Camp Ramah in New England- In Appreciation

When I began to write this blog almost two years ago, I did not envision that I would write about the past as often as I have. I have written my share of comments on current events and shared some material from classes I have taught or sermons I have delivered but I have found that more often than not, my blog has become an opportunity to share reminiscences and nostalgia about events, people and places from my past.

This posting is no exception.

In June of 1977, a few weeks after my graduation from Brandeis University and two months away from beginning Rabbinical School, I was sitting at home in Boston frustrated that I hadn’t found a job for the summer and looking desperately for something to occupy my time. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I received a phone call from a good friend, Debby Cantor (now Rabbi Debby Cantor) whom I knew from Brandeis. She asked me what I was doing that summer and I admitted that I wasn’t doing much. She told me to pack a suitcase and come up to Camp Ramah in New England as they desperately needed counselors.

I recall hesitating for a moment but with no other options, took her up on her offer.

I was familiar with Ramah, the camps sponsored by the Conservative Movement because my brother had been a staff member for several years, first at Ramah in England and later at Ramah in Wisconsin. I had never wanted to go to camp, either as a camper or a staff member. But,this seemed to be the right time.

I spent that first summer working as a counselor with 12 and 13 year old campers and when the summer was over, I told myself I would never do it again. It was just not my style, it was too hard, the pay wasn’t sufficient etc. etc. But, two days after I returned home from the summer, it dawned on me that I had learned more, experienced more and grown more in two months at Camp than I had in any other experience in my life and I couldn’t wait to return.

I went back to camp for 13 consecutive summers, first as a counselor, then as a Rosh Edah, a Division Head, then for my first 8 summers after ordination as an advisor, teacher, occasional camp driver, baseball umpire and whatever else was needed.  I, like most of the kids, waited an entire year just for the opportunity to spend all or part of the summer at camp.

I know that what I did at Ramah influenced a lot of kids. I’ve heard from many of them over the years and they’re grown now with careers and families of their own. I know some of my campers who became Rabbis or Jewish professionals were inspired by what we taught them at Camp. I know that the experiences at Ramah helped develop a generation of Jewish adults who are guided by sensitivity and emotion and love for Judaism.

But, whatever the kids got from what I and others gave at Ramah, I received just as much if not more.

It was at Ramah that I learned how to talk with kids, how to teach, how to find Jewish lessons in everyday experiences and how to transmit them. It was at Ramah that I learned what the word “community” really meant as all of us, staff and campers, had to learn to co-exist in an environment that required cooperation and sensitivity. It was at Ramah that I was able to reach beyond my comfort zone and paddle a canoe for the first time, sleep out in the woods, climb a mountain and do any number of other things that a city kid just never had to do.

This weekend, Ramah in New England is celebrating its 60th birthday with a reunion weekend at Camp. Sadly, I could not go because of prior commitments. But, I have spent quite a bit of time in the last few weeks thinking about my experiences at Camp. I have thought about my favorite images of Ramah: the small pine grove in the middle of the camp, the shore of the lake as the sun rose on a late summer morning, the row of trees behind the basketball court where we had Friday night services silhouetted against a blue sky as the sun began to set, the porch of building 32 where I ran staff meetings for my counselors when I was a Division Head, the quiet of the field near the campers’ bunks at night as the kids slept after a long day, and the noisy, raucous hadar ochel (dining hall) which, on Friday evening was set with white plastic tablecloths and filled with the joyous noise of singing and laughing. The places and the experiences all come back to me and they are all precious memories.

Working at Ramah was intense and tiring to say the least. It was not easy. But it was worth every bit of the effort because it prepared me for my life, professionally and personally, in ways that are too numerous to count.

And, it was a whole lot of fun.

So, I’ll take this opportunity as Ramah in New England celebrates its 60th birthday to say todah rabbah, thank you for all it has meant to me.

I will never forget those years.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Camp Ramah in New England- In Appreciation

  1. Laurel F.

    You’ve often referred to Camp Ramah, but I didn’t know what it was. Thanks for explaining it. Sounds like a wonderful place.

  2. Debby Hirshman

    Rob, your goodness, sensitivity and caring abounded from the day we met. Thank you for making this 6oth birthday special through your words and passion. We all have a bond that no matter how much time passes it exists and that beyond precious!
    Shavua Tov
    Love
    Debby

  3. Thanks, Rob, for your reflections! I remain grateful to you as I am one of the kids you influenced when you were the Rosh Edah of Solelim in 1980. My years at Ramah in New England helped me to learn to love Jewish study, Jewish community and Jewish music and have influenced my life in countless ways. I am also unable to attend the celebration but am thinking of Palmer MA this weekend!

  4. Liesel Wardle

    I love reading your blogs, and especially also this one!
    Just look at the difference you have made in so many young lives there,
    you may never know the full impact!
    I’m so pround of you and thankful to call you my Rabbi!
    Liesel

  5. Gayle Weisman

    I just got chills – remembering u for some reason always wearing a red t-shirt. see Rob Scheinbergs post & how u influenced him & how Ive benefitted so much as a member of his community. The trickle down theory certainly applies here. What a perfect description of camp. I too was disappointed that I could not attend. It’s often hard to describe to others why camp is so great, the special friendships & bonds, the sense of community, how much u learn about yourself as a person & as a Jew. Thanks for putting into such amazing words.

  6. Sharon Barnett

    Rob – I have such fond memories of the years I spent at Ramah, and you as my Rosh Edah. My of my enduring memories is the day you told us about Thurman Munson. I still recount that story…

  7. I too am sorry to have missed the celebration this weekend. Rob was my Rosh Edah in 1980 (when I also met Debby Hirshman and now-Rabbi Rob Scheinberg, both of whom commented above). That summer was a key formative experience for me, and many of the tangible and spiritual camp memories that you pointed to continue to influence my work today as a rabbi. Todah rabbah, indeed!

  8. David Loftus

    It is with a great amount of joy that I reply to Rob’s post. I was one of the many campers influenced by the interactions with Rob during the summer of 1977. Whether is was talking Judaism, baseball (preferably Boston Red Sox, I still remember that Rob was at Game 6 in ’75) or catching fly balls hit by Rob in the outfield on a hot, summer afternoon, the many years spent at Camp Ramah remain some of my warmest childhood memories. It is ironic that I was telling my 11 year old daughter about Rob and Eron Belin (now Dr. Belin) just last week.
    Camp Ramah’s, Rob’s and many others’ influences are with me every day.

    Respectfully,
    David Loftus

    • Eran Bellin

      I enjoyed reading Rob’s posting as well as seeing David Loftus’s reply, a camper we shared those many years ago. I remember David coming from “Lowell the All American City” and the wonderful summer we had experiencing Ramah, our Jewish tradition, and canoe trips on both the Ware and Connecticut Rivers. I have come to this post somewhat late and realize that the daughter David is describing is a year older than David was when we met in Ramah.

      Ramah was formative in my experience. I am happy to see that David continues the oral tradition of Ramah with his daughter.

      Eran Bellin

      • Eran, reading your response and going back to read the other responses that people wrote helped me remember again (as if I could ever forget) how wonderful those summers were. Thanks so much for your reply and I’m just so glad so many of us have been able to reconnect over the years!

  9. Sharona Shapiro

    Googling something unrelated and found your wonderful message. I too remember my Camp Ramah in New England days quite fondly and was in some way able to live them again through my four children’s experiences at Camp Ramah in Canada. Thanks for today’s smile. Fondly, Sharona Shapiro

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