Shabbat Letter from the Director #3

Thank you to

  • Rabbi Morris Allen and Dr. Phyllis Gorin from Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, MN
  • Rabbi Alexander Davis from Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, MN

for joining us for a visit this week!

The weather in the Northwoods is notoriously fickle, as our recommended packing list can attest.  This week has been slightly more challenging than most – cold and rainy, then hot and sunny, chilly nights, torrential downpours – and the resilience of our campers and staff speaks for itself.  We began the week on Sunday evening with our first camp-wide event, the Zimriyah (Song Festival) whose theme was: Chogegim Yisrael (Celebrating Israel).  The energy in the room was palpable as each aidah (age division) arrived in their designated color.  The Nivonim Masters of Ceremony, Raphy Gendler and Nadia Goldberg, performed brief skits to introduce each song and ourtizmoret (orchestra) and tzevet shira (songleaders) accompanied the songs themselves.  Once the formal program of the evening was concluded, individual aidot(divisions) sang their cheers for the first time in front of the entire camp and then a massive song-session filled with joyful dancing and singing ensued.  Many veteran staff members reported how each year the Zimriyah feels like the best night of camp, and I agree.  From the Zimriyah we transitioned into a rich and wonderful week of programming for the aidot, culminating this afternoon (as always, weather-permitting) with our 2nd annual Fourth of July Carnival.  From our youngest campers, the newly arrived Kochavim B, to our oldest staff, the red-white-and-blue outfits have come out and the camp is abuzz with expectation.  The bounce-houses are set up and inflated on the soccer field, funnel cakes and roasted corn being prepared, and the raffle prizes confirmed.  Who will win the slumber party in our guest house for their cabin?  The movie and ice cream night in Eagle River?  And then into our third Shabbat and running, once again, into a fun-filled week capped by: our first musical of the summer, Shoafim’s (8th grade) The Little Mermaid on Tuesday evening;  followed by our Yom Sport (Color War) on Wednesday evening through Thursday afternoon; and the camp-wide Talent Show on Thursday night.  Phew!

***

In addition to the weekly run-down of highlights, this week I have been thinking of some bigger picture topics I want to share with our community, inspired partially by the July 4th weekend.  These thoughts are also inspired by a moving tribute to a new member of our Board of Trustees, Betty Rozenfeld, at our most recent board meeting in May, and the thoughts it provoked in me of my paternal grandparents, Helen and Sam Cytryn (zichronam livrachah – may their memories be a blessing).  Betty, with her husband Dr. Irv Rozenfeld, are the parents, grandparents and, soon, great-grandparents of Ramah campers and staff.  Betty and Irv will have five grandchildren in camp this summer and four young great-grandchildren who visited camp earlier this week.  Our Mirpa’ah(“Marp,” Infirmary) is dedicated by the extended Rozenfeld family in recognition of Irv’s eighteen years of service as a camp doctor.

In May, on a Sunday morning at our Day Camp, as Betty began to speak about the importance of Ramah to her and her family, I had the surrealistic feeling that my grandmother, who passed away two years ago this August, had entered the room.  Something about Betty’s voice and the phrases she chose brought me back to years of listening to my grandmother speak so passionately about the two things most dear to both Betty and her:  family and Jewish education.

My grandfather, who passed away the morning of the Zimriyah in June of 2007 and whose yahrzeit (anniversary of his passing) we observed last Friday, and grandmother served in the U.S. Armed Forces as a doctor and nurse near the end of the Second World War and then moved to the original Levittown, in Long Island, to live the dream they shared with so many of that Greatest Generation.  In 1948 they helped found the Israel Community Center, a Conservative synagogue they would both serve devotedly for nearly sixty years.  My grandfather operated his medical practice for over fifty years in Levittown, near the library and swimming pool which gave birth to and came to represent the very idea of American post-war suburbia.  It was from this setting that my grandparents lied about my father’s age on his application to Camp Ramah in 1960; during that summer he turned eight years old.  And this was the context in which I came to know them: dedicated to their synagogue, to Jewish learning, to Ramah and USY, to the Jewish Theological Seminary, and to Women’s League.

