Friday, August 26, 2011

Sight and Vision, Blessings and Curses, the Present and the Jewish Future

Throughout the summer, I often wrote about what I saw while walking around camp. From campers sitting and talking with one another to various activities, from staff members diligently doing their jobs to the beauty of a Northwoods sunset, much of what I wrote about had to do with the sense of sight.  As a parent of campers at another Ramah Camp, Ramah Darom where I served as the founding executive director, I know how hard it is to get a real sense of what is actually happening with our children.  I have to see what is going on in Clayton, GA via the words of others.  I have to paint a mental picture, that is, I have to imagine, through their narrative prose.  In the end and despite its power, I know that what I “see” in my mind based on what I am hearing will be lacking in many ways.  It will not be the reality that my children are experiencing; rather, it will be my interpretation of someone else’s interpretation of what they are seeing.

This Shabbat, we read Parashat Re’eh which begins by discussing blessings and curses.  There are, undoubtedly, times when “seeing” is a blessing:  

  • The sight of two friends walking arm in arm around camp, engrossed in deep conversation;  
  • The eagle soaring through a clear, Wedgewood blue sky, over the sapphire blue of Lake Buckatabon;
  • Watching the camper who was terribly homesick at the start of the summer talking with his madrich about what he is going to do in camp when he returns next summer;
  • Observing campers in Machon, laughing uncontrollably, while playing a game called “Sumo,” a game which I cannot begin to explain but is clearly fun to them!
  • Glimpsing the tears of two girls as they cling to one another on the last morning of camp;
  • Or seeing our child or children the moment they get off the bus, the sense of relief we feel when we know that they are home, within our eyesight once again.

“Seeing” these kinds of moments are rewarding, they are a ברכה, a blessing.  They provide a visual sense of accomplishment, a way of confirming that we actually achieve what we set out to do in the first place.  The power to observe things in camp, as in life, is the ability to learn and grow, to evaluate and improve.  

At the same time, “seeing” can be a curse, a קללה.  Like it or not, sight is subjective.  Most of what we see is not black and white or a question of fact; most things we see, rather, are questions of interpretation.  Moreover, the interpretation of what we see is dependent on so many variables: how we feel on any given day; what our knowledge of the context we are observing is; how we understand the cultural norms and expectations of a place; and other factors.  Sometimes, we learn something from what we see because we like it, even if it is clearly wrong.   As a camp director (and also as a parent), I sometimes have what I call “snapshot moments,” where I walk into a situation and take a snapshot of that moment and draw conclusions based on that nanosecond of observation, not taking into consideration what might have happened just before I walked into the room.  I see the picture I took at that second yet I get the bigger story wrong.  

Let me give you what I think is a perfect example of how seeing demands interpretation.  This summer, Sima Sayag introduced campers and staff members to an emerging art form: Staged Photography.  The photographer looks at an iconic image and then reinterprets it visually by using actors or models to recreate the image.  There are staged photographs that are near imitations and others that are radical reinterpretations of the original iconic image (To see one example of staged photography, follow this link to see the work of Adi Ness at the Israel Museum ).  At Camp, staff members and chanichim alike chose from a wide-variety of iconic Israeli photographic images, reinterpreted them, and then staged photos of those images.  Sima mounted an exhibition of all the photos, along with explanations of what the camper orstaff member saw in staging a photo of the original icon.  It was a truly amazing process and project and we are pleased to share the images of this project with you.  A different photo, along with the original iconic Israeli photo, and an explanation will appear in each edition of HaMirpesetShelanu throughout the year.

Finally, Hebrew has a different word for vision than for sight, חזון instead of ראייה . Vision is the ability to see future possibilities using imagination or wisdom.  Choosing to send your child to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is part of visioning your child’s Jewish future.  You knew they would have fun.  You knew they would start to develop or strengthen lifelong friendships.  And you knew that they would be enveloped in a beautiful bubble of daily Jewish living and learning.  When you made that choice, when you put them on the bus or the plane this summer, after you perhaps shed a tear or two, what kind of Jewish soul were you imaging would emerge from the bus after twelve days or four weeks or the full summer?  What kind of adult Jew do you imagine, do you hope for, after all of your child’s years at camp, as campers and staff members, are complete? And once you answer those questions, here is one more:  what are you doing to help make that vision a reality throughout the year?  

