Friday, June 24, 2011

Shabbat Korah - Time Flies

כִּי אֶלֶף שָׁנִים, בְּעֵינֶיךָ כְּיוֹם אֶתְמוֹל, כִּי יַעֲבר ֹוְאַשְׁמוּרה בַלָּיְלָה

For a thousand years in Your sight are as yesterday when it is past,
and as a watch in the night.
Psalm 90:4

At camp, we always say that days seem to last for weeks but weeks are over in a few seconds. Before you know it, the summer gone. It feels like the Kochavim, our first group of fourth graders, just got here yet they are leaving early on Monday morning to return to home. It feels like I just arrived for Hanhala (senior staff) training and planning week and here we are on the verge of our second Shabbat. Twenty-five percent of this summer’s camper Shabbatot are now completed. Campers who only arrived yesterday look like they have been here all summer. Where does the time go?

After lunch today, I was walking on the kikar when I saw the Kochavim playing a game. One camper who was particularly quiet and shy when I met her before the summer came over to me with a big smile. Before camp, she was worried about being homesick. She told me that she had a great time, that she could not wait to come back next summer, and that she was so glad her friend encouraged her to come to camp. On a similar note, I heard from a parent whose child in Garinim wanted to stay for the whole summer! Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is now their summer home and they will miss it once they leave. And you know what? We will miss them too.

This Shabbat, we celebrate the thirteenth reunion of Nivonim 1998. It must seem like yesterday that the Givah - Nivonim Hill - was theirs. They did not have spouses or significant others, full-time jobs or infants. Here they are thirteen years later, remembering how they loved camp, how camp loved them, and how the camp world was at their fingertips. They are showing their spouses and children the places where they played, made lifelong friends, and transformed and grew as Jews each and every summer. They are reconnecting with one another, with the camp, and with themselves. And, I imagine, that they are looking to the future as well. Where will they be when their twenty-fifth Nivonim reunion arrives? Where will their children be in the summer (here, we hope!)? What Jewish and camp friends and memories will they be creating.

No matter how long any given day feels, we know that time is fleeting. The Psalmist reminds us that our moments are so brief when compared to The Eternal One: One thousand years in the eyes of God are so brief. Each moment is precious. We are charged with filling each minute, each encounter, each learning with meaning, to value it higher than any precious stone. We are compelled to not take a moment for granted, to allow it to pass as though it does not matter. This summer, a teacher from Chicagoland Jewish High School died unexpectedly. Many of his students talked with great love about Mr. Gross z”l and stressed one message above all the others that they had learned from him: always tell people who you love that you love them. Never miss an opportunity. Implicit in Mr. Gross’ message is not to take time, people, or moments lightly. While 1,000 human years may seem like just a moment in God’s eyes, each one is sanctified, kadosh, and Divine.

For a variety of reasons, the preciousness of life, of savoring and appreciating every moment took on greater significance for me this week. I know it did for so many of us in the Ramah world. May this Shabbat be one where we renew our investment in every minute of every day. And may we never miss an opportunity to tell people that we love them.

In memory of Andrew Silvershein z"l, 16 years old, of Davie, Fl.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Son's Words on Israel

I have been thinking about my son, Elan, a lot the past few days. The letter that follows was posted in the CHUSY Region USY June Newsletter. For those who say that the connection to Israel is being lost or diminished, this shows the contrary! I am so proud of Elan and just wanted to share this:

Hi CHUSY Parents,

I am Elan Sykes, CHUSY Regional Executive and Israel Affairs Vice-President for 2011-2012. I moved to Chicago in 2009 at the beginning of my freshmen year at Chicagoland Jewish High School, and fell in love with CHUSY from the moment Adam Blue dragged me to CBS USY, where I am currently a member. A condensed life story: I was born right here in Chicago. After a year and a half, I moved to Atlanta, Georgia where my dad, Rabbi Loren A. Sykes (a former CHUSY Rel/Ed and SA/TO), became the founding director of Camp Ramah Darom. Right before 7th grade, my parents decided that we were going to Israel for a year, and we moved to Jerusalem, where I went to an experimental education school. My academics took a backseat for a year, but my love for Israel blossomed and I am fluent in Hebrew because of that year. I wouldn't have traded it for anything. I have 2 younger sisters, Mira and Amalya, who attend Chicago Jewish Day School, and my mom Rebecca is a multi-talented educator, theater performer, and yoga instructor.

