When Naomi Zuk-Fisher joined Barnard’s varsity crew (rowing) team, she committed to what turned out to be similar to a full-time job for her four college years. The team worked out twice a day, competed year-round and mingled together during the free remaining hours of the day.
With practices and training throughout the academic school year, the team competed in regattas in the fall and spring. Although they may not have won as much as they would have liked, Naomi found the team to be a strong community in and out of the water.
“It was a great sport,” she says now. “A great community; it was a social life — a lifestyle.”
Being a part of strong communities has been a running theme in Naomi’s life. A 1992 Nivonim alumnus of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, Naomi came to camp for the first time for her Bogrim summer.
While her transition was made a bit easier due to a few other kids she knew from home in the Minneapolis suburbs also coming to camp for the first time that summer, Naomi now admits she “really didn’t know what [she] was getting into” at the time. She enjoyed her first summer but remembers playing a lot of catch-up in understanding camp’s culture, activities and social circles. Either way, she had a good enough time to sign up to return for her Machon summer, a decision she found made all the difference.
“We were a motley crew,” she now says about her Machon cabin. The group clicked early on and felt very comfortable around each other. Better yet, they were part of a large aidah who she describes as an impressive group of people with wide-ranging interests and strengths.
They became the first Machon to travel to Ramah Canada, an experience she thinks bonded the entire group and increased their collective potential. But their exciting summer wasn’t only defined by international travel. Machon ‘91 put on “Hair” that summer, as well. The energetic, passionate play with what she regarded as “more mature material” at the time only added to her and her friends’ excitement. In many ways, she now recalls, her aidah sensed their formative Machon summer had given “us the feeling we had arrived.”
The enthusiasm carried over to her Nivo summer, when Naomi remembers loving the three-day canoe trip and putting on another strong performance with Les Miserables. What continues to stick out to her is that the aidah had a number of strong performers and artists who “allowed us to feel a great deal of pride in the group even if you didn’t have those strengths yourself.” The group’s potential had been realized. Naomi remains impressed and proud of the successful and creative community her aidah fostered during their time as campers.
During the following summer, Naomi participated in seminar plus, an additional two weeks spent in Israel before the standard six-week seminar program began. The seminar plus group was small and she felt everyone was looking for similar experiences as they hiked in various parts of the Negev desert, participated in army training, toured around Jerusalem and more. Besides enjoying the two weeks’ intensity, Naomi also appreciated experiencing elements of Israeli life first-hand and getting a truer sense of what living there was like with such an engaged group.
She then returned to camp for two summers as a cabin counselor for Shoafim and Solelim. She remembers emulating her own counselors’ traits in her work; she wanted to be the fun, exciting role model her counselors had always been for her. Leaning on what she remembered her favorite counselors doing to make sure she was comfortable and happy as a camper helped her balance the camper-care aspect of her job with the incredible programming development responsibilities she had never considered as a camper.
It was in her role as a counselor at Ramah where Naomi learned how to ensure success while managing potential conflict. She learned to coordinate with different people to achieve goals and to prioritize helping children transition effectively. The adult professionals working at camp helped her steer through potentially difficult situations and kept her from feeling like she was ever lost on the job. This summer her eldest son, Zavdi, is a Kochavim camper. She cites her experience on staff as the primary reason she feels so comfortable sending her own child to camp today.
The skills she gained as a counselor at Ramah have come in handy more than once since her days at camp. After college, Naomi worked in the investment sector in New York for two years before moving to Paris, where she worked for an international anti-poverty movement called ATD Fourth World. She helped with U.N. and other partnerships while working in the organization’s international relations department the first year and eventually running a literacy and community support program in communities outside of Paris during her second year.
After returning to New York two years later and embarking on a long career in the non-profit sector, she and her family moved to Minneapolis in 2010, where they still live. She currently works at Greater Twin Cities United Way, making grants to non-profits running early childhood development and social service programs.
She and her family belong to Beth El in Minneapolis and are part of the first cohort of “Ramahvura,” a group of young families who attended Ramah family camp in 2015 and 2016 (last year, Naomi visited the old Nivonim cabins just before they were knocked down during family camp and was very excited to find her name in graffiti on the wall). The Ramahvura has steadily grown and a second cohort will be representing Beth El at this year’s family camp for the third consecutive summer.
It hasn’t always been easy to keep in touch with all of her friends from camp throughout the years. She has managed to remain in close touch with a few, reconnected with more thanks to Family Camp, and enjoyed seeing other members of her aidah at Nivonim 1992’s 25-year reunion last week.
Naomi is proud to note that a lot of the programs United Way supports stress the importance of developing people’s identity and being aware of one’s cultural context. Much of the passion she has for her work can be traced to her time at Ramah, as she thinks her experiences as a camper and staff member helped her formulate and understand her own identity within certain cultural contexts and communities. Without her time at Ramah, she would have missed out on a valuable opportunity to consider how her Jewish experience would play out in a life that wasn’t going to be lived in a purely Jewish environment. As she says now, “I have a deep appreciation for the role Ramah plays in that process.”