Shabbat Letter from the Director 2018: Week 4

We’d like to thank

  • Rabbi Mitch Cohen, Amy Skopp Cooper, and Jeff Goodman, the professional staff of the National Ramah Commission
  • Yossi Garr from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Nativ College Leadership Program
  • Marc Gary, Executive Vice Chancellor and COO of the Jewish Theological Seminary
  • President Jeff Kopin and the rest of the National Ramah Commission
  • Rabbi David Soloff, our Chief Executive Officer
  • Rabbi Loren Sykes, former Director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin

for joining us for a visit this last week!

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‘Twas a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme here at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin this week.

The hubbub of Yom Sport – relay races, our outdoor education staff’s annual כתובת אש / k’tovet eish / fire sign, late night capture the flag game for the oldest aidot (divisions), intense guys’ and girls’ basketball and coed soccer competitions.  Climactically, the end-of-competition relay race is one filled with great camp rituals, including the initial sprint around the garbage trail, table setting and bed making, tennis ball hitting and Frisbee throwing, leap-frogging down the kikar, kayaking to the island, swimming back, and fire building resulting in the burning of a rope to win!  This year we added a new station, traversing our now-expanded water trampoline (affectionately called the “bloob”).  As Yom Sport concludes with thank you announcements and the final results, delivered by the four Nivonim (11th grade) “Über” captains who spend the better part of two weeks planning the day, the entire camp joins together for the himnon (camp anthem) after which the entire Nivonim aidah storms the lake. 

Once upon a time, we celebrated July 4th with a camp-wide Talent Show.  As the camp calendar and programming has evolved, there was a period of time when Yom Sport and the 4th of July often overlapped.  We realized that the combination of Yom Sport and the Talent Show sent an inherent, if subtle, message: we can spend all day battling back and forth for points and our own place in camp history as members of k’vutzat adom (the red team!) 2018, and then spend the evening cheering together for brave and creative individuals and groups representing all teams and aidot as they ascend the stage between Omanut (visual arts) and Nagarut (woodworking) and perform.   For me, the Talent Show has become one of my favorite moments of the summer, a celebration of true talent and general camp goofiness, all wrapped up in a cozy blanket of a safe and nurturing community.  Where else can a Solelim (7th grade) camper beat the game “Bop It!” as a crowd of six hundred looks on in awed silence?  Or a new Shoafim (8th) camper premieres his amazing voice days before his outstanding Gaston in Beauty and the Beast?  An exquisite rendition of “Tomorrow” from Annie by a Garinimer (5th)?  An improvement on two decades of Nivonim dances by the kids themselves who choreographed three dances, including an all-aidah one that ran seamlessly into each other and consciously moved away from classic gender stereotypes?  Continuing a tradition by performing another amazing Shoafot (8th grade girls) dance, a goofy Bogrim (9th) comedy-song-and-dance routine, and a super-talented Machon (10th) band?  The whole camp slept very, very well on Tuesday evening.

This summer we spread our July 4th celebration of the United States of America’s 242nd birthday over two days!  Staff programming included intense and respectful conversation about American values and how they manifest themselves in today’s world and then a spirited debate about which of two classic artifacts of Americana – Apple Pie and the Big Mac – is “more” American.  You can guess which one won in our Kosher camp!  Later the staff enjoyed an ice cream and dance party well into the night as we demonstrated American pride to ourselves and Israeli staff.

July 4th for the campers is a great day, defined for most by our translation into English of all words we use in Hebrew during the summer.  The Bogrim become “the mature ones;” Sha’at m’nuchah, “rest hour;” chadar ochel, “dining hall.”  At t’fillot (services) each aidah added some combination of the Prayer for our Country and/or a Prayer for the United States Armed Forces.  A number of yahadut (Jewish studies) classes had 4th of July Seders including a Haggadah prepared by teacher Rachel Shaw (read more about that here).  A rainstorm in the afternoon delayed some of our fun activities in the water, on the beach, and on the sports courts until the 5th, but American singing and line dancing, as well as special pe’ulot erev (evening activities) continued as planned.

The tale as old as time is the cycle of the summer: the amazing camp-wide events of Yom Sport, the Talent Show, and July 4th, and the other pre-planned and obvious parts of a summer at Ramah.  This week also saw a warm and welcoming Garinim Visitors Day, a fabulous island swim, and more marvels of our “regularly expected programming.”

