Friday, January 6, 2012

Parashat VaYechi - The Bert B. Weinstein z”l National Ramah Winter Staff Training Institute

Standing in a circle on the emerald grass of the kikar, in front of the chadar ochel, we were warmed by the beautiful, shining sun and joyed by the Wedgewood blue sky.  Arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, we stood with eyes open or closed, rocking to the beautiful singing:

טז הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל-רָע, יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הַנְּעָרִים, וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי, וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק; וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ.

בראשית מ”ח: ט”ז

The Angel who redeemed me from all evil, bless the children, and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.

If we were at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, you would understandably think that we were singing in the chadar ochel at seudah shlisheet, the third meal that comes at the end of Shabbat, during the summer.  We were not, however, in Conover.  Instead, we were at  Camp Ramah in California for the annual Bert B. Weinstein z”l Winter Staff Training Institute.  The circle included staff members from all of our camps and we were winding down a fantastic week of learning and growing together. 

The seudah shlisheet song, very popular at camp, comes directly from this week’s parashah as part of the blessing that Jacob gives his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe.  As far as I know, this is the only reference to an interaction between three generations -  parent, child and grandparent - in the same scene in the Torah.  It is rare that a group of Ramah staff members can be together in camp to sing a favorite song taken from one of the winter parshiot during the actual winter.  What is more extraordinary was the strong feeling of the Divine Presence - the Shekhinah, or the Malach, the angel mentioned by Jacob - resting above the entire group, casting a warm, safe presence of love upon us as we brought to a conclusion this powerful week.

Over four days, different cohorts of Ramah staff members met, shared program ideas, strengthