for joining us for a visit!
The highlights from the last week of camp could fill an entire letter itself. Pe’ulot tzrif (cabin activities) galore took place all around camp, from early morning to late at night, from an island in Lake Buckatabon to the art studio, from the sports courts to the costume closet, and everywhere in between. Shoafim’s Tzedakah fair took over the kikar one afternoon, and on another afternoon we celebrated Harry Potter’s birthday with quidditch, “butterbeer” and other Hogwarts fun while over a hundred campers participated in an epic color run. A moving camp-wide reading of Eichah (Lamentations) on Monday evening was punctuated with beautiful performances by dancers and singers from different aidot. Thursday night’s performance of Pippin by Machon and Tikvah was filled with energy and exceptional talent. Before the show we recognized the winners of the 5th annual Derech Eretz awards, established as a tribute to the memory of Asaf Leibovich, a beloved alumnus, to recognize campers who are mensches. This morning Nivonim is running its capstone program for all the other aidot in camp, exploring with them our summer-long educational theme of P’ninat Tifarah.
Later today, we pivot towards the home stretch. Nivonim campers Sophie Kaufman and Joshua Pickard will take their places in a line stretching back almost thirty years, one of our most cherished traditions of providing a platform for two campers, on their last Shabbat, in a mix of Hebrew and English, to share their Torah and reflections on their Ramah experience with the entire camp. In next Friday’s letter, we will share excerpts from their words, and the words of other members of their aidah who are sharing their own perspectives over the course of this Shabbat.
Twelve summers ago, an exceptional and charismatic Nivonim counselor introduced a new approach to tackling the last weekend of camp for our oldest campers. These rising eleventh graders, many of whom have spent close to half their summers in Conover, face the end to their camper experiences here and an irrevocable shift in the nature of their relationships to each other and to Camp Ramah. At a yeshivah in the Galilee, it is the custom of the students to escort with song and dance a fellow student who is leaving for military service. The yeshivah joins together to sing a verse from Isaiah, one that we read twice at camp every summer in the haftarah for fast days, that reads: כי בשמחה תצאו, ובשלום תובלון / kee v’simchah teitzei’u, uvshalom toovaloon / With joy shall you depart, and in peace shall you return. This verse is now codified on the ceremonial sha’ar Nivonim, the massive gate at the base of our new Nivonim campus through which the aidah passes on the first and last days of camp. This evening, as they enter the emotionally resonant final weekend of their final summer as campers, they will be reminded of two key messages from this verse: that the departure they are making can and should be filled with joy in addition to all the other feelings they are experiencing, and that departures need not be endings, that we hope and expect them to return two years hence as staff members for the 2019 season and beyond.
For many campers, especially in the older aidot and for a good number of our staff, emotions will be running high this weekend as we prepare to leave our summer home for another year. As Professor Ben Sommer of JTS has taught, the notion of “home” is one that the Hebrew Bible (TaNaKh) complicates for many of its main characters, including, to name just a few, Adam, Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. For all of them, and for many Ramahniks, it is a constant toggle between two homes, two separate places that feel both unbelievably comfortable and somewhat uncomfortable. Camp allows us to be different versions of ourselves, to grow and evolve in different ways, to explore our Judaism in a drastically different environment, to develop deeper friendships. Camp is where the dominance of the secular world is flipped and replaced by holistic Jewish living.
Earlier this summer we celebrated the retirement of two often-hidden stalwarts of the Camp Ramah in Wisconsin family, George and Mary Merkel. Both worked for camp for well over thirty summers, Mary managing our housekeeping staff and George supervising the maintenance crew until stepping back a number of years ago as his son Tom took over the leadership of the team. George and Mary are part of our family, and we know that in the coming summers we will still see them occasionally stopping by with blueberry pie, riding a golf cart to help clean some laundry or make a bed, riding a lawnmower or, in an act you’ll rarely see from any other octogenarian, fixing something on a roof. One of George’s favorite sayings which has been most appropriate this summer, is that Wisconsin has four seasons: early winter, winter, late winter, and July. As we have moved into August, the weather again has turned damp and chilly; the meteorology expressing the sadness that many feel as we approach the end of camp. And yet the energy of our camp is undimmed, even by the unseasonable weather we have faced. The tears this weekend will be matched with smiles and shouts of joy as our kids hold onto their last memories with friends, enjoying the moment and grieving its fleeting nature all at once.
George has another favorite saying, one he often delivers over a walkie-talkie channel in his folksy twang of the Northwoods as he is set to depart camp after another day of tireless and dedicated service to his second family at his second home. It reminds me of the power of our community, and its longevity; the legacy we represent and the family we build here; the gifts the next generation will inherit from us and the profound joy in knowing we plant seeds today that will sprout into trees whose fruit our children shall reap. As he’s departing camp for his home in Eagle River, George leaves us with these words, lovingly uttered, as I leave you metaphorically as we move towards the dawn of Monday morning and the hugs of the parking lot: Goodnight Camp Ramah.