Shabbat Letter from the Director 2018: Week 8

We’d like to thank

  • Parents, relatives, and friends of Halutzim 2018 for Visitors Day
  • Members of Nivonim 1993 for their 25th reunion
  • Rabbi Noah and Tammy Arnow and family from Kol Rinah in University City, MO
  • Cantor Gil Ezring from Beth Judea Congregation in Long Grove, IL
  • Hazzan Michael and Laurel Krausman from Beth El in Omaha
  • Rabbi Vernon and Bryna Kurtz from North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL
  • Jonathan Madoff from Ramah Programs in Israel
  • Charlie Sherman from Am Yisrael Congregation in Northfield, IL
  • Rabbi Aaron Weininger from Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Minnetonka, MN
  • Julie Zeissman and Barbara Taragon from Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School

for joining us for a visit this last week!

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This evening, near the end of our Friday night services next to the lake, two Nivonim (11th grade) campers will take their place in a nearly thirty-year-old camp tradition: delivering a d’var Torah (sermonette) to the entire camp community.  I heard my first pair of these as a Solelim (7th) camper in 1993 from two alumni who were with us last Shabbat for their 25th Nivonim reunion, and have been gripped by the idea ever since.  To be chosen by one’s Nivonim counselors and Rosh Aidah (division head) to represent the aidah as a whole in front of the camp is a tremendous honor.  To turn that honor into a reflection on one’s own summers at camp and a charge to the rest of the camp community as to what it means to be good stewards of camp, to take advantage of all camp has to offer, is a monumental task for any sixteen year old. To do so in a mixture of Hebrew and English and engage a crowd of nearly six hundred only adds to the perceived weight of the effort.

Like nearly everything we do at camp, however, these “Nivo speeches” are not about the final product we’ll hear tonight.  Relatively uniquely, they are also not about the process that has led up to them – the summers at camp, the magic of Nivonim, the intense thought and energy put into writing and practicing during the last few days.  Rather, the Nivo speech is about a process that is just beginning, the process of taking the core intellectual work that is Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s hallmark and feeling empowered and comfortable enough to own it.  Two campers this evening will share an interpretation of a Jewish source and how it connect to their camp experience.  In doing so they will begin practicing one of the key roles of our counselors who develop intentional educational programming for their campers multiple times a week that weds Jewish sources with relevant topics for our campers’ lives.  Much more importantly, this work is the work of informed Jewish adults – the alumni we strive to create – who view our cultural legacy as their own and who feel facile enough with it to return to Jewish learning and Jewish life as part of their own meaning-making and community building throughout their lives.

For the first fifteen years or so of this tradition, the two divrei Torah were the only opportunity for Nivonim campers to formally do this work at the end of their final summers as campers.  Over the last fifteen years Nivonim Roshei Aidah have expanded the possibilities, and another half dozen or so campers will have similar opportunities this weekend.  I saw a glimpse of it last night in a camper’s beautiful and compelling reading of a favorite song of this summer’s Nivonim – and it was magic.

Next week I’ll cede this Friday afternoon message to the words of the Nivonim campers who are doing this interpretative work this weekend, including Avery Allen, Tamir Grey, Dina Barrish, and Eitan Weinstein.

***

Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time reading and re-reading the first verses of this week’s Torah reading, Eikev, as part of a project to learn and teach about some of the halachic (Jewish legal) reasoning and broader context around the blessings we say before and after we eat.  Two of the key verses that speak to these laws and their development are found in the first aliyah (section) of the Torah reading, Deuteronomy 8:3 and 8:10.

Both verses use the language of food and explicitly hint towards something more than eating:

לא על הלחם לבדו יחיה האדם כי על כל מוצא פי ה' יחיה האדם
Lo al halechem l’vado yich’yeh ha’adam, ki al kol motza fi adonai yich’yeh ha’adam
Not on bread alone does humanity live, for on all produce of Adonai’s mouth does humanity live. (8:3)

ואכלת ושבעת וברכת את ה' אלוהיך על הארץ הטובה אשר נתן לך
V’achalta v’savata uverachta et adonai eloheicha al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lach.
And you will eat, and be satisfied, and bless Adonai your God for the good land God has given you. (8:10)

Jews love food and food is one of the most important basics we provide our campers and staff.  Yet both of these verses exhort us to see beyond mere sustenance.  In context, the first verse is a reminder that other food, like the manna God provided us in the desert, can support life.  Out of context, it takes on an even more significant meaning: our physical needs and materialism are but part – and hopefully a small part – of how we enjoy life and define a good life.  For there is much more that God offers than “merely” bread.  The second verse is a rich source for the Rabbinic legal imagination because the commandment is not to eat and recognize God but to eat, be satisfied, and recognize God.  What does that word satisfaction mean?  Again, the context from the previous verses is pretty clear: the land God has promised us is filled with bounteous fields and produce and the products of the land will not just feed us but satiate us, and for this we should thank God – not for the food, per se, but for the land on which it was grown.

