Friday, July 29, 2011

Parashat Masei - On Legacy and Inheritance

What do you get when you take a Greek Island, a very loose plot line, and a bunch of great songs from the band ABBA translated into Hebrew?  A fantastic Nivonim 2011 play titled “Mamma Mia!”  I was so impressed by the energy of the entire aidah, the huge smiles, loud voices, and gigantic dance scenes.  These chanichim, in their final camper stage performance, went all in and left nothing on the table at the end.  When they finished their final number and all of their “Todah Rabbahs,” there were lots of hugs, some huge smiles and even a few tears.  In addition, there were several parents who came up to camp to see their last camper-age child perform in their last camp Hebrew musical.  Finally, there were some members of Adat HaNivonim 1986 in attendance in advance of their twenty-fifth Nivonim reunion.  Nivonim was coming full circle: for the campers, their staff, their parents, and the alumni. 
I honestly cannot believe that we are on the verge of the eighth and final week of the 2011 camp season.  I don’t know where the time went.  We always say that days in camp feel like weeks but weeks feel like days.  It is so true.  It seems like yesterday that I was just pulling into camp to start Hanhalla week and yet here we are, getting ready to put the final touches on what has been a phenomenal camp season.  While they may not be explicit in their conversations, one of the things on the mind of Nivonim 2011 is what kind of legacy they want to leave in camp.  It is an important question.  When they return in twenty-five years, what will they want to remember about themselves?  What impact will they want other people to remember about them and their role in camp?  What is their collective identity and what did they leave to the generations that followed them in camp? 
These are the same questions that the alumni of Nivonim 1986 will be talking about all weekend long.  In addition to remembering all of the sweet and fun times at camp, they will talk about the impact that camp had on them and that they had on future generations when they came back as staff members (I have a soft spot for Nivonim 1986 as I was their madrich in 1985 and 1986 and over the years, many have become some of my dearest friends).  They will ponder their legacies as campers and staff members.  What were these years about?  What meaning and messages did they hold for each individual in the twenty-five years since they completed their camper years?  There will be lots of smiling and laughing as well as a lot of personal reflection for each alumnus in camp this week.
Beyond the question of what legacy Nivonim 2011 will leave on camp, there is another question to be asked, one that may be even more important:  What is the inheritance we bequeath to our children by sending them to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin?  In the Triptik of experiences that we give our children, the personal and communal Jewish journeys we send them on, what do we intend for them to receive?  What are our Jewish hopes and aspirations for them that motivate us to send them to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin instead of some other place?
If we think about the Ramah experience as a Jewish investment that extends from entering fourth grade Kochavim campers to at least a second year tzevvet (staff) members, what kind of Jews do we hope to build?  What messages do we want to send them about what is important in life? In spirit? In service? In connection with the people, the land, and the  State of Israel? In Torah? In Mitzvot? In relationship to God? By choosing Ramah, you are making an investment that extends well beyond just insuring that your children have Jewish friends and have a good time.  Choosing Ramah means sending the message that…
Living Jewishly every day is important;
That having meaningful encounters and relationships with other Jews on topics of import adds substance to friendship;
That we should seek to live in a fun, supportive Jewish community;
That wrestling with Jewish texts, from ancient and traditional to modern and non-traditional, adds meaning throughout life;
That just as we seek excellence in secular areas of life, we should strive for excellence in our Jewish spiritual lives as well.
And the list could go on for pages and pages…
While they are not coming home just yet (we do have one more week of camp left!), I hope that you will be thinking about how to encourage your children to continue living this way once they return at the end of the camp season.  Let them know what Jewish inheritance you are giving them by sending them to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.  Let them know that you are aware that this is more than just a summer experience but that it is a model for lifelong Jewish friendship, learning and living.  And let them know how you will reinforce these messages throughout the year.
Starting this afternoon, I will have the pleasure of sitting with my former campers and dear friends here for their 25th reunion and listening to how camp impacted their Jewish souls and lives, what they got from the experience as an inheritance and what legacies they feel they left to the campers for whom they were counselors.  We will laugh and, knowing this group well, we will cry plenty.  We will remember and we will rejoice.  I hope that the same will be true for Nivonim 2011.  My message to them will be this: Enjoy your last week in camp, leave a great legacy, and appreciate the excellent Jewish inheritance your parents and your communities have given to you by sending you to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.
And then, remember to pay it forward to generations to come.

Friday, July 22, 2011

‘It's nice to be nice. And it doesn't cost you a penny...’

