2017 Pre-Shabbat Letter from the Director #2

Near the tail end of an absolutely gorgeous week of weather for early June in the Northwoods, I have been thinking a lot about how two of my favorite days of the “off-season” back in Chicago can help us understand some of the magic that happens at camp.  If you’d like to read about those thoughts, please click through after the next few paragraphs, because I would be remiss, four (!!!!) days before we welcome the majority of our campers on Tuesday, to not speak a little about the exciting new projects and excitement permeating the air as we make final preparations for another amazing summer.
 
We are thrilled to formally introduce our newest addition to the waterfront, the Aquaglide Challenge Course!  Staff members are already raving about the prospects of American Ninja Warrior style fun on Lake Buckatabon, in addition to our blob, log rolling, island swims, and variety of boats.  Stay tuned for photos!
 
We have brought phenomenal senior leadership to camp this summer, including a number of new faces.  Of special note are our Rosh Chinuch Bashetach (Head of Outdoor Education), Joel Dworkin, whose extensive experience has already increased the depth of our program and plans for this summer, and Dedi Bitton, our Rosh Sport.  Dedi runs the Merkaz Dor (see a video about the Merkaz here) recreational center in Israel and brings a passion for and expertise in athletics that will reshape our program.  B’ruchaim haba’im (welcome) to Joel and Dedi!
 
We are putting the final logistical touches on reworking schedules for the younger aidot (divisions) to provide more flexibility;  designing a process for enhanced community-building in each cabin; polishing the scripts for our season of Broadway theater in Hebrew; preparing to offer special professionally-led electives in dance, art, and outdoor education; an awesome Shavua Bogrim offering clinics in the culinary arts, fitness, creative writing, carpentry, escape room adventure, and outdoor education; planning a great Machon Trip; and, of course …
 
Inaugurating our new Givat Nivonim (Nivo Hill), the campus over seventy years in the making!  
 
Two of my favorite days during the year are spread nearly six months apart.  In the late fall I have had the privilege for the last number of years of teaching a class of Introduction to Judaism as part of Anshe Emet Synagogue’s Jew-by-choice program.  The dates and needs of the program change from year-to-year with my travel schedule and the regular teachers’ obligations, but the feel of the class is always the same:  a deep thirst for, and enthrallment with, learning about Judaism and getting a sense of its inner-workings.
 
About six months later, I make it my business every year to attend “the Siyyum” (literally “completion”) for the graduating class of the Rochelle Zell (formerly Chicagoland) Jewish High School. After a festive morning service and breakfast, a faculty member addresses each of the graduating seniors for a few minutes in front of the assembled crowd.  Some of the speeches are riveting because of their eloquence; others due to their earnestness.  Some make you wonder if the student in question will really win a Nobel Prize, become Poet Laureate, or live in the White House someday.  Every interaction between the almost-graduate and a devoted teacher is inspiring and heartwarming.  Everyone in that room, including myself, sheds a few tears.
 
The connections to camp are not superficial, though they could be: we have many current camper families and alumni connected to Anshe Emet, including the clergy and staff there, and some of the students in the Jews-by-choice program over the years have been in serious relationships with Ramah alumni.  And each year a handful or more (sometime much more) of the graduates from RZJHS are Ramah alumni and entering Junior Counselors, as well as those with close Ramah connections on the faculty, administration, and board.
 
Rather, what struck me sitting in the RZJHS gymnasium is how these two favorite moments of mine during the year encapsulate core experiences of my own Ramah biography and which continue to define what we’re all about:  creating an environment where we make our campers feel blessed and destined for greatness for being exactly who they already are and one where we cultivate a deep thirst for the basic content, nuance, and deep twists of Jewish knowledge and practice.  It has been the practice of many of our Roshei Nivonim, working with our oldest campers at the tail-end of their camper careers, to pen individual Shabbat-o-grams to the entire aidah on the last Shabbat of the summer.  Invariably, while those messages often contain an anecdote about an interaction between the camper and the Rosh Aidah or recall a moment that camper enjoyed in the spotlight during the summer, the true message of each and every later is simple, uniform, and profound:  keep being who you are.  Become yourself.  Let the beauty and amazing that is inside you out.  
 
Over our preparatory week before the staff arrived where we teach the Roshei Aidah and Roshei Anaf how to be supervisors and prepare for the full staff’s arrival, we regularly study Jewish texts together, both for programmatic purposes and lishmah, the Rabbinic idiom best translated as “just because.”  We study biblical and Rabbinic and medieval and modern texts together because the process of learning those texts, of stepping into the eyes and minds of our ancestors, is valuable in and of itself:  just because.  And each time I sit down with a group of Ramah staff, I am inspired again as to both their thirst for Jewish meaning and, most profoundly, for their insistence at staking a claim to these texts as their own.  Their opinions join with those in the long chain of Jewish history, creating an unbroken and ever-evolving chain.
 
Over Shabbat our staff will spend extended time engaging with our past, present, and future as they begin a summer-long conversation I’ll return to in a few weeks.  As I prepare for the nineteenth time I’ve celebrated Shabbat during staff week, I know that the air here over Shabbat will be filled with love.  Love for Judaism, love for each other, and a love for the summer we are about to have together.
 
Shabbat Shalom.
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