I do not remember what packing for my first summer at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, in 1977, was like. It is likely that we bought everything exactly as it was on the list. I do remember helping put labels on all of my clothing and I remember two books I took to camp: a brand new, dark blue Tikkun LaKorim from KTAV publishers and a yellow and turquoise covered Hebrew - English Paperback Dictionary by Ben Yehuda (I still have that dictionary, frayed cover and all). I don't really remember packing up at the end of the summer either although I vividly recall that our trunks, back in the old days when everyone came to camp with hard sided trunks, were not allowed into the house but were unpacked in the garage where the "camp smell" was expected to dissipate. Between those two bookmarks of packing and unpacking, I found my Jewish summer home. For twenty summers, I would replicate the loading and unloading of stuff all the while having fantastic, challenging, some times difficult, experiences. Regardless of whether it turned out to be the best summer EVER or just a good time, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin was my Jewish summer home - one of two places where the awareness of God's Divine Presence was always at its highest.
After a thirteen year hiatus, I find myself packing once again for my first summer at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. This time, however, I do it as the camp director. The process is different, of course: I no longer label my clothes; we don't have trunks to pack; and I never used to take manilla file folders with me to camp filled with articles and information (no matter how serious a young man I may have been). Today, we packed up the office. On Sunday, I will pack up my own clothes without any parental help. And on Tuesday morning, I will once again drive up to Conover, past all the little towns whose names I used to know in order, recognizing that each town meant we were a little closer to camp. In 1977, I came to camp with no overnight camp experience. In 2010, I return after 11 summers as the founding director of Camp Ramah Darom, a summer home for Jewish children in the South that I helped build and that I will love forever, and thirty-two years of personal and professional experience in Jewish camping. And like every new camper, I am both a little apprehensive and very excited.
On Tuesday, the Roshei Aidah arrive at camp and we will continue the preparations for staff week that we have been working on for many months. On Friday, our camping staff, along with several Roshei Anaf - Department Heads - join us for Shabbat. Sunday brings more department heads into the fold. On Monday, our Mishlachat - our Israeli Staff Delegation - arrives. And on Tuesday, the overwhelming majority of the staff come to their summer home to get ready for our campers. Before you know it, many of you will be putting your children on flights and or on buses to make the trek up to our remote, beautiful, summer retreat. Many new campers will be excited and apprehensive. The same can said for our veteran campers as they come to the same camp they have known and loved wondering about their counselors, their bunkmates, and, well, their new director. It will be an adventure for all of us.
According to this week's parashah, B'Ha'alotekha, a Cloud rested over the portable Tabernacle, the Mishkan, when it was put up:
יח עַל־פִּ֣י יְהוָ֗ה יִסְעוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְעַל־פִּ֥י יְהוָ֖ה יַֽחֲנ֑וּ כָּל־יְמֵ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁכֹּ֧ן הֶֽעָנָ֛ן עַל־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֖ן יַֽחֲנֽוּ׃ יט וּבְהַֽאֲרִ֧יךְ הֶֽעָנָ֛ן עַל־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֖ן יָמִ֣ים רַבִּ֑ים וְשָֽׁמְר֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֶת־מִשְׁמֶ֥רֶת יְהוָ֖ה וְלֹ֥א יִסָּֽעוּ׃
"At a command of the Lord, the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Lord they made the camp; they remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle. When the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle may days, the Israelites observed the Lord's mandate and did not journey on."
Camp Ramah is not the Mishkan nor is it the Bet HaMikdash. But, it is the place that so many of us feel closer to God than almost anywhere else. It is the place where so many are more aware of the Divine Presence than we are during most of the rest of the year. As we get ready to head North, the Cloud is preparing to descend on our temporary home. While we know that it will permit sun and warmth to shine down, that Cloud will remain over our camp for the next eleven weeks. And then, as if commanded, it will rise up and we will break camp and return to our respective winter cities. When that happens, we will leave more knowledgeable and more committed, with greater bonds to God, to our friends, to our People and our tradition. And, hopefully, we will remember that the Cloud travels with us, as a Mishkan Me'at - a small portable Tabernacle - in our souls.
See you in Conover!