Behind the Scenes in the Hadar Ochel

Posted on August 31, 2015

What does it take to make over 2,000 meals a day for Ramah campers and staff?  This video by 2015 Kashrut supervisor Ezra Wexler and narrated by our hard-working commissary staff provides a behind the scenes “taste” of camp meal preparation.

Shabbat Letter from the Director #9

Posted on August 14, 2015

This Letter from the Director concludes our summer 2015 communications from Conover.  Look for HaMirpeset Shelanu, our Friday email sent in fall, winter and spring, beginning September 4.

In the two days between the departure of our campers, on Monday morning, and the arrival of thirty families for Family Camp, on Wednesday afternoon, the silence and calm of our campus is moving.  The grass looks greener as it begins to rebound from the six hundred pairs of feet that so recently trod it.  The trees looks taller, the sky bluer, the clouds passing over us more animated.

Two memories from the last weekend will stay with me, encapsulating the essence and purpose of the work we do here.  On Friday night, the end-of-summer energy beginning to crest, the zemirot (Shabbat songs) around camp were filled with moments touching and moving.  I watched as two campers ran out of the chadar ochel (dining hall) towards our public bathrooms and, a few minutes later, ran back in, wanting to savor every possible moment they could of the soulful and boisterous singing.  Younger aidot (divisions) set up shop in different rooms of the Beit Am (gym/performing arts) complex and filled the rooms with palpable energy, singing complex songs with unbridled passion at the top of their lungs.  As I lay in bed, the sounds of three separate song sessions wafting through the air created a true atmosphere of Shabbat.  In the campers’ voices I also heard the yearning to remain in camp, the urgent fun and joy to cement their final memories of the summer, the soon-to-come sadness as they prepared to depart the place that serves as an additional home to so many of them.

On Friday morning, well before Shabbat, our Nivonim (11th) campers and staff dedicated an amazing project that, in typical Ramah fashion, began as one child’s dream and became a reality thanks to the work of many campers and staff, one that the entire aidah of Nivonim 2015 can call their lasting physical legacy for decades to come.  Since sometime in the 1960s, the camp has had a modest Holocaust memorial near the lake between where we store our rowboats and kayaks and the cabins of our youngest boys.  Knowing for years that he would be in Nivonim in 2015, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of many of the concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust, one of the campers who spent a number of early summers playing in that area wanted to update and enhance the memorial.  He approached me in the spring with the project idea and we began working on it.  In collaboration with some of our senior educators and a committed team of counselors, a group of Nivonim campers spent the summer studying about memorials and then designing Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s new Holocaust memorial.

The memorial consists of six sets of mirrors that form the external edges of amagen david (Star of David).  Once within the circle, the mirrors reflect ones image almost infinitely.  On the outside of the mirrored panels is written the haunting poem of Dan Pagis, himself a Holocaust survivor and noted Israeli author, called כתוב בעיפרון בקרון החתום / katuv ba’iparon b’kraun hachatum, “Written in pencil in the sealed railway car.”  The memorial is still modest, in the shadow of the same trees that lent the previous version its solitary, understated persona.  Seventy years later, in the thoughtful and intentional way that is our hallmark, this memorial stands as a testament to a Jewish renaissance.  At the impetus of a single sixteen-year old who felt the camp needed something more substantial to commemorate an event his grandparents likely could not remember living through, our community now has a beautiful and moving statement of where we have come from and who we are.

As we do every summer, we close with some of the powerful words of members of Nivonim 2015 who were chosen by their counselors to formally reflect on their Ramah experiences in front of different audiences.  We share excerpts here from two of these six speeches, while acknowledging the vision and profound messages of the others who inspired us with their words this past weekend:  Nadia Goldberg, from Evanston, IL; Raphael Gendler, from Minneapolis, MN; Arielle Small, from Deerfield, IL; and David Kaplan, from Chicago, IL.

Leah Sosland, from Kansas City, MO, shared a D’var Torah at Minchah (the afternoon service) on Shabbat, in which she explored one of the topics in this week’s Torah reading, Re’eh, the shemitah (Sabbatical) year, which we are currently in the midst of and which served as our summer-long theme for last summer:


Machon summer was maybe one of the most formative summers of my life with regards to how I relate to myself and to others. It was also one of the happiest summers of my life. I came home with a renewed sense of optimism and self-confidence. The anxiety I used to feel when I would stand in front of a group of people was never about what those people were thinking. Really, it was always about me. And the problem didn’t go away until I became a happier, more self-assured person. I became that person because of the time I spent last summer here, at Machaneh [Camp] Ramah in Wisconsin, with all of you.