Having been raised by a Ramah director, Conservative Judaism has most certainly played a major role in my life. In USY just as in the greater community, people are becoming less engaged day by day, and I decided to run for CHUSY board to counteract this trend. Israel has always been and will always be an enormous part of my political, social, and family life, so I chose to use my personal love for Israel to increase the engagement of all teens in CHUSY with our ancestral homeland. I truly believe that Israel can act as the spearhead of my generation's Jewish identity, and know that CHUSY executive board will provide me the platform upon which I can capitalize on Israel as such a focal point. In USY, Parents are just as important as the USYers themselves, so feel free to contact me at any time with questions, concerns, or comments.

Elan - you are an incredible mentsch, leader, person and son. I am so proud of you. I love you more than you can every know.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Spying Around Camp – Parashat Shlach

I spend the first few days of camp walking around, watching and listening. Who seems happy? Who looks a little sad? Which madrichim need a pat on the back or a kind word? After a year of planning, the campers arrive and for a few days, my job as director is to watch, to spy a little bit and see how things are developing. I shuttle from place to place, engaging in quick, touch-base conversations with staff members and longer conversations with campers of all ages. It is hard to believe just how much a person can see and hear about in two days when that is the focus of their job. Here is just a sampling:

A high energy, excellent Shira (song) and Ruach (spirit) in the Chadar Ochel Bet. That is where our Bogrim (entering 9th graders) and Machon (entering 10th graders) eat. Campers and staff members were totally energized and loving it.

I walk into the Atzmayim Lounge where our Tikvah Vocational Program meets. I listen as each of the participants, graduates of our Tikvah program, describe their first day at work in town or in camp. They are very excited about their new responsibilities and are also able to articulate their concerns. They are so appreciative of my being there and I am embarrassed because I feel so blessed to be listening to them.

Tag played three different ways by our newest campers, Aidat HaKochavim who are entering 4th grade. They are happy and excited about whatever they do. They bring a totally new energy to camp. Their staff members look incredibly happy.

I watch as last year’s Machon aidah becomes this summer’s Nivonim, the leaders of the camp, the oldest aidah. Feeling proud, they are also trying to figure out what it means to lead and what responsibilities accompany leadership.

Campers excited to be in the bet midrash doing serious exploration of Jewish texts.

A group of campers and staff members really enjoying camp while still feeling the loss of a beloved school teacher, Mr. Harvey Gross of Chicagoland Jewish High School who died unexpectedly this past weekend. One of the students spoke about Mr. Gross this morning at Tefillot which was followed by a memorial prayer.

Endless games of basketball.

Countless groups of friends walking arm in arm, hand in hand, smiling warmly and broadly.

Laughter, smiles, friendship and fun.

Sometimes, being a spy is fantastic. You get to see so much. The question is what lenses do you wear while you are spying: those of pessimism, of feeling threatened or those of joy and optimism. This was the challenged that faced the m’raglim, the spies sent to check out the land of Israel prior to entering. All but two, Yehoshua bin Nun and Calev ben Yefuneh, saw only the obstacles. They could not see the positive possibilities.

Our campers and staff face the same challenge each summer when camp begins. What possibilities do they see? How will they grow this summer? Will the people that appear to them as giants on the first day of camp become accessible friends and role models? What can they do to enjoy their eight-weeks of camp? All of these questions will be answered this summer, and the answers will unfold before my very eyes.

As I spy around camp my personal binoculars filter everything through four lenses, representing four core values of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, the essence of what we are about and how we try to accomplish things:

Am I seeing FUN?

Am I seeing friendships being cultivated and communities being built?

Am I seeing Jewish meaning and content coming alive at that moment wherever, it may take place?

Am I seeing the embodiment of excellence in planning and execution?

If the first two days of camp are any indication, my spying leads me to conclude that our future as a camp and as a people is very bright.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Parashat B’Ha’alotecha – Candles, Menorahs, and Mrs. Unickel

Sitting in shul two weeks ago, my last Shabbat in Chicago before heading to camp, I was not really paying attention to the pre-kiddush announcements. My mind was focused on the variety of details connected to starting the camp season, not what would be happening in shul over the summer. As images of Lake Buckatabon passed through my memory, my ears perked up when the gabbai asked that we all remember to congratulate the two families that had simchas in the main sanctuary. One name I did not recognize. The other, Unikel, was too rare and too familiar to me to escape my attention. What were the chances that I knew this family?