What struck me most nearly two months ago when Betty was speaking was a single phrase that my grandmother would also use:  “Jewish education was very important to us.”  As a student of American Judaism and Jewish education in America I find this phrasing to be fascinating and illustrative of part of what has changed about the world we live in today as opposed to those of previous generations of Ramahniks in the first thirty-years or so of the camp.

The world in which Betty and Irv Rozenfeld, and that Helen and Sam Cytryn, raised their children, was a world where the ethnic ties of mid-20th Century America were at their strongest.  Jews lived with or near other Jews, and the prejudicial realities meant that Jewish country clubs and community centers were havens for Jews to experience some of those joys of suburban living.  Socially, the American Jewish community was forced to stick together, as the parallel communities of recent immigrants, Irish- and Italian-Americans, did as well.

In this context emerged a group of Jews, mainly but not exclusively affiliated with the Conservative Movement and its institutions, who sought to pursue fully the wonders that American culture had to offer and who, radically, chose to pursue with nearly equal fervor a connection for themselves and their children to Jewish tradition.  It is to this group that my grandparents, at roughly the age I am now, chose to cast their lot.  I do not know Betty or Irv well enough to speak for them, but from my interactions over the last twenty years with their children and grandchildren, I believe they were avowed members of that group as well.  This is the group that helped form the first generations of parents who sent their children to Camp Ramah, and those who supported the camp as its lay and professional leaders.

For us, living in a radically different America for Jews and non-Jews, I suggest that we need to re-envision what matters for us.  The investment in Jewish education that our parents or grandparents made and that helped produce us will not be enough to sustain our own children and grandchildren.  If I could speak to my grandparents, fiercely opinionated and intellectually curious adults who maintained a dedication to completing the New York Times crossword puzzle (my grandfather) and to voraciously reading anything they could get her hands on, especially Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine (my grandmother), I would want to engage in the conversation about what my generation can learn from theirs.  Our work at Ramah today is no longer about only Jewish education, it is about a vibrant Jewish living that too few of us find back home.   Fewer and fewer Americans of any religion are choosing to affiliate; in order to create the Jewish community we believe in we must orient ourselves differently to our work than our generational predecessors did.  We can still achieve what we have set out to achieve – indeed, many of the dreams of my grandparents have been realized in our Jewish community today – but in order to do so we must acknowledge that a past approach will result in future success.

As we ponder these questions – and please e-mail me with your thoughts on them – I remain in awe of and in great debt to the earlier generations of American Jews who built and supported the institutions I have had the privilege of shaping my own learning, growth, and identity.  And I remain ever-committed to using the memory of my grandparents for a blessing, to build, support, and shape the institutions like Camp Ramah in Wisconsin that must play a revised but similar role in our new reality.

***

On July 4th at Ramah we invert the Jewish living that is at the forefront of every other day of the summer, replacing it with an English celebration of our American-ness.  This balancing act would have been familiar to my grandparents and familiar to our predecessors, staff and campers, at our Ramah and at others.  As we move from announcing the winners of our carnival raffle to cleaning the cabins and getting ready for Shabbat, we will embody the dreams of the prior generation, and our own.

Shabbat Shalom,
Jacob

Suggested questions to ask your camper early next week via e-mail:
Kochavim:  What’s the name of a new friend you met this week?
Garinim: Which hero did you learn about on Yom Gibbor?
Solelim: How do you personally pray with your feet as Abraham Joshua Heschel did?
Shoafim:  How are you going to do tzedakah?
Bogrim:  How was the photo scavenger hunt around camp for Yom Social Media? What was your most creative photo or video?
Machon: What was your favorite part of the bonfire on Thursday night? Did you speak or perform in front of the aidah?
Tikvah:  How was the Fourth of July carnival?
Nivonim:  What cultural norms did you create for your new society on Yom Meyuchad?
Atzmayim: What new Hebrew words did you learn this week that can help you at the dinner table?

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