The Roman calendar, which served as the original basis for the Gregorian calendar we use today, began with the month of January, named after the two-faced God Janus. The new year begins with something like the caricatured imagery familiar to us from Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve celebration – the departing year represented by a bearded old man, the about-to-begin year by a cherubic baby in a diaper.
Our Jewish New Year, which begins Sunday evening, is far less about splitting our attention like Janus and much more focused on what comes next. The process of t’shuvah (repentance) and chesbon hanefesh (introspection; literally: taking an accounting of a person/soul) are meant to improve ourselves for what is to come. We pray for a year of bounty, of success, of joy, of true goodness. Wishing our friends and family a shanah tovah, a “good year” is meant to evoke powerful usages of the word tov in the Torah and elsewhere, including God referring to all of the created universe as “tov me’od” (very good) (Genesis 1:31), God informing Adam that it is “lo tov” (not good) for him to be alone just before God creates Eve (Genesis 2:18), and of the instruction to pursue “hayashar v’hatov” (the good and the straight/just) in our justice system (Deuteronomy 6:18).
As we are reminded in the climactic prayer of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the liturgical poem (piyyut) Un’taneh Tokef, life does not always follow our wishes. Our liturgy presents metaphors to help make sense of the uncertainty and unfairness of life while at other moments undermining them. We are both uncomfortable with the reality of life as we know it and resigned to embrace the positive and negative consequences of our fate. We pray for the bountiful potential of existence while intellectually knowing that life rarely works out that way. In the generations the liturgy was offered, even more so than our own, survival was tenuous at best; financial stability often a pipe-dream.
This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in perhaps the two most common metaphors our High Holy Day prayerbooks (machzor) utilize to describe the relationship between human beings and God. In both Avinu Malkeinu (Our Parent, Our Sovereign) and in Hayom Harat Olam (Today the Universe is Born) God is described as Parent and Ruler. While at first glance the former might seem more positive than the latter, the realities of life and experience complicate these preconceptions. Our relationships with our parents, even for the most blessed of children, is one of love, caring, and the eventual tensions inherent in the younger generation creating its own identity and making its way in the world as it sees appropriate. And our relationships to political leaders depends on their personalities and the circumstances of their rule. In both metaphors, the curveballs life throws us are an inherent, if often overlooked, part of our evaluation of both parents and rulers.
As we approach the final lead-up to the High Holy Days, and gaze out at 5777 with dreams and hopes of all it could contain, we should remind ourselves that the liturgy itself embraces the unpredictability of life. As we reflect on last summer when Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and the Ramah Day Camp in Chicago directly impacted over one thousand young Jews as campers and staff, and are already in the midst of planning for our 70th anniversary celebration and our 2017 summers, preparing the next generation for that unpredictability is at the core of what we do.
Through our summer programs and engagement with families and alumni year-round, fun experiences and powerful friends catalyze in our campers and staff a deep-grounding in resilient identities and, with any luck, in figuring out how they can be the best people possible. We infuse them with Jewish ritual, knowledge, and values, while promoting social, group-living, leadership, and intellectual skills that will serve them throughout their lives.
Our dream for them – and for you, and your families, friends, and communities – is that the lives we continue to live will be filled with the blessings the liturgy enumerates. And to paraphrase one of the giants of our Ramah movement and of Jewish education, the late Seymour Fox (z”l), we move forward with an educational vision inspired by the universe’s great potential and informed by our keen awareness of that same universe’s profound fallibility.
Maya Zinkow is a lifelong Ramahnik, originally from Columbus, OH, and three-time Rosh Aidah. She just completed a wonderful summer as Rosh Machon and recently began her studies for the rabbinate at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City.
Reflections on Parashat Ki Tavo
by Maya Zinkow
At this time of year, our hearts and our minds are turned towards t’shuva (repentance). We process, look internally, seek forgiveness and healing, and look forward to fresh starts and new beginnings. The sound of the shofar each morning of this month of Elul stirs in us that familiar desire to bring our best selves into the new year before us. The opening aliyah (section) of this week’s parashah (Torah reading), though, brings us to another place and time: Pesach (Passover).
As Moses continues to relay a variety of laws related to entering into and nurturing the Land of Israel, we have in Parashat Ki Tavo an instruction to bring the first fruits of the land to Jerusalem every year – what we now observe as the holiday of Shavuot – and recite a passage familiar to anyone who has sat at a Seder in springtime:
“A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto God, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And God brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders” (Deuteronomy 26: 5-8)
These familiar lines bring us mentally back to springtime, to cleaning, to ridding ourselves of physical and spiritual chametz (leavening). When we read the recitation this week, we may find ourselves in different emotional or physical places than last April, perhaps more able to appreciate the wonder and miracle of yitziyat mitzrayim, of leaving Egypt and the burden of oppression.