I walked into Kiddush and asked my colleague and friend, Rabbi Michael Siegel, if he would introduce me to the family. He walked me to the mother of the bar mitzvah and made the introduction. The conversation went something like this:

“Shabbat Shalom and Mazal Tov!” I said.

“Thank you. That is so kind of you.”

“My pleasure. I have to ask you a question. By any chance did your mother teach elementary school in the northern suburbs?”

“No. But my mother-in-law did. I get asked that a lot,” she replied. “She is standing right over there.”

“Well. Mrs. Unickel was my fifth grade teacher at Willowbrook. We were her first class at the school. She was such a warm and wonderful teacher. I have very fond memories of her class.”

I had not seen Mrs. Unickel since the late 1970’s. My last memory of her was from the very last day of 5th grade, of her saying goodbye to us, speaking with love of our class as tears filled her eyes and her voice broke slightly. She was a gracious teacher who invested in each of us collectively and individually, who pushed us to investigate and be creative, as well as to be accepting of everyone. She was a truly special teacher, the kind that you remember your entire life.

Walking across the room, I saw the same warm, beaming smile and welcoming eyes that I remembered from my childhood. How do you reintroduce yourself to a teacher you have not seen in thirty years? What do you say? Remembering that straightforward is best, I walked over and extended my hand. “Mrs. Unickel, Mazal Tov. I don’t know if you remember me but I am Lor...” Before I finished pronouncing my first name, Mrs. Unickel interrupted me: “Loren Sykes! Of course I remember you…” Warm hugs were exchanged as we caught up on thirty years of life in about forty-five seconds. There were many people waiting to share congratulations so I kept the conversation brief. “Mazal Tov again,” I said, as I turned to her son saying, “Just know that your mother was a fantastic teacher and as a student in her first class, I can tell you that her warm, welcoming, investing personality had a deep impact on me.” And that was that.

As camp comes closer and closer, I find myself thinking about Mrs. Unickel and her impact on us, they way she lit up while teaching and the way she lit us up as students. The Torah portion for this Shabbat, B’Ha’alotecha, opens with instructions for lighting the Menorah in the portable Tabernacle, from where to stand to how to light. There is intentionality involved in the sacred act of lighting the candles, of creating illumination in the Tabernacle. The Kohanim must be fully present and aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. They have to focus on each candle as they ignite it and watch as the flame jumps from one wick to the next. They cannot move onto another candle until the one before them is fully lit. They have to pay attention to it and focus exclusively on that one candle at that moment. That is how you kindle a light. And when you tend to each one individually, the entire group of candles, the Menorah becomes one light.

Mrs. Unickel was one of the many teachers I had over the years that knew how to properly light a candle and create a Menorah, how to inspire students, to care for each one of them and invest in them. She knew how to pay attention to each student as if he or she was the only candle before her, all the while managing the entire class. She lit a candle in me, one of love of learning, of passion for discovery, of compassion for others. Through her own kindness, love of her work and of her students, along with her ability to both set high standards and have realistic expectations, she simultaneously became a shining light, the candle that lights other candles, and the kohen that stands fully present and focused passing the light from one candle to the next.

We spent this week kindling lights, the souls of the staff, as they returned to our summer home. Counselors who are now supervisors spent time re-nurturing mentoring relationships they had with former campers-now-turned-counselors. Staff members of every age, from recent high school graduates to doctoral students, kindled the fires of Torah in each staff member during our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot – our all night learning session that precedes sunrise services and the reading of the moment of Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Over the course of Shavua Hachanah, or prep week, we ignite nearly two hundred individual flames, focusing on each one until they burn as a collective candelabrum.

This coming Tuesday, nearly 480 candles, our campers, will arrive in Conover in the afternoon for the start of the 2011 camp season, waiting to be kindled with the warmth of Torah, of community, of exceptional role models, of love for Israel and for being Jewish. As we kick off the camp season, as I look at the staff seated at Shabbat Services, I will be looking and wondering: who here is going to be the Mrs. Unickel for a camper and for a cabin? Which staff member is going to properly kindle each individual candle while focusing on the entire cabin? Which campers will finish camp transformed for the better because they received the complete, undivided intention and attention of a counselor or a teacher? Who will be remembered thirty years from now for the good that they brought to the life of another Jewish soul?

Thank you, Mrs. Unickel for the goodness and kindness you shared with us thirty years ago. Thank you to this summer’s staff for taking up the challenge of being an inspirer for a love of Torah. And thank you all for entrusting us with your candles, your precious children, for the summer.

Shabbat Shalom.