by Shuly Rubin Schwartz, Visiting Professor
It’s always a treat to spend time at Ramah, but it was especially meaningful to visit Camp Ramah in Wisconsin—the first Ramah camp founded—this summer during Ramah’s 70th year. To mark this special anniversary, I had the opportunity to share with counselors, senior staff members, and older campers the foundational principles that inspired the creation of Ramah in 1947. We looked at texts from the 1940s which articulated Jewish leaders’ most pressing goals and hopes for the camp. The founders felt the burning need to identify future Jewish leaders, capture time in the summer for formal Jewish education, create a vibrant Hebrew speaking environment, expose campers to the beauties and joys of Jewish living, and cultivate wholesome Jewish personalities and caring human beings.
Counselors, staff members, and older campers were animated by hearing the distinctive mission articulated by the founders, the sense of urgency in their words as they assumed the weighty responsibility—in the wake of the Holocaust—to ensure the flourishing of a robust Jewish life in America. I felt equally energized by the passion and dedication of today’s Ramahniks! We considered how and why Ramah has changed over the decades and in what ways it furthers the founders’ vision. What role does and should Hebrew play in camp today? Should Ramah expand its tent to include all who want to attend, or ought it to retain standards of study, observance and Hebrew in order to flourish in the future as it has in the past. Passionate conversations ensued even as the outstanding camp program continued: beautiful zemirot sung with fervor and joy; life-long friendships deepening; campers stretching themselves to master new skills; and instances of kindness, empathy, and chesed touching individuals throughout the community.
Ramah Wisconsin staff—from the inspired leadership of director Jacob Cytryn to the newest junior counselor—is driven to enrich the lives of campers in 2017 through the same vehicles used by the founders. But as I watched the Tikvah campers perform a sketch that had been developed and rehearsed in partnership with Machon campers, I was also reminded of the ways in which the current Ramah vision has flourished beyond what could ever have been imagined. I could only smile with deep satisfaction knowing that the visionaries of the 1940s would be gratified to witness dedicated staff hard at work advancing Ramah’s mission in the same beautiful (though physically, much enhanced) space some 70 years later.