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.