Last summer [we spoke a lot about] the shemita year.  We talked a great deal about holiness, and the ambiguity of that word. I’ve come to accept that I never will have my own definition for holiness, because it is something to me that cannot possibly be put into words. I’ve heard a lot of people say that the word holy is synonymous with special or separate. If you’d asked me before Machon summer, I would’ve said the same thing. But I’ve come to realize that holiness is something that once created is never destroyed—when a moment of holiness is experienced at camp, it never leaves our hearts. And so being holy is, in a way, the opposite of being separate. Holiness is something so powerful that it transforms the mundane, binding the two opposites—kodesh and chol, together.

Tonight, we will stand in a circle in this room and sing our last havdallah[separation service at the end of Shabbat] together as an aidah. AndMonday morning, each of us will get on our respective buses and leave the place that has made us into the people we are today. But the holiness of Shabbat and the holiness of our summers here will never leave us. The holiness you all gave to me has enabled me to stand in front of you and deliver this d’var torah [interpretation of the Torah reading], something I would not have been able to do a year ago. So when we are sitting at home, feeling so distant from camp and one another, remember that what we have had here will never leave us, even if we must leave it.


Sam Orloff, from Golden Valley, MN, addressed the entire camp community atFriday night services.  Here, at the end of his D’var Torah, he weaves together a reading of the beginning of last week’s Torah reading, Eikev, with Himnon Ramah, the camp song:

Camp is filled with special opportunities that would be found nowhere else, opportunities that we need to cherish, from the visiting educators to the intense discussions on the kikar. From what it means to be a Zionist to dealing with our ever-changing American society, all of our values are rooted at the heart of the machaneh, values that are best enumerated in the Himnon Ramah.

The himnon starts out similarly to the parsha, praising natural beauty. It begins with:

בין רכסי ההרים , פנינת תפארה / bein richsei heharim, p’ninat tifarah /
“nestled between the mountains lies a pearl of glory”

These mountains conjure up images similar to the rolling hills described by the Torah at the start of Eikev. Yet the values that camp exudes are best exhibited in the final stanza of the himnon.

/ l’vaveinu malei, rachashei hodayah /לבבנו מלא רחשי הודיה
“our hearts are full with feeling of appreciation”

Just as we end our eating and enjoyment at every meal with a blessing of thanksgiving, at the end of every major camp event from the Zimriyah [song festival] to No Smoking [final night of camp program], we explicitly state our gratitude for all that the camp offers.

The last line of the himnon may be the most telling of all.

עוד תהיה למופת לאלפי רבבה / od tihiyeh l’mofeit l’alfei r’vavah /
“[Ramah] will yet be a miracle for thousands and tens of thousands”

Camp is the ideal. Camp is in many ways perfect. Just as the land that the Israelites are to enter is one where לֹא-תֶחְסַר כֹּל, בָּהּ (lo techsar kol bah / lacks nothing within it), we lack nothing. When we appreciate this, when we truly acknowledge and reflect on all that is Ramah, we can take the abundance of camp and spread לאלפי רבבה (l’alfei r’vavah), both to those who will attend the camp in summers to come and those who we will meet at every step in between.

So take a moment to reflect.  Life back home, life in our own personal Egypt moves too fast. As we end our time at this פנינת תפארה (p’ninat tifarah / beautiful pearl), surrounded by the water and rolling hills described in thisparashah (Torah reading), we need to fill our hearts with appreciation. I challenge you to do exactly that. Our time is down to just a few hours, but it is on you to take a moment to slow everything down while you still can. It is up to you to make it so that when you step on to that bus on Monday, leaving the Northwoods behind, you can say, in between the tears and the hugs:  לבבנו מלא רחשי הודיה (l’vaveinu malei, rachashei hodaya / our hearts are full with feelings of appreciation).


Shabbat Shalom,

Atzmayim program enters 12th year assisting campers with special needs

Posted on August 14, 2015

atz1(This article originally appeared in the Vilas County News-Review on August 5, 2015. View PDF here. Please note that the article incorrectly states Ramah’s first summer as 1957–it should be 1947.)

By Ryan Burgy, Lifestyle Editor

Camp Ramah in Conover continues the Atzmayim Program for its 12th year, teaching campers job skills through area businesses.

The vocational program, designed for campers with special needs, trains older teenagers and young adults for volunteer and paying jobs at worksites throughout the Eagle River area.

