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.

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