Before I could appreciate the back porch of the library at Ramah in Wisconsin, I had to spend time on another mirpeset – another porch. In the middle of the busiest area of camp, the triangle formed by the Chadar Ochel, the Mercaz or programming center, and the Bet Am, sat an old house with a porch that faced the bet am. I don’t know if the house was part of the fishing village and “resort” that predated the camp, but that is what we were told and it certainly looked old enough to have been from the early 1920’s. Before the house was moved to make room for the Amanut – the arts & crafts building to the staff housing area, before it became known as Bet Garr, where my teachers, mentors and friends, Ronnie and Minda, Yossi, Tova, Michal and Yaela Garr lived, the house was known as Bet Porten. It was the summer home of Dr. and Rabbi Bezalel “Buzzy,” his wife Debby, and their children: Shuey, Avi, Gabi and Nomi.
I was constantly homesick my first summer at Ramah in 1977. My first madrich, Scott Miller and my Rosh Aidah, Cheryl Magen helped me make it through that first summer in more ways than I could list here. So did Hazzan Leon Lissek (I was the kid who took Nusach as a chug) and Miriam Alon who ran the beit tefirah, the sewing room, where I made my first tallit. And then there was the Porten family. More specifically, Debby, who was the senior, and I think only yoetzet (advisor) at the time, would sit with me on her mirpeset and while I cried, a lot those first three weeks. I got to know her son, Gabi, and daughter, Nomi, who were still too young to be campers. Debby often reminded me of how we would sit and play shesh besh (backgammon) on that porch with the kids for hours. From that summer forward, until the mid-1980’s, Debby played a formative role in my life. She helped me get through that summer and many other challenges that I faced as a camper. And she always did it with a smile and an invitation to the mirpeset for another game of shesh besh.
Like many people that play a major role in our lives, time and distance diminish the frequency of contact but not the impact. So much of how I worked as a madrich I learned from Debby when I was a camper. In later years, I would have the opportunity to study a little Talmud with Gabi, to work with him, and to be a madrich in Nomi’s aidah for two summers. In one of my last visits with Debby in Israel, Debby was giving advice to a mutual friend that was prescient for me. She told our friend, who was contemplating leaving a position that every time in her own life that she left one job another exciting opportunity came along. I wish that I would have touched base more frequently with Debby. I heard about how she was doing through the Kolodner Klein family and through the Garr family. The last time I saw Debby, she was coming to see The Man of LaMancha in Jerusalem, where Becca had a starring role.
Debby Porten died this week after a serious battle with cancer. Ramah alumni shared stories of the impact that Debby had on them as campers or staff members. It was incredible to read some of the reactions that people had. So many people learned how to be Mentsches because of Debby, or learned what Jewish family life could be like just by hanging out and playing backgammon on the mirpeset. Debby’s legacy is in her own incredible children and in the staff members, the campers, and all of their children.
This week, we will commemorate the Fast of Tisha B’A, the Ninth Day of Av, which calls us to mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. For twenty-five hours, we refrain from eating, drinking, wearing leather-soled shoes, anointing (wearing makeup or perfume), and sexual relations. While many explanations are given for the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the most famous is that the Temple was destroyed as a result of sinat hinam – baseless hatred (see Talmud Bavli Gittin 55-56 for the complete story). Much time will be spent in programs in Jewish summer camps and in shuls talking about how we can treat the Other in a kinder way, how we can avoid the kind of baseless hatred that brought down the Holy of Holies.
On Tisha b’Av this year, however, I will spend a lot of time thinking about a woman who taught me how to make it through a summer, how to depersonalize things, what hachnassat orchim was about, and how to play shesh besh with her kids on the mirpeset. I will think of all the Porten children, now adults with many children of their own. I will think of Buzzy, my first recollection of him being his wailing voice crying out the Kinah (mournful prayer) “_ Oy me’Haya Lanu” at the end of the reading of Lamentations. We mourn on Tisha B’Av, and I will mourn too. But I will also remember an incredible teacher and person who helped me through the early days of my thirty-plus year relationship with Ramah. Who will you be thinking of? To whom do you owe an apology for hateful behavior or the speaking of lashon harah? And what teacher might you want to call, someone who really touched your life in profound ways, that you have not spoken with in far too long?
Free advice (it is worth exactly what you pay for it): Make the call this week for you never know when the opportunity might be lost.
May the Memory of Debby Porten be for a Blessing.
Shabbat Shalom and a Meaningful Tisha B’Av Observance to all.