Late last night, unable to fall asleep, I picked up a recent edition of Sports Illustrated.  The cover story was about Rory Mcllroy from Northern Ireland who won this year’s US Open at The Congressional.  The running theme of the story was how nice Rory is as a person.  Rory’s father was quoted in the story about how he brought up his son: “Raising his only child, Gerry McIlroy instilled this credo in Rory: ‘It's nice to be nice. And it doesn't cost you a penny.’"  While I know that this is a magazine article and that it is edited and that the father probably said many things, it is telling that he chose this particular character trait, niceness, as the one that best described his son.  It tells us a lot not only about Rory but about his father as well.  We can tell what is most important in the Mcllroy family.

Be nice...It is such a simple, easy thing to do.  Being nice is

Smiling and saying hello to someone as you walk by;  

Stopping to help a camper who is struggling, whether or not they are in your cabin, because ultimately, they are all our campers;

Helping someone carry food across the kikar to a kiddush even if it is not from your community;  

Talking to another camper in the cabin that is perhaps not your friend yet and being open to the gifts that they bring to the world; and, being nice is

Making someone feel welcome in camp.

Be Nice...Such a simple thing, yet something we need more of in the world.

In the first chapter of Pirke Avot, mishnah 15, Shammai teaches:

"שמאי אומר, עשה תורתך קבע, אמור מעט ועשה הרבה; והוי מקביל את כל האדם, בסבר פנים יפות
מסכת אבות א, טו

Make the study of Torah your primary occupation; say little, do much; and Greet every person with a cheerful face.  

In other words, learn lots of Torah; turn that learning not into more words but into actions; and be nice to others.  It is not just the Mcllroy family that holds niceness as a core value; rather, it is the Jewish people as well.  

Camp is a place where campers have a chance to hone their niceness skills.  Of course, in the process of improving those skills, there are stumbles along the way.  Nonetheless, camp is where niceness and kindness are the rule, the expectation, the desire.  Our job is to help each camper and staff member get even better at this simple but essential life skill.  

As we close in on the last two weeks of the summer, we see many campers excelling at the character trait of niceness.  We see many that are doing it well.  There are still others that are developing the basics of niceness beyond their own small circles of friends.  In each case, our task is to help guide them on the path to increasing niceness, kindness and goodness in camp and in the world.  We appreciate your support in this ongoing effort.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Wizard of Oz, Pinhas Ben Elazar, and the Power of Daily Jewish Living

Last night, we were treated to a wonderful performance of “HaKosem Me’Eretz Utz,” known in the vernacular as “The Wizard of Oz.”  The Sollelim, our entering 7th grade aidah, did a great job on stage. They were energetic, sang loudly, and smiled throughout.  At the end of the show, they thanked everyone, presented their plaque, sang their aidah song, and then joined with the rest of camp in the traditional singing of the Hymnon Ramah, our camp song.  It was a beautiful night.

We all know the story of the Wizard of Oz and ramahniks know the show not only in English with Judy Garland as Dorothy but in Hebrew with any number of current and former campers having played the lead role.  We know the travails of Dorothy and her friends as they search for what they need the most: Knowledge, heart, courage and home.  We revel in their defeat of evil, their uncovering of the imposter, and their discovering that what they really need already resides in their own souls. Knowledge, Heart, Courage, and Home…That is what they need, what they seek, and what they already have.

In my walks around camp this week, and throughout the summer, I see campers discovering knowledge, exploring their Jewish hearts,finding the courage to be fully who they are as budding members of the Jewish community, and I see them both building their Jewish homes for the summer and filing images away for what their own Jewish homes will be like in the future.  Jewish knowledge, heart, courage and home are the pillars of what we accomplish here at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.  At the end of the day, this is what we are really all about.  Take those things out of camp, do them for shorter periods of time or in a “lite” way, and we lose our soul and our direction.  Do them right and we change worlds.

Our camp is percolating with great Jewish programming and interactions. Bogrim and Machon worked with Carl Schrag and their staff on a simulation game about the possible upcoming vote in the UN in September toward Palestinian statehood.  The chanichim took this incredibly seriously.  They were totally invested and engaged.  And you know what, they had a lot of fun in this very serious program.  They learned by doing, did not shy away from a difficult subject, and looked beyond the simple solution to attempt to understand the nuances of a complicated issue.  In Bogrim tefillot, campers are sharing their own version of NPR’s “This I Believe…” revealing to their peers some of their deepest, most soulful thoughts about who they are and what being Jewish means to them.  Campers in our bet midrash program are wrestling with traditional Jewish texts on a daily basis while campers in our film program are wrestling with Jewish identity through an artist’s lens.  Finding one’s Jewish voice, be it in a creative writing workshop with camp alumna, Deanna Neal, or in a Jewish Chicks Rock session with camp alumna, Naomi Less, is another path to strengtheningone’s Jewish connection during the summer.  

