2017 Pre-Shabbat Letter from the Director #9

We’d like to thank

  • Rabbi Steven and Shira Abraham and family from Beth El Synagogue in Omaha
  • Rabbi Morris Allen and Dr. Phyllis Gorin from Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, MN
  • Todd Clauer from Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, KS
  • Chancellor Arnie Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary
  • Rabbi David Glickman and Dani from Congregation Beth Shalom in Overland Park, KS
  • Noah Hartman from the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago
  • Rabbi Lauren Henderson from Mishkan in Chicago
  • Rabbi Harold Kravitz from Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, MN
  • Marina Lewin and Jill Goldstein Smith from the Foundation for Jewish Camp
  • Rabbi Avi and Sara Olitzky and family from Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, MN
  • Matt Rissien from Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, IL
  • Louise Schoenberger and Julie Zeissman from the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School
  • Marc Sender from Congregation Beth Judea in Buffalo Grove, IL
  • Heidi Tarshish from the Talmud Torah of St. Paul
  • Alumni from Nivonim 1992 for their 25thanniversary reunion
  • Family Camp alumni from Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, MN

for joining us for a visit this week!

Last night, after an energetic and emotional performance of Mamma Mia! by Nivonim, the entire camp joined in singing our anthem, the Himnon Ramah.  At this time of the summer the words take on added resonance, and this year even more so.  Our summer-long theme, inspired by the celebration of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s 70th birthday, is a reflection on what it means to be a פנינת תפארה / p’ninat tifarah / a beautiful gem.  We reflect on our physical setting, the institution that has given us so much, our community at camp, and the individual people who make up that community as p’ninot tifarah and ask ourselves how each of us can be the best versions of ourselves and, in turn, how our community can be the best version of itself.

The opening verse of the himnon reads:

בין רכסי ההרים, פנינת תפארה
ישכון לו בדד, מחננו רמה

Bein richsei heharim, p’ninat tifarah
Yishkon lo vadad, machaneinu Ramah

Between the mountain peaks, a beautiful gem
It dwells in isolation, our camp – Ramah

Our dialogues this summer, which will culminate in a program run by the Nivonim for the younger aidot next Friday, has added layer upon layer to my understanding of p’ninat tifarah.  So too, as we move into the week containing the fast of Tisha B’av, the allusion in the himnon to the first verse of Eichah (Lamentations) – yishkon lo vadad – hits home as well.

As we look back on one of the most action-packed weeks of the summer, and ahead to a final culminating sprint towards the last Shabbat, the beauty of what lives inside the camp bubble – p’ninat tifarah – and the bubble itself – yishkon lo vadad, come into stark focus.  It is a week when Bogrim and Machon turn out to the world, welcoming to camp six professionals to run clinics for the special Shavua Bogrim in the culinary arts, outdoor education, carpentry, creative writing, health and fitness, and escape rooms; and embarking on a five-day tour of Wisconsin filled with awesome fun (water parks! Starbucks!) and meaningful engagement with substantive issues including making college choices from a Jewish perspective and Jewish ecology.  For the younger aidot and Nivonim, the focus is on turning inward for a post-Visitors Days calm of special projects, cabin activities, and meaningful engagement as our 4- and 8-week sessions crest into the final week of camp.  Our Tikvah program’s tailor-made approach to each child saw the aidah break into multiple parts with campers participating in activities throughout the week with Shoafim, Bogrim, Machon, and Nivonim, in addition to the Tikvah aidah programming.

Earlier today we experienced a first-ever costume parade during Kikar dancing, with nearly the entire camp dressed up in costumes.  While Solelim dressed up as Nivonim, embodying the cliché that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, Nivonim took to their animal costumes parading as Noah (Spiro)’s Ark.  Cabins of Minnie Mouses, T-Birds and Pink Ladies from Grease, Alufei Ha’ashpah trash collectors, and even an attempt at a reenactment of Washington crossing the Delaware all made appearances.  The winning cabin – the trash collectors from Bogrim – will get a special program planned by their counselors during the final week of camp.

This week we bid adieu to Kochavim A, welcomed Kochavim B, and saw more clergy and professional partners come through camp than any other week of the summer.  The energy in camp is palpable as our campers and staff can sense that just over the horizon is the final push of the summer, including the camp-wide reading of Eichah and programming around Tisha B’av, Machon and Tikvah’s performance of Pippin, and the Rikudiyah dance festival.  A week from now, Nivonim campers will be putting the finishing touches on the divrei Torah they will deliver in different settings over the final weekend.

As I’ve commented before, the phrasing of “Yishkon lo vadad” in the himnon is particularly resonant because of the way the legendary Bible scholar Moshe Greenberg (z”l) – then a young staff member when he wrote the poem in the late 1940’s – flips its meaning.  In the opening verse of Eichah, the phrase refers to a destroyed Jerusalem, a city once filled that has now been widowed.  Greenberg, writing in the wake of the Holocaust, saw our camp as a new Yavneh, the site where Rabbinic Judaism decamped too as the Roman siege on Jerusalem reached its traumatic conclusion.  Conover, Wisconsin, would be the place in which a new Judaism would emerge, a new network of relationships that would play an outsized role in rejuvenating Judaism for the second half of the 20th century.

To complete the metaphor, Greenberg saw the richsei heharim, the “mountains” surrounding camp, as the protective covering of an oyster, and imagined they would provide figurative protection for the beautiful pearl forming within.  Originally, the pearl was a small community of a hundred campers and a number of staff, dedicated singularly to replenishing so much that was lost in Europe and indeed to inspire a new American Jewry that would be knowledgeable, engaged, literate, and creative within a contiguous tradition.  That camp, of the late ‘40s, by necessity needed to be isolated and alone.  It was like the first wisps of smoke from a new fire – too much of anything but a gentle hand and the gradual introduction of new fuel, and it could be extinguished in an instant.  Today, we have far surpassed Greenberg’s vision of the proverbial baby phoenix rising from the ashes.

This last week of camp we will put closure on an amazing 2017 season and point ourselves forward to 2018 and beyond.  In doing so we will help realize the dream of the end of Greenberg’s poetry, the ambitious claim that Ramah would inspire tens of thousands of people with its magic.  While we revel in that success and appreciate all that our predecessors created and that we have to enjoy, we never forget where we came from and the constant attention to our mission and role.

Shabbat Shalom,
Jacob

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