The goal of the program is to teach job skills, independence and social skills. Atzmayim is a Hebrew word which translates to “independent.”

“A great thing about the program is the participants get a ton of customer interaction, which translates into a lot of positive and necessary real world skills,” said Ari Feldman, program head.

This year, the program has 11 participants. Job sites include Trig’s, Eagle River Roasters, Northwoods Children’s Museum, Walgreens, Little Pine Cones, Nelson’s Ace Hardware and Hiawatha Lodge and Inn.

atz2Several of the sites have Ramah-assigned job coaches, while on other sites coaches check in every few days.

“Trig’s was one of the first businesses that participated in the Atzmayim program, and serves as kind of an introduction to working at a job site, which may seem counterintuitive because of its large size, but the atmosphere provides great customer interaction,” explained Feldman.

Some of the job sites have replicated the ideas of the program to include special needs students from area schools at their workplaces. “Unemployment and poverty rates are extremely high among the disabled population in the United States, and Camp Ramah is working to specifically help young individuals with a range of disabilities gain the work skills necessary to succeed back at home the rest of the year,” said Renee Ghert-Zand, communications consultant.

Camp Ramah was established on Buckatabon Lake west of Conover in 1947. Campers and staff members from around the Midwest and Israel join together each summer to create a Jewish community.


Continuing its ongoing support of Ramah’s vocational programs, the Ruderman Family Foundation has granted $150,000 over three years for vocational education initiatives at Ramah California, Canada, New England, and Wisconsin, and to encourage voc ed inclusion programs at other Ramah camps.


Shabbat Letter from the Director #8

Posted on August 7, 2015

Thank you to

  • Rabbi Joel Alter from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America
  • Rabbi Michael Cohen from Beth Hillel Congregation B’nai Emunah in Wilmette, IL
  • Tamar Cytryn from Chicago Jewish Day School in Chicago
  • Rabbi David Russo and Rabbi D’ror Chankin-Gold from Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago
  • Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein from Moriah Congregation in Deerfield, IL
  • Professor Ben Sommer from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America
  • Rabbi Aaron Weiniger from Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, MN

for joining us for a visit this week!

In this week’s parashah (Torah portion), Eikev, we read one of the verses from the Torah that is most familiar to our campers and staff:  ואכלת, ושבעת, וברכת את ה’ אלהיך, על הארץ הטובה אשר נתן לךv’achalta, v’savata, uverachta et adonai elohecha, al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lach.  “And you shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God for the good land that [God] has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:10)

From this verse the Rabbis build ברכת המזוןbirkat hamazon, the blessings we recite after meals.  Acknowledging our mortal need for physical nourishment, we thank God for our food.  At camp, nearly every day our campers recite these blessings three times, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  And, while most of the tune we use to sing the entire birkat hamazon is familiar to others, Ramah Wisconsin has the longstanding tradition of reciting this specific verse, found near the end of the second blessing, the same way we chant it in the Torah reading this week.  It is one of the distinct aspects of our unique culture, one that, in musically highlighting the Biblical antecedent for the commandment and the centerpiece of the blessings themselves, underscores our commitment to not just fulfill ritual obligations but to help our campers understand why we do things and how our practices came to be.

As we approach the last weekend of the summer, this verse has been on my mind.  The way the Torah lays out this concept fascinates me:  we do not have to bless God for eating; we bless God for eating and being satisfied.  Our act of thanksgiving emerges not from feeling that we have received that which we need, but something more, a satiated feeling indicating we have eaten all that we want, or nearly so.

On Monday, our campers return home after the summer.  They will, in all likelihood, be exhausted, in the earliest phases of processing the experience they have just completed.  There will be laundry to do.  And, I adamantly believe, they will return home having been intellectually, emotionally, religiously, and spiritually fed for the time they spent with us.  With a little bit of luck, they will be satiated.  So, in the spirit of this week’s parashah, let us give thanks for the sustenance we have been given and for the feeling of fullness we have at the end of the summer.