Chaninchim and madrichim – campers and staff members – gain a new level of Jewish literacy, comfort and fluency through daily Jewish living.  The repetition of the daily routine and ritual of Jewish life during the summer becomes an investment in how people can choose to live in the future.  This Shabbat, at the heart of Parashat Pinhas, we read about the importance of routine and ritual rhythm in the context of the daily, weekly, holiday, and celebratory sacrifices to be brought by the Israelites.  This was the framework for creating a sense of peoplehood and of connecting with God. While profoundly different than animal sacrifices, the daily and weekly routine of Jewish prayer, values, and rituals that we live at camp become springboards for communal strengthening and investment in the future.

We don’t append Judaism to what we do at camp.  It is front and center.  It is the root structure of what we are all about.  From morning services to learning Hebrew with cool Israelis, from singing in Hebrew in the chadar ochel to dancing to Israeli popular music on the kikar, campers grow as Jews by doing fun, engaging, content-full activities with their friends.  The ruach of Friday night Tefillot and the powerful sense of the Divine Presence that descends on the chadar ochel during Saturday evening seudah shlisheet speak to the souls of the campers who make themselves fully present and open to the experience.  Campers develop increased pride in themselves as Jews and discover the courage to stand up as Jews throughout the year.  It is truly amazing to watch and to be a part of this entire process.

Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is unique in our ability to be a place where campers discover their Jewish knowledge, heart and soul, courage, and a model for a Jewish home.  We are not a place that is “somewhere over the rainbow” a magical place that cannot be home; rather, we are a microcosm of what the future can be for the individual Jew, their community, and our people.  We don’t create the minds, hearts, strengths and homes – we help people discover them within themselves. 

So thanks to Aidat HaSollelim not only for a great performance last night but for the profound message for all of us: the ability to grow our Jewish knowledge, heart and soul, spirit and courage all residewithin ourselves.  We need to be in a setting that fosters their growth and expansion.  And it is precisely this setting that Camp Ramah in Wisconsin provides for each of us.  The only question left is:  will we have the courage to use them, to grow them, and to strengthen them.

Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

Balak, Tents, and Friendship

מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!
Numbers 24:5

Bilaam looked down from the mountain.  He saw the tents, the mass of people, from a distance.  Just as we stare out the window of the plane at 30,000 feet and see a beautiful vista but no detail, Bilaam could only detect the beauty of the tents themselves but not of what was transpiring within or around them.  I wonder how much richer the blessings would have been if he was privy to the conversations and interactions that took place within those tents.  Of course, we will never know but we can imagine.

A similar thing can happen when you come into camp for the first time.  You see a gorgeous facility.  Our donors have done an exceptional job of making sure that Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is a beautiful place, that our facilities are state-of-the-art, that our fields and courts are the best, and that there is gorgeous art all over the camp.  Our exceptional maintenance staff and housekeeping staff work tirelessly to make sure that everything is well taken care of.  The natural beauty of the site combined with the high quality of the buildings can be blinding.  It can take center stage, commanding every bit of our attention.  We should be proud of these facilities and appreciative of those who made them possible and those who maintain them.

But it is what happens in the tzrifim, within the tents, in the interactions between campers and staff members, in the friendships that are formed, where the real beauty of camp, where the ultimate blessings are found.  Seeing campers walk arm in arm, sharing a laugh, sitting on the kikar and sharing a memory is a big part of what this is all about.  Shared, fun experiences are the entry way into fostering friendships and building community.  Whether it is Yom Sport or a Hebrew Musical, a polar bear swim or an overnight campout, the interactions that take place between campers as a result of moments in camp are the building blocks of friendship.

Shared memories become the anchor of discussions and the stuff of lifelong Jewish friendships for decades to come.  Just yesterday, two alumni of the camp from my years as a senior staff member, returned to camp after many years away.  They did not know too many other people at camp.  They did not recognize most of the new buildings.  But it did not matter. They felt at home. Their souls were rekindled Jewishly as was their memory.  Their friendship, already strong, became stronger.