The songs as old as rhyme – those are the unexpected gems just under the service.

On Monday morning I was invited to one of our Garinim yahadut classes.  The curriculum for our Garinim campers is built around the study of b’rachot (blessings) and the campers’ explorations of the language within these prayers led them to lots and lots of questions and opinions about God.  The teacher felt the campers would benefit from hearing from someone outside of the kids’ daily experiences. 

As I sat on a patch of grass beneath the shade of a tree with campers from Des Moines, Minneapolis, Baltimore, and various parts of Chicago, I started listening to the wise-beyond-their-years questions and answers these rising 5th graders had been pondering.  Through the course of our conversation, the most eager to participate of the campers offered the following set of great challenges to a discussion of theology:  “How could the God who saved Noah’s ark have stood idly by and let Hurricane Katrina destroy New Orleans?  And why don’t miracles happen anymore?  And, if it really rained for forty days and forty nights, how was there enough food on the ark for Noah’s family and all the animals?”

These young men and women, not even on the cusp of becoming bar and bat mitzvah, are grappling with great questions about God, questions which our contemporary world’s obsession with proof and rationality make all the more difficult.  Like virtually all children – and nearly all people – living in 2018, our campers are told stories from the Torah and presented a vision of God shaped originally by a Greek pagan more than 2,000 years ago.  We want them to become believing, nuanced, proud Jews, and yet we so often fail to help them get there. 

The Garinim yahadut class I sat in was asking four classic questions of theology:

1.       Does God exist?  What evidence would we accept as supporting our answer? 

2.       Does God play a role in the affairs of human history or is God a transcendent presence?

3.       Why does God let bad things happen to good people?

4.       Does God predetermine the course of our lives or do we have free will to make our own decisions?

For forty minutes we discussed.  I helped these nine year-olds identify the four questions which had surfaced nearly verbatim during the conversation.  Sometimes the group expressed versions of classic answers to the questions, like when one of the girls suggested that maybe in a thousand years we would understand why God let Katrina destroy New Orleans.  I tried to reflect back to these curious children what they were saying to me, while also helping them clarify and disentangle their own points.  In these situations, as around other so-called “difficult” educational topics, a key is meeting learners where they are, helping them feel heard and nudging them to grow to the extent they can, in that moment.  This is not the first time these particular Ramah campers have thought about God; one of my goals was to make sure that this wouldn’t be their last.

Last night the tale as old as time and the song as old as rhyme came together in our first musical of the summer, Beauty and the Beast.  The creative choreography during “Be Our Guest,” the wolves scene, and, most of all, the climactic fight between Gaston and the Beast, was ingenious.  The vocal performances were, as ever, astounding.  The energy and pride of the aidah: that is what never gets old, being both thoughtfully planned and somehow wholly unexpected.  One of the greatest moments after an aidah musical is to circulate among the campers and greet them each with a kol hakavod – great job!  Never does the old theatre adage resonate more: there are no small parts.  Shaking the Beast’s hand, and Belle’s, and Gaston’s, and Mrs. Potts’s feels no different than shaking the hand of featured dancer #4 and the villager-who-also-happens-to-be-a-candle. 

This Shabbat represents a mid-point through the summer.  On Monday morning we’ll bid a fond farewell to our Garinim campers; on Tuesday afternoon we’ll welcome Kochavim A, Halutzim, and Taste of Tikvah.  By this time next week our final preparations for Visitors Days will be underway.  In the meantime, the clock will keep turning on another wonderful summer at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, entering Shabbat knowing that what is transpiring here is a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme.

Shabbat shalom, 
Jacob

Questions to ask your campers this week: 

Garinim: What team were you on for Yom Sport? What activity did you participate in?
Solelim: What was your favorite part of the aidah/all camp talent show?
Shoafim: What was your favorite part of the play process?
Bogrim: Why is it important to share your story? Is there a story that is an important part of your identity?
Machon: What did you learn about freedom of speech and different government structures?
Tikvah: What was your favorite part of the camping trip?
Nivonim: What does time mean to you? How does your perception of time help you make the most of the rest of your summer?
Atzmayim: What was your favorite part of the 4th of July?