Sitting back in my office in Chicago just off Michigan Avenue I can look out the window and see the Chicago River.  When I want a break, I take a walk to Millenium Park and see thousands and thousands of people.  Yet, in my mind’s eye, I am already spending much of my time seeing next summer, the 2012 camp season, filled with smiles and laughter, powerful prayer and discussion, and the growth and strengthening of the Jewish future.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Powerful Thoughts from A Staff Member to Campers at Ramah Darom

Shabbat Shalom,

Joe Lustig was my camper many years ago at Camp Ramah Darom.  He and his family survived Hurricane Katrina.  He knows what real tragedy is.  He knows what it is like to lose part of yourself.  This summer, he was one of the madrichim for my son, Elan, who was in the oldest aidah at Ramah Darom. Gesher 11 lost one of its members, Andrew Silvershein, to a tragic accident this summer.   I was deeply moved by Joe's  farewell note and share it with you with Joe's permission.

Thank you Joe for your powerful words, for your mentschlichkeit, and for being their for all of Gesher 11, my son Elan included.

Shabbat Shalom.

Hey Gesher, 

Due to my bus captainhood I was able to say goodbye to very few of you and a proper goodbye to none of you. So here it is. A disclaimer before I begin: I am beginning  this note with absolutely no idea what I'm going to write, so if I ramble I apologize.  

"Adversity does not build character, it reveals it" - James Lane Allen
I first heard this quote on a commercial for the American Red Cross encouraging viewers to donate to help rebuild my hometown following Hurricane Katrina. At the time, it didn't make much sense to me. How could people who had lost everything - their homes, their possessions, their cars, and in some cases their family members -  be expected to reveal their true character in such tragic circumstances?

Six years later, you all arrived at Camp Ramah Darom, ripe with expectations for the best summer of your lives.  Almost immediately, the staff recognized something special about this group. The energy level, the excitement and the enthusiasm were electrifying.  By the first Friday night, only three days into Gesher,  Jeff acknowledged that  he found it very difficult distinguish 1st session campers from 2nd session ones. 

Only 48 hours later, your Gesher experience came to a sudden and shocking halt. You were faced with the most difficult,  the most unfair, the most tragic circumstances that anyone could've imagined. As I told the boys during peulat banim that night, I thought that was the end of Gesher. I thought many of your parents would want you to come home, and if not, then that many of you would want to go home. As we all know,  I was wrong.  Gesher 2011 survived. Unbelievably, you decided to go with Yom Sport and CITing as planned.

Then came closing ceremonies.  If there's one moment of this summer that I'll never forget, it's when you all got in a circle after a grueling day of sports and ruach, and began to to chant "72 strong."  It was in that moment when I realized that James Lane Allen was exactly right.  In the face of the most intense adversity imaginable, you all revealed your true character, both as individuals and as a group. You showed your strength, your courage and your resilience. You showed your compassion,  your ability to comfort one another, and your leadership.  And I've never been  prouder of anyone in my life. 

This has been a summer full of moments that I'll cherish forever. I'll never forget the laughs and the smiles, the tears of sadness and the tears of joy.  I'll never forget the trip or Yom Sport. I'l never forget the flash mobs, the personalized Shabbat-o-grams, the rubik's cubes and the canjam games. I'll never forget all the times you made me feel proud. But most off all, I'll never forget how, under unspeakable circumstances, you all showed how incredible you truly are. 

I made my dog tag much later than most of you, and I didn't have much time to think about what to write on the back.  I settled on "Gam Ze Yaavor." While I was in Omanut, Alex Wolfson was sitting in the other room, with a siddur, looking for something to write. I gave him some suggestions, none of which seemed to please him.  Later, he showed what he ended up writing, and I nearly cried on the spot. It said "Believe in the sun, even when it's not shining."  This is the most important lesson I will take from this summer.  This summer taught me that people are capable of incredible good, even in the face of unspeakable sadness. 

I have one request of you all before I end this farewell:  Take to heart whatever lesson you've learned this summer, and in your previous summers at Ramah. I'm sure that for every single one of you that lesson will be different.  What the lesson is, isn't important. What is important is that you never forget that lesson, that you take it to heart and that you use it for the rest of your life for the betterment of the Jewish people and the world, because ultimately that's what camp is all about. 

Thank you all once again for the most incredible experience of my life.  Thank you for being an incredible group of kids that made me proud for 1000 different reasons throughout the summer.  Thank you for being without a doubt, the best gesher camp has ever seen. And most of all, thank you for making me able to believe in the sun, even when it's not shining. 

It occurs to me that, as Boosh beautifully said, this is not goodbye, but rather until we meet again. So, until we meet again, Shine On!  

Your Loving Counselor, 
Joe "Meltz My Table" Lustig