Shabbat Letter from the Director #9

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,
Jacob

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