Today, I had a group of Garinim boys over to the house for lunch for a pizza party.  They were having the party because one of the parents bid on it at an auction to raise scholarship funds for Ramah at the shul. The guys had a great time.  At one point, I suggested that they could do the same thing when they were in Nivonim (nearly eight years from now!).  “Yeaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”  They all yelled.  And then, they added, “But we all have to be here and we all have to sit in the same places and we have to make the same pizzas, and, and, and…”  Yes it was fun but even more, it was a memory they were creating that would be the basis for friendship.

Ramah friendships are just different.  They are, at their foundation, substantial Jewish friendships.  They grow out of conversations about whether or not there can be faith after the Shoah; whether we can change the siddur and if so, under what conditions; whether we have free will or everything is dictated.  And those are the conversations that the younger chanichim are having.  Imagine what discussions are leading to stronger friendships in the older aidot.  At their core, Ramah friendships are infused with Jewish meaning, ideas, and debates.  Fun and engaging activities lead to meaningful discussions which lead to substantial friendships.

Bilaam only saw the physical beauty.  Sometimes we are blinded by the physical and natural beauty of our camp.  But when you come to visit, make sure you look closely and listen to the kinds of things that Ramah friends talk about.  You will be amazed. You will see the true beauty of this community.  You will witness its true power. And you will see the return on the investment that you and thousands of others make in order for Ramah to be the place with the kind of impact that it has year after year after year.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Shabbat Hukkat - Shabbat Rosh Hodesh: Fun

זֶה-הַיּוֹם, עָשָׂה יְהוָה; נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ
תהילים קיח כ"ד

This is the Day that God has made; We will rejoice and be happy on it!
Psalm 118:24

Walking around camp, I find it very easy to get distracted. There is so much going on in every corner of the camp that I have to remind myself to focus on one thing. Without that internal reminder, I miss so many little details of things that happen. Everywhere I turn, I hear laughing, see smiles, and see chanichim (campers) having tons of fun. Here is a small sampling of what I watched over the past few days:

An impromptu, multi-age water splashing match on the lower kikar replete with giggles and laughter (it was finally warm enough for such a fun activity)!
A Garinim carnival with campers enjoying all kinds of fun activities from tumbling to face-painting, from bowling to being mesmerized by Scott “Lefty” Rosen and his Diablo juggling and Rubik’s Cube mastery, all while wearing balloon animal hats created by our own Rabbi Ronnie Garr.

A Bogrim boys sunset ultimate Frisbee game while the banot were up in the Porcupine Mountains on their linat layla (overnight).

An impromptu concert by tzevvet shira on the kikar with a great audience. All the songs were in Hebrew and everyone was singing along. Nobody came up to me to complain that there were no English songs. They just had a great time.

A staff celebrity basketball game created by Adat HaShoafim to raise money for their tzedakah projects. A great time was had by all (and I even had two points and was given a 9.7 by the Israeli judge for the massive tumble I took at the start of the game)!

Campers from every single aidah participating in a scriptwriting and creativity workshop by the Northwoods Ramah Theater Company. They looked at a poem by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken, created a human tableau and then wrote scenes based on what they saw. They learned a text from Pirke Avot on Community and then kept working. This was serious work and they were having a ton of fun.

Twenty campers from Shoafim making tefillin from scratch with artist Noah Greenberg.

The Kochavim girls playing on the kikar and then going to do their music video peulah!

Sollelim campers painting benches with themes informed by the Amidah. And there was as more paint on the benches than on the campers.

Machon boys went on a bishul erev (a cookout) and the girls had a special secret society dinner in camp, the Lavender and Cream Dinner.

Like I said, this is just a small taste of what takes place in camp every minute of every day. There is nearly unlimited fun, and even a bit of frivolity, going on in camp all over the place. Campers are engaged in meaningful conversation all the time…and having fun while doing it.

To get to the core of what we are about, building meaningful Jewish lives, we have to open the door and to do that, we need several keys: fun, friends, great role models and excellence. We create an environment where we rejoice, where we enjoy, where we are sometimes carefree, and where we are connected. This is a place where Hebrew is fun, where Jewish living is fun, where Jewish conversations are engaging and enjoyable.
This Shabbat, we celebrate Rosh Hodesh Tammuz. While Tammuz is a reflective and somewhat sad time in Jewish history, leading up to Tisha B’Av, Rosh Hodesh is a time of rejoicing. Toward the end of Hallel, we recite a verse from Psalms:

This is the Day that God has made; We will rejoice and be happy on it

That is every day at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin: A day where we rejoice in the Glory of God and the glory offriendships and community, of Torah and fun, of great people and stronger Jewish identities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Loren Sykes