At this season, we hear and feel the echo of Pesach cleaning as we strive to rid ourselves of our bad habits and negative behaviors, but ultimately the more important goal is to bring our best selves forward, to offer the finest fruits we can before God and our loved ones.
At the end of every camp season, we face the challenge of integrating all the magic that happens over the course of the summer into our new year. For campers, this may mean keeping in touch with friends, bringing home new rituals or traditions we cherish at camp, or holding onto singular, beautiful memories of days spent in the Northwoods. For staff, we strive to integrate our working experiences of the summer into other environments, apply camp’s endless wealth of lessons elsewhere in our lives, and step into more leadership roles on campuses and in our work. This integration of camp’s abundant gifts into lives at home is essential to maintaining the wholeness of our identities, of our camp community, and to our ultimate goals as an institution. What good is a summer at camp if we do not allow it to change us for the better, allowing us to see familiar pieces of our lives with fresh eyes?
The recitation of the Pesach story that we will recount tomorrow during services serves as a reminder of how much we are able to grow even in the span of just a few months. In this season of turning our hearts towards each other and to God, we are given the gift of heightened senses to the miracles of daily life and relationships. Indeed, Moshe says the same of the Israelites; that God’s heroic might in bringing us out of Egypt passed unseen and uncelebrated until the next generation could fully appreciate its significance:
“You have seen all that God did before your eyes in the land of Egypt unto Pharaoh, and unto all his servants, and unto all his land; the great trials which your eyes saw, the signs and those great wonders; but God has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, until this day” (Deuteronomy 29: 1-3)
As you prepare for this Shabbat and for Rosh Hashana around the corner, think of the ways each summer at camp has helped shape you or your family, perhaps allowing you to see each other with fresher eyes and fuller hearts. May this be God’s will as we prepare to enter a new year full of abundance.
Adina’s Reflections on Her First Summer as Assistant Director
by Adina Allen
Since returning home from camp, I have been asked numerous times “So, how was camp?” by my friends and family. I pause for a second, not sure where to begin, but realize I need to start somewhere. I talk about the camp-wide moments: our Nivonim Yom Sport captains leading the entire camp, ensuring that the morning would be a huge success; or the energy and support that could be felt in the Beit Am (auditorium) during Bogrim’s phenomenal Fiddler on the Roof performance in the midst of an extended power outage in the camp. I quickly shift to talking about how incredible our staff was and what a joy it was to work with them, the many new friendships I saw form throughout the summer, and, finally, that smile on a camper’s face when she passed the swim test for the first time.
As the conversation has shifted away from camp and my summer, I find my thoughts drifting back to the scene of the first day of camp. That first afternoon was one of my favorite moments of the summer and was a perfect reminder I was in the right place and part of a loving and welcoming community. Cabins gathered together for the first time, playing name games, and learning new facts about one another. Campers played frisbee and caught up with friends they hadn’t seen in a year. I saw counselors engaging with and leading all of their campers, excited for their new roles after a meaningful staff week. Just a few hours after campers stepped off the busses, the kikar (central field) was transformed into the living room for hundreds of Ramahniks. Those conversations continued back in the tzrif (cabin) as cabins concluded the first day by setting the guidelines for living in a community together for the rest of the summer.
Ultimately in setting up the community, we try to strike the balance between each individual’s needs and the entire cabin’s needs. The transition for our campers from living together with family to sharing a cabin with 16 people begins with open dialogue and expectations articulated up front.
In parashat Ki Teitzei, we receive 74 mitzvot (commandments) governing such diverse legal areas as the return of lost objects, dress (tzitzit), marriage and divorce, and war. Taken as a whole, these laws describe building a community and the importance of striking the balance between the needs of individuals and the needs of the entire group.
The Rabbis teach that one of the most remarkable mitzvot appears in this parashah (portion),
שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת-הָאֵם, וְאֶת-הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח-לָךְ, לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ, וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים.
You shall send away the mother bird, and then you may take the young for yourself.
The importance of bringing thoughtfulness to each of our actions and respecting even a bird whose eggs we are about to take is demonstrated through this simple act; and, as the text mentions, the fulfiller of this mitzvah is rewarded with a long life. There is only one other mitzvah in the entire Torah for which the reward of long life is also promised: honoring our own parents.
We are instructed immediately afterwards that when building new homes, we need to be cautious and build guardrails surrounding the roof. This reminds us that although we may know how to be careful in our own home, we must always be thinking about how to take care of the people around us.
