Friday, May 22, 2009

Shabbat Bamidbar

I sat at the table, looked around, and was humbled by the moment. I knew 90% of the people in the room – some were my counselors or were married to my counselors, some were my campers. There were board members knew me from childhood and others who I was meeting for the first time. Down three seats from me was my former camper at Ramah Darom now on the year-round staff in Chicago and to my left sat my mentor, colleague and friend, Rabbi Soloff. When Dr. Kopin spoke, I could not look up. And then he spoke words that I never imagined I would hear, “And now we will hear a few words of Torah from Rabbi Loren Sykes, the new director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.”

I spoke briefly and I hope coherently. I had written, either literally or in my head, about 30 different divrei Torah leading up to the board meeting. In the end, however, looking around the room, I talked about a verse from Psalms, “Serve God with Joy and Rejoice with Trembling…” I was overwhelmed with feelings of joy to be returning to camping, to Ramah, and to Ramah in Wisconsin. Similarly, I was overjoyed to be working with Rabbi Soloff again, as well as with members of the board I knew for years. At the same time, there was trembling – about the return to life and death responsibility and about the task of continuing to insure the legacy of the premier Jewish summer camp that is Ramah in Wisconsin.

The meeting was inspiring and not just because of the pictures of the new Chadar Ochel being completed in advance of the summer. In the midst of a tanking economy, I sat and listened to a board that is forward thinking, that is investing in the future and is convinced, and rightly so, that it will continue to play a significant role in the field and in the Jewish future. While no institution is immune from the economic turndown, this is a group with passion, vision, and commitment, so much so that they are embarking on the next long-range plan and are willing to invest in growing the professional leadership of the organization when so many others are contracting. And it is a family with deep commitments so that family members are making gifts to make it possible for campers to come to camp this summer even as it also makes gifts to insure the ongoing health of the institution.

The evening ended with plans for more meetings, lots of hugs and congratulations, a special conversation with Bob Less, and even some cleaning up.

To say that these are challenging times financially is an understatement. The financial challenges are pushing many organizations to close, to abandon their missions, to opine about the future, or to cast off core values just for the sake of survival with no plan or vision for what future success can look like. And there are plenty of entrepreneurial new Jewish undertaking that are struggling but are fighting to stay with their mission. It is important to hear stories like that of Ramah in Wisconsin – stories that remind us that sticking to core values while continuing to innovate is a great insurer of success and viability; stories that demonstrate that long-term continuity of leadership, where that leadership is strong, vibrant, and striving for constant excellence and change, serves institutions well and far better than either constant change in leadership or leaving people in place for decades when they haven’t done anything different in decades ever will; stories that tell of institutions committed to visions of a bright Jewish future that believe they can make a reality, not because they live in a fantasy land, but because they are developed in mindful and realistic ways by people who are willing to put their money and time and efforts where their mouths are, who talk the talk AND walk the walk – to inspire us to think in like minded ways.


Yet one more Israel related holiday celebrated in the Diaspora. Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day – commemorating 42 years since the reunification of Jerusalem as the united capital of the Jewish people was Thursday. I felt empty, a reminder that at the deepest part of my soul, I want to be in Israel, in Jerusalem, permanently. Celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, and Jerusalem Day always feel empty to me when I am sitting in Atlanta, or anywhere that is not Israel. I can have some lousy falafel or watch a Throwdown with Bobby Flay about the best falafel in New York. I can look at pictures. I can see all of the changes in my friends Facebook status for those living in Israel, but it feels empty.

I will be heading to Israel on Sunday with Mira for weddings (Mazal Tov Mishpachat Keren) for B’nai Mitzvah (Mazal Tov Mishpachat Schorsch Moses) for Shavuot, for work, and for some soulful restoration – reconnection, physically and spiritually. And while I am so very excited to be going, to be joining so many for such wonderful occasions, to be giving Mira a chance to reconnect with her friends and with the Land, I also know that ultimately I will have to leave again. It is so very hard to think about, and it raises the question for me of what it really means to place Jerusalem above our greatest Joy.


As we prepare to enter Shabbat, to start reading a new Book, Bamidbar, we are entering a new phase in life. This will be our last Shabbat as a family in Atlanta. Mira and I will be gone and then Elan and Mira will be off to camp. On Wednesday, Elan graduated from the 8th Grade at the Epstein School and Mira completed elementary school with her 5th Grade Gesher Ceremony. Lots of endings and new beginnings – a new city, a new job, new schools. I find myself wondering – How did it happen that I am the parent of a high school student, a middle schooler, and a second grader? Kids, we are very proud of you.

Finally, this coming week, Becca and I will celebrate our anniversary. Once again, we will not be together. In the past, I was at camp and she was working a program for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, or I was at one wedding and she was at another. This time, I will be in Israel with Mira. Mazal Tov an all my love on 16 wonderful years and to many, many more.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Parashat Aharei Mot – Kedoshim – Transitions

I still remember that last walk down the garbage trail that wraps around Lake Buckatabon in Conver, the home of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. It was Sunday morning, the day of my 25th Nivonim reunion, the second to last Shabbat as the executive director of Camp Ramah Darom. I remember the lily pads and the glass like reflection of the calm lake. I remember standing on the back porch of the sifria (library), my favorite place in camp, trying to take in the view, to remember it for always, as this was to be my last summer as Ramah director.