I begin with vignettes and moments from the last week and the entire summer.  I am thankful for:

  • Our youngest current campers, the Halutzim (6th grade) whom, unbeknownst to them, have spent the last few weeks showing the rest of camp, and reminding many of us, how much fun it is to fall in love with Ramah.
  • Having been able to listen to and witness the rousing musical t’filot(services) this morning that our Solelim (7th grade) made their own this summer, under artist-in-residence Josh Warshawsky.
  • The Shoafim (8th grade) camper who says “Hi” every time she sees me.
  • The Tikvah (special needs) camper who reaches out to shake my hand four or five times a day.
  • Staff members of all ages and backgrounds who make my favorite hour of the week, a pre-lunch Shabbat learning session with our scholar-in-residence, provocative and dynamic enough to keep many of us around the circle thinking until next summer.
  • Committed campers in Machon (10th grade), Nivonim (11th grade), and our staff who will have added beautiful new public Jewish artwork to our growing collection by the end of the summer.  They did what many others before them had done – they had an idea; and they impressively took those ideas and made them happen, all the way until the end.
  • Powerful stories of individual families and campers that help make up the rich kaleidoscope and quilt of our diverse community.
  • The Bogrim (9th grade) campers who approached me to ask questions about expectations and experiences in high school as they prepare for their own high school journeys which commence in a few weeks.
  • The opportunity to have watched so many of our staff members grow into such amazing human beings over parts of the twenty-four summers I have been at camp.
  • All the dancers last night in our Rikudiyah (dance festival), and our dance staff for creating an infectious and awesome culture of dancing this summer.
  • Two Atzmayim (Vocational Program) participants who provide the best soundtracks in camp.

And continue with a macrocosmic sense of what it takes to create a summer at Ramah Wisconsin.  Thanks to:

  • You!  The parents, grandparents, and relatives of our campers who choose to send your campers to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and who partner with us to care for your children and promote the shared values we have.  Thanks as well to the parents of the over 190 campers already enrolled for our 2016 summer!
  • Our amazing staff members who serve in loco parentis during the summer, caring for our campers 24/7, creating and maximizing opportunities for fun and joy, building their self-esteem, developing their independent living and social skills, teaching them about Judaism andmentschlichkeit, serving as Jewish educators and role models for our campers.
  • All who help pay for a summer at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin: family members, friends, community foundations, Jewish federations, synagogues, and over 1100 individual donors.  With two months left in our fiscal year, we remain $75,000 short of reaching our fundraising goals – please consider donating here – as a great way to say thank you to your child’s staff member(s) and to help ensure that no child is turned away from a summer at Ramah for financial reasons.
  • The dozens of colleagues from synagogues, schools, and other partner organizations whom we have had the pleasure of welcoming to camp this summer and whom we have publicly thanked at the top of the Director’s Letter each week throughout the summer.  The Rabbis, Educational Directors, Youth Directors, School Principals, Faculty, and Teachers whom help direct children and families to a Ramah experience make Ramah happen.  Their teaching and energy for Jewish life, in addition to other educational institutions who come to camp for specific programmatic purposes, help create the level of discourse and content-filled experienced that is our hallmark.
  • Our year-round professional staff who spend nine months working tirelessly to make camp happen in every way.  We do not take for granted working with colleagues who are true partners in crafting a vision and implementing it.
  • The lay leadership of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, especially our Executive Committee, whose partnership with the professional staff is second-to-none and creates a can-do atmosphere.  It is a pleasure to work with our lay leadership, to learn from them, and to call so many of them mentors and friends.

Finally, some personal thanks, to all the different campers from every aidah who evoke memories from the past, remind me of my friends and former campers, adding each day to the trove of camp memories I hold so dear.  To the senior educators who taught me new Torah this week, from surfacing an eternal tension in Jewish thought through identifying a scribal insertion in a Biblical text to a moving metaphor of raising objects up and letting them down.  To all the campers and staff who, whether they know it or not, help keep me sane and inspired.  And, finally, to my wife and sons who tolerate my absences over the summer as well as anyone could.

As we celebrate the final Shabbat with our campers this summer, we look forward to sharing with you next week excerpts from the Divrei Torah (interpretations of Jewish texts) about camp that members of our Nivonim (11th grade) will share with their aidah (division) and the entire camp this weekend.

Shabbat Shalom,

Suggested questions to ask your camper when they return home:
Halutzim: What does it mean to be a “rainbow person”?  How have you been a rainbow person this summer?
Solelim: How can we bring Shabbat traditions at camp back home?
Shoafim:  Which tzedakah (righteousness) organization did you vote to support in our allocations meeting?
Bogrim:  What was your favorite “new game” that you played this week?
Machon: What memory did you share on “Footprints Day” on Wednesday?
Tikvah:  What did you do on your yetziah(outing) this week?
Nivonim:  What was your experience like in the maze during “Yom Laila” (all-night programming)?
Atzmayim:  How was bowling last Monday night with staff members from camp?

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