These last few days have demonstrated to me in a variety of ways how much our campers embody these larger messages of sustenance and satisfaction.  Yesterday afternoon as we sat in an administrative meeting reviewing the logistics and details for the last four days of camp we were wowed by a full kikar of campers in different activities.  From Yom Kessem (magic day) and a potions table to a group of older girls and their counselors rocking out to ABBA in full Mamma Mia! garb, camp was alive at its very best.  Before the Rikudiyah (dance festival) last night we recognized the wonderful life and generous spirit of one of my campers, Asaf Leibovich (ז"ל), who passed away too young and in whose memory we have established a program to teach derech eretz (kindness; literally: the way of the world).  Each year we recognize one camper from Halutzim (6th) to Atzmayim (Special needs vocational) for exemplifying derech eretz in camp.  Watching the stunned and proud faces of the winners as they are announced in front of the whole camp, and listening to their aidah-mates shriek with joy at their victory, never fails to move me.  The Rikudiyah itself is an amazing display of energy and creativity by our talented dancers and, immediately after the last dance, the Beit Am (auditorium) turns into a raucous dance party as we have the liveliest kikar dancing of the summer. 

After the Rikudiyah I attended our weekly mishmar for – I am embarrassed to say – the first time ever.  Mishmar is a song-filled welcoming of Shabbat on Thursday evening that has become one of the most popular optional programs around camp.  I attended this week for a special reason I’ll touch on in a minute; what I experienced was unbelievably profound.  Over a hundred campers packed into our Sifriyah (library), singing and clapping.  As an observer, when I was able to step away from my own experience, I saw these kids having a spiritual experience, one heightened by the end of camp and the hugs and tears that come with it.

Watching yesterday afternoon and evening unfold I was reminded again and again of these verses from the Torah that redirect us away from the material realm and from consumption to satisfaction.  I know that, as kikar dancing is taking place a hundred feet from my office, as an afternoon of Bogrim (9th) “synchronized swimming” (which is usually neither synchronized nor does it consist of much swimming) and a special camp-wide musical recording are to unfold, that this energy will carry us into the final weekend of camp.  It has been a phenomenal last week, one of “extra” and “more” for all campers and staff, from Kochavim B (4th) on up.

***

My first summer as a Rosh Aidah, in 2003, I had the privilege of inheriting an amazing group of early adolescents who were struggling, as we all are at that age, to discover their individual identities and their collective identity as an aidah.  I cherish my ongoing relationships with many of them, and only one has spent nearly every summer at camp with me since.  My appearance at mishmar last night was, for me, an opportunity to see something that my camper, Jeremy Fineberg, has spent lots of energy building over the last few summers, and to find a formal platform to recognize Jeremy for the role he has played in camp and in my life over the last sixteen summers.  To my camper, friend, teacher, colleague, and soon-to-be Rabbi: thanks for the memories, the good and the bad; for the stories we tell and, God willing, can keep telling, about those memories; and for a rich and ever-unfolding sense of our holy work here at camp and how its worth is directly tied to a broader vision for Jewish life.  As I said last night: I’ll miss you here, am not sure what I’m going to do without you, and hope your Rabbinic career can help bring you back to camp for yet another wonderful chapter in your involvement here at home.

***

As this summer concludes, I am filled with joy and gratitude for the privilege of my role in stewarding this place I love so much.  Thank you to all the staff who have contributed to this summer, and especially to those I work most closely with on a day-to-day basis over the summer: Director of Operations Scott Topal, Assistant Director Adina Allen, Program Director Gal Atia, and Roshei Hanhalah Yael Bendat-Appell and JAR.  As much as I write in this space of the “magic of camp,” that magic requires an infrastructure, thoughtful and deliberate planning, attention to detail, and inspiration and support for over two hundred staff members.  These are the true magicians of camp, whose work ethic and prodigious skills working behind the scenes are manifest in every smiling camper, new and enhanced skill, deepened confidence and self-esteem, new friendship, and renewed sense of Jewish identity and connection. 

Finally, thank you for your support and partnership in sending your children to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.  I do not take any of your trust in us for granted.

Shabbat Shalom,
Jacob

Questions to ask your campers this week: 

Kochavim: What did you do on Yom Vacation?
Halutzim: What did you learn about the Torah during our trivia game?
Solelim: What was your favorite potion on Yom Kesem (magic)?
Shoafim: What did you do in your tzedakah hug?
Bogrim: How do you plan to transform the things you love and care about into actions in the year to come?
Machon: What program did you create in the Shark Tank challenge?
Tikvah: What customs did you talk about during your Shabbat program "See it, Say It, Do It"?
Nivonim: How would you summarize your experience as a camper?
Atzmayim: How did you thank your job supervisor?