyes. These stories accrete over time, some sloughing off for all sorts of reasons, others sticking incessantly in our minds and repertoires, try as we might to dismiss them. Their creation is part of the engine of camp, and their re-telling (and re-telling, and re-telling) is perhaps the essential magic that helps reinforce the powerful friendships and identity-shaping moments at camp.
Thanks to the Northwoods Ramah Theatre Company for inspiring me this week to reflect on my own stories, and to our campers and staff for giving me so many obvious stories for me to start telling, before they can arrive home and start telling their own. Next time we see each other, feel free to ask me about one of these stories, or one of my own. Just be prepared to take a long journey down an unpredictable river.
Like the one about the song and dance routine from the four girls from Omaha during the talent show … or the camper, the executive chef, two years, and composting … or the myriad events of next week: The Tikvah Arts Festival (with Machon buddies), Kochavim B and Garinim end-of-session activities, Garinim/Halutzim intersession, Ruach Ramah, the Solelim play – Peter Pan, Shoafim yetziah (outing), Nivonim girls’ canoe trip, Nivonim boys’ special programming, camping trips, softball games, basketball games, island swim, and more!
Suggested questions to ask your camper early next week via e-mail:
What team were you on for Yom Sport? What were the highlights of the day?
What was your favorite act in the Talent Show? Who from your aidah performed?