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.

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