Shabbat Letter from the Director #5

Thank you to

  • Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon from Beth Israel Center in Madison, WI, and his family
  • Rabbi Jeremy Fine from Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, MN
  • Roey Gilad, Consul-General of the Israeli Government to the Midwest, and his family
  • Rabbi Vernon Kurtz from North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL
  • Elisa Rotman from Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago, and her family
  • Rabbi Zach Silver from Chicagoland Jewish High School
  • Rabbi Lisa Stella from the University of Michigan Hillel in Ann Arbor, MI

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:

  • I get to discover myself and be who I am with many amazing friends.
  • I get to meet friends from places like Minnesota, St. Louis, Israel and more.
  • I love having a home away from home.
  • It gives me a chance to explore my Jewish heritage and my American heritage.
  • I get to meet all my friends, be more active and be more religious.  Also I can become more creative.  Camp Ramah has really good people residing in it.
  • I can build my Jewish identity through fun and friendship.

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.

Shabbat Shalom,
Jacob

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?

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