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.