I remember the last Shabbat as director of Camp Ramah Darom. I remember the last night, all of the hugs and farewells, the tears and the loving family. I remember the last morning tefillah and the walk to the parking lot to send all of the campers on the buses. The mixed feeling of sadness to be leaving the camp I helped build for the last time as director and the relief of knowing that the campers were returning to their families and that I would now only be responsible for the physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being of my direct descendants. I remember coming back from Israel for Camp Yofi, saying so long to my dear Darom family members, from the kitchen, from housekeeping, and from maintenance, and to the Yofi family as well. This was truly going to be my last day in camp as a Ramah director and I wanted to take it all in.

Over a fifteen year period, first as assistant director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and then as the founding executive director of Ramah Darom, I was blessed to meet incredible people, to be part of lots of fantastic firsts, to make a contribution to the future of the Jewish People, and to be the beneficiary of the investment of so many people in my personal and professional development. Over thirty plus years, my friends, most of my family, my wife, and much of my soul developed as they did because of this magical relationship. Yet, these blessings did not come for free. They had a price, as all things do. And that price was the giving over of most of my soul to the endeavor. After fifteen years of building and investing, I was tired, exhausted actually, on every level. I needed a break and I though I needed a totally new role in my rabbinic life.

As a family, we had an incredible year in Israel. We loved being there, being enveloped by the kedushah – the sanctity – of the Land and of the City of Yerushalayim. My soul was restored. We fell in love with our friends, our neighborhood, Our Land. We wanted to stay, forever, and we know that we will return permanently in the not too distant future. But we knew that we were returning to the US as the Fellowship that I was on required.

In looking for a new position, I was intrigued by the world of adult Jewish learning and the opportunity to work with the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School as the North American Director was a great opportunity. The people at Melton North America and in Israel, the board, the site directors, the students and the faculty are all wonderful. I have a deep and abiding respect for what Florence Melton created, what her son, Gordy Zacks perpetuates, and how deeply lives are touched by the Mini-School. At the same time, it became clear to me during this year that this was not my calling, that my personal and professional aspirations were different, that my soul yearned for more direct service on behalf of Judaism and Jews. The Melton executive committee and our international director, Dr. Yonatan Mirvis, were exceptionally understanding of the situation and accepted my resignation of the position effective July 31.

In thinking about what I was supposed to do next, a few things became clear. First and foremost, my rabbinic calling is about direct personal interaction and investment in people and in communities. Second, that while there is a cost to givng over your soul, the way I am wired requires that I have a position where I can give over some of my soul – not all – but at least some of my soul, I have to have deep passion for the work that I do. Third, that I am doing my most sacred work – my avodat hakodesh – when I am working with children, teens, college and graduate students, and their families. In pursuing the next chapter of my professional life, it was clear that fulfilling these aspirations were going to weigh heavily on the decision. I am blessed to have great confidants and friends and thank them for their insight and advice.

I am often asked which camp I love more: Ramah in Wisconsin or Ramah Darom. My answer is that I love them equally and differently for Ramah in Wisconsin is the summer family I grew up in and Ramah Darom is the summer family I helped build. I will always love both and will always feel a part of both families. We were up at Ramah Darom for Pesach and it was like returning home to family, from the Darom staff to the Pesach families to the year-round family members in maintenance, housekeeping, hospitality and commissary. Our love for the South, for all of the campers I had the honor to meet and whose lives I was a part of, to the staff, to the families, will be enduring the rest of this lifetime.

We are leaving the South. In June, we will be moving to Chicago. We will miss all of our friends in Marietta, at Etz Chaim, at the Epstein School, and at Ramah Darom. And we look forward to reconnecting with all of our friends in the Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago and throughout the Chicago area. On September 1, I am returning to the camping world, my rabbinic calling, to Lake Buckatabon, in a new role – one I never imagined – as the new director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. Rabbi David Soloff will continue as the senior leader, as executive director, and coming back to Ramah in Wisconsin can only be compared to being a former player at Notre Dame who gets to go back and coach under the leadership of Knute Rockne as the Athletic Director. It is a truly humbling and exciting opportunity to return to the place where I fell in love with Jewish camping, with living Judaism, and with my soul mate, Rebecca, to continue to contribute to the Jewish future. I am looking forward to joining an incredible team that includes friends with whom I was a camper and staff member, former campers from Wisconsin, an outstanding board, and even a former Ramah Darom camper, counselor, and Rosh Aidah. My deepest gratitude to the board of directors, the executive committee and the lay leadership of the camp under the expert direction of Dr. Jeff Kopin, President of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, for their confidence and investment in a remarkable institution and for their investment in bringing me back to Conover.

To our Ramah Darom family – thank you for the truly once in a lifetime experience of building a new Jewish home for the Jewish future in the South, for your ongoing friendship, and for all that you have given to us.

To our Camp Yofi family – we look forward to continuing to build the Yofi network and to creating a fund that provides Jewish communal support to Jewish families with children with autism.

And to the Ramah in Wisconsin family – thank you for your warm embrace and for this truly incredible opportunity.

As I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom, I can see the benches being carried down from the Chadar Ochel to the Lake, the siddurim being placed, and the sun getting ready to be perfectly positioned for Kabbalat Shabbat in Conover. I see the lily pads. And I look forward to returning to the back porch of the sifriah to see the first of many incredible sunsets, and to doing the avodat hakodesh that is directing a ramah camp.

Shabbat Shalom.