In the next chapter, at the end of a section on vows, we read,
מוֹצָא שְׂפָתֶיךָ, תִּשְׁמֹר וְעָשִׂיתָ
Observe and do what is emitted from your lips [23:24].
Our words matter and the way we use them is important. This idea is central to the work we do at camp, and is especially important to remember as we begin this period of reflection leading up to Yom Kippur.
The reading of this week’s parashah comes in the middle of the month of Elul, when we as Jews are doing heshbon nefesh (searching our souls) and beginning to focus on our process of teshuvah (repetence) before the High Holy Days just a few weeks away. Just as we come together at the beginning of the summer to plan and navigate what our summer will look like, we as Jews engage in this process of personal reflection, improvement, and growth to guide us into the new year. As we head into the final stretch before Rosh Hashanah, I hope that each of you will take the time to regroup, reflect, and dream together with your family about what the next year will look like.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!
In the waning hours of Sunday, August 14, as the sun began to fall in the sky and the fast day of Tisha B’av wore on, I made my way through the cabins one last time. A few hours after camp emptied out from the nearly three hundred participants and staff in Family Camp and exactly one week since six hundred-plus campers and staff began bidding their own final farewell, time was ticking away on my own 2016 summer and, in turn, on the cabins and space we have known for decades as גבעת נבונים (givat Nivonim), Nivo Hill.
I spent five summers on the givah, as a camper, counselor, and Rosh Aidah (Division Head); each of them contains many, many cherished memories I will never forget. Nivonim at Ramah Wisconsin, in certain circles, is not just a summer, not just the culminating experience of one’s camper years, but a Platonic ideal of communal and educational possibility, a testament to all we are about. It is a statement, encapsulated in my favorite phrase of the aidah cheer: lilmod ul’lameid b’otah pe’ulah – to learn and teach in the same activity. Nivonim have already begun the transition from camper to staff; they are open to learning, as we all should be, and uniquely poised to begin giving back, teaching, leading, and offering themselves to their aidah and the broader community at camp and beyond. When the program works – and it so often does – it can be breathtaking to uphold. The camper who steps up on Yom Sport (Camp-wide Olympics), who finds unanticipated meaning in a service project, internship, or the counselor-in-training program, who shines in the English Play. The group, as a whole, who wows the entire camp during their musical, who express the pure joy of so many moments during the summer.
This past summer, Nivonim 2016 focused on the concept of “legacy” as well as their own legacy, as they grappled with the pros and cons of being the last of 47 Nivonim aidot to live on the original givah. In addition to making physical contributions for the new campus, they spent time learning and thinking about how legacy works and how they wanted to be remembered. On a basic level, this is the work of every Nivonim aidah, an essential part of reflecting on what the central unit of camper community has meant to us as we prepare to transition to a new phase of our lives. On an individual basis, this is the work Judaism asks us to do during the month of Elul in the lead-up to the High Holy Days and Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year.
Reflecting on the past in order to move forward is one of the many ways camp hammers home lessons from our Jewish tradition that are relevant to the rest of our lives. In age-appropriate ways, Nivonim 2016 struggled with the classic dilemma with which I am certain Nivonim 2017 will also be faced: how do major physical changes impact our experiences? Though the terrain of the givah will be different moving forward and the campus will be new, the experiences will be similar: each aidah puts its own unique mark and writes its members’ own unique stories at camp while the legacies of every aidah resonate with all others. As we approach the cheshbon hanefesh, the “personal accounting” of this season on the Jewish calendar, each of us in our own way must face the constant change around us and the paradox of human existence: the continuity of our own identity (and identities) within experiences that feel disjointed.
As I walked through the original givah one last time on Sunday afternoon almost a month ago, I was trying to hold onto this physical space I knew would be no more in a few short hours. My entire approach, however, was ironic. Not only had I known for nearly twenty years, since I was a camper in the musty boys cabins in 1997, that these buildings could not last forever, but the ephemeral memories of my time in and around those cabins in ’97, ’02, ’04, ’05, and ’06 had nourished and sustained who I am ever since. The memories, originally, were forged on that ground; but the role the memories have played is connected to the lessons I have learned from those experiences, the love I feel for those people, and the emotions each episode evokes.
This time of year, for us in the Ramah office, is a time to reflect and account for the summer just ended even as we begin planning and dreaming for next year. Thus we are blessed to follow the dominant rhythm of the Jewish year during Elul. May we all be blessed with the ability to thoroughly take an inventory and accounting of who we were and who we would like to be, as we turn the corner in a few short weeks into 5777. For back up at camp, tons of earth has been moved and the foundations are being laid for our new Nivonim campus, a differently-shaped givah but one equally positioned to provide the memories and impact of the originals – for the next forty-seven years.