2017 Pre-Shabbat Letter from the Director #8

We’d like to thank

  • Rabbi Carnie and Paulie Rose from Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis
  • Rabbi Vernon Kurtz from North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL
  • Rabbi Ryan Dulkin from the Hillel of the University of Minnesota
  • Tova Goodman from North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL

for joining us for a visit this week!

This morning, Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary, under whose educational auspices Camp Ramah in Wisconsin operates, spent time with our Roshei Aidah and other select senior staff.  Chancellor Eisen, a scholar of the sociology and philosophy of religion, asked our young educational visionaries for their insights on the next generation of American Jews: what makes the millennial and post-millennial generations tick?

As expected, the conversation quickly honed in on two fundamental questions that stakeholders of all types have asked of our 150 acres on the shores of Lake Buckatabon for seventy years:  Why does Ramah work?  And how does it work?

In responding and reflecting, dozens of different aspects of our camp program surfaced as examples and counter-examples as the conversation evolved.  Last night’s world premiere of Matilda in Hebrew by Bogrim; the spiritually infused and enthusiastic singing and learning of our optional Thursday night mishmar in the library; waterfront activities, inter-aidah sports games, arts activities; Jewish Studies classes and Israel programs; the role of friends and counselors; the countercultural nature of camp; the holistic and immersive Jewish environment. Hear more about this week at camp from Machon and Tikvah (a.k.a. Mikvah) campers broadcasting from our radio station, WRMH.

These few moments captured so much of what we see in a given week at camp, including exceptionally creative and meaningful examples of experiential education in the Yom Meyuchad programs this week; intense athletic competitions between Solelim, Shoafim, Bogrim, and Machon; two island swims; the completion of several public art projects; and much more.

Our conversation ping-ponged as the Roshei Aidah built on each other’s ideas and Chancellor Eisen restated their opinions in his own words and provided additional perspective from the theoretical work of Mordechai Kaplan, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and John Dewey and the sociological insights of Charles Liebman, Samuel Heilman, and Emil Durkheim.

As we search for the enduring magic of Ramah, what has remained constant over the last seventy years is the inversion of cultural importance at camp.  At camp, Judaism is what binds all of our moments together, and it is the thick soup of meaningful, practiced, lived Jewishness within which our campers develop their friendships and ideas.  Though we are sometimes tempted to use binary language to describe the landscape of activities – formal vs. informal learning, “fun” vs. “educational,” optional vs. mandatory, structured vs. free – the reality is that we have developed an organic, constantly mutating culture whose very DNA is stamped with a Jewish intensity that is replicable almost nowhere else in the world.

Beginning a week from Sunday, our Nivonim campers will embark on a project that will frame their final week as campers to imagine the next seventy years of Ramah in Wisconsin.  By looking back on the founding values of the camp from 1947 and their learning experiences with scholars of Ramah’s history and a series of alumni from the ‘40s and ‘50s, they will pivot forward and imagine what the camp they would found in 2017 should hold dear, and how that might speak to the next generations of American Jews into the late 2080s.  One of the major shifts in the camp over the last seventy years, which, like so much else, is but an echo of a broader trend in American education and child-rearing, is a shift from a system with meritocratic assumptions to one with egalitarian ones, a shift from choosing individuals to individual choice.  The model in the earliest years of Ramah was for each synagogue to nominate those children who would gain the most from Ramah experiences to be beneficiaries of a limited number of beds at camp in any given summer.  And the approach of the staff at camp, philosophically and practically, was to embrace these chosen elite and push them to greater heights, effectively playing an outsized role in launching one of the great explosions of creativity in Jewish history. The last gasps of this approach were present less than twenty years ago, but have been replaced by meaningful attempts and openness to welcoming everyone into camp, to balancing our commitment to high standards with an acknowledgment that each child is different though all are endowed with nearly unlimited potential.  Through this lens of equality, we acknowledge that our camper families have many options from which to choose for their Jewish education and summer experiences and embrace that they have chosen a partnership with Ramah in Wisconsin for their family. And we strive to represent that choice by providing tracks through camp with different degrees of individualization in different summers.

Our approach to individualization remains wedded to two important pillars of who we have always been and will continue to be: a camp committed to building broad communities and deep engagement with Jewish tradition and practice.  As we turn towards the last two weeks of camp, each of our four- and eight-week programs push on all fronts towards the great payoff of our year-round investment.

Shabbat Shalom,
Jacob

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