At the outset of this week’s Torah reading, traveling on an unfamiliar road, our forefather Jacob found a stone which he uses as a pillow, falls asleep, and has a dream of a ladder with angels going up and down between earth and heaven. Near the middle of this short opening narrative, which recounts Jacob’s first encounter on his meandering journey after fleeing his home in the wake of last week’s stealing of his brother Esau’s birthright, we read the following words:
וייקץ יעקוב משנתו – ויאמר: אכן יש ה’ במקום הזה ואנכי לא ידעתי
Vayikatz ya’akov mish’nato – vayomar: achen yesh adonai bamakom hazeh va’anochi lo yadati?!
And Jacob awoke from his sleep and said: Whoa, Adonai is in this place and I did not realize it?!
Jacob’s enduring legacy, encapsulated beautifully by this verse, is the ability to stumble upon the presence of the divine in the most unexpected places. For many adults, the breathtaking natural beauty of our campus in Conover, Wisconsin, is sign enough of God’s provenance, even at first glance. But for those of us who have spent months of our lives at Ramah, a more expansive understanding of the relevance of this verse becomes apparent.
Camp is the place where we met our greatest friends and, for many, where we fell in love for the first time: with vibrant and holistic Jewish living, with the melodies and rhythms of t’filah (daily prayer), with a teacher or role model, with musical theater or ultimate frisbee or sailing or the miraculous potential of a potter’s wheel. As our campers get older – and for nearly all of our staff members who grew up in camp – a deep appreciation develops of the mystical, religious nature of the interpersonal relationships nurtured at camp and of our experiences of engaging with things we love at camp. The feeling of bliss so many of us experience at camp – and which is nearly impossible to explain to others – is called “flow” by the brilliant social scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and “normative mysticism” by Conservative theologian Rabbi Max Kadushin, who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A particular version of normative mysticism helps explain what your children and grandchildren mean when they describe how much fun they have at camp doing things that, at home, just don’t seem so exciting or do not interest them at all.
In the camp office, this time of year is characterized by families making two types of choices: to enroll their children in camp for the upcoming summer and to make a year-end gift to support the work we do year-round. Every day we receive multiple enrollments and are filling up about 10% ahead of last year’s pace. Every day we receive new gifts from individuals who help us make another summer at Ramah possible. As you are making these decisions, and sharing the magic and wonder of Ramah with your friends and family, I hope you’ll consider pondering with us the great power of Ramah: we are not just a summer camp; we are not just a place where fun and friendship build Jewish lives. We are an educational institution characterized by thoughtfulness and planning as we build the infrastructure to catalyze the growth of your children into kind and engaged citizens, knowledgeable and committed Jews, and well-rounded athletes, artists, and hobbyists. We are a place defined, ultimately, by the sudden acknowledgment of the holiness of what we do, the coupling of exceptionally strong friendships with activities that capture our children’s bodies, hearts, hands, and minds.
As the weather has turned and summer seems far away, I urge us all to recall the message of Jacob’s experience from this week’s parashah, the message that has transformed my own life and that of so many of my teachers, role models, friends, and campers: the powerful realization that an experience we never expected is indisputable evidence of God’s hand in our daily lives.