The first days of camp were filled with the sounds of new beginnings: aidot learning their zimriyah songs, the shrieks of joy – and, let’s be honest, inspired by a little cold water – as over three hundred campers entered Lake Buckatabon for the first time in almost a year to earn their deep-water tags and the right to play on our classic Blob and brand new American Ninja Warrior-style water obstacle course. The hugs of old friends seeing each other again in the place they met and the place that nourishes their friendship like none other. The sounds of relative silence as hamburgers, hot dogs, and french fries are devoured during dinner Tuesday evening; and no silence as the tables were cleaned and the cabins and aidot each announced a Hebrew version of “We’re here!” or “I’m back!” in the chadar ochel (dining hall).
Thursday morning our scheduled programming began as sports and cultural activities launched across camp. Solelim through Nivonim began practicing for their musicals – an exercise in community-building and group pride they’ll work on for four weeks or more. As I walked across camp on Thursday, the once empty campus was now filled with smiling children and exuberant staff. One Garinim girls’ cabin launched a summer of great memories with capes and costumes as part of their Yom Superhero, traipsing across the Kikar before a breakfast of French Toast. Professionals-in-Residence in dance, outdoor education, and musical instruments arrived to run activities and develop skills during the first reva (quarter) of the summer.
This Shabbat, campers will be introduced to the aidah educational theme which will frame the summer. These themes are developed by the Rosh Aidah in the spring and then presented to our counselors during staff week. Working with a team of professional educational consultants, the counselors develop fun experiential programs on topics related to the theme. For details about the aidah themes, click here.
Within the framework of all these new beginnings, I cannot help but turn again and again to one of our most favorite b’rachot (blessings), what we call “Shehecheyanu.”
One of Judaism’s great and fascinating recurrent themes is the linguistic relationship between God and human beings. Our classical texts seem to take quite literally the notion that humanity is created “in the image” (b’tzelem) of God, a word that in modern Hebrew evokes photographs and copy-machines. Perhaps most famously, the Torah instructs us in Vayikra (Leviticus):
קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני ה’ אלוהיכם
K’doshim tihiyu ki kadosh ani adonai eloheichem
You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy
The trend is picked up in a variety of other places: we are to strive to be imitatio dei – imitators of God. And, more radically, occasionally it seems like we are imbued with divine qualities or that God strives to be more like us.
Every evening in ma’ariv we read the following words:
אל חי וקיים
Eil chai v’kayam
God lives and exists
These two verbs – chai and kayam – are the same two verbs that open the unique part of the Shehecheyanu blessing. There, God is praised for enabling us to live and exist. God helps us be God-like. The blessing is also acutely aware of what differentiates God from us: while God is eil chai v’kayam tamid – always – we are fleeting. So we praise God also v’higiyanu, for allowing us to stay alive to celebrate the specific moment in time. Theologically, this is powerful stuff: God is, more or less, an ageless human. And what makes us special is that, due to our mortality, we must celebrate and appreciate the special moments in our lives, the moments of newness – laz’man hazeh.
We only say the Shehecheyanu blessing on moments in our lives that we hope to return to: holidays, putting on new clothing or a ritual garment, taking our first aliyah to the Torah at our Bar or Bat Mitzvah. We don’t say it at most lifecycle events – they are markers along our transient paths to which we cannot return.
This is a time for great celebration and Shehecheyanu moments. Our Nivonim campers have inaugurated the new Nivonim campus, hanging mezuzot on their cabins and programming space (Moadon Nivonim). A new summer is a cause for Shehecheyanu itself – a fresh new beginning with amazing potential for the future that we both hope to return to and which we need to be reminded how special and fleeting our time together is. And, in a topic I will return to in subsequent weeks, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s founding, we say Shehecheyanu for the vision and commitment of the campers, parents, supporters, and staff who have come before us, as an inspiration for the next 70 years of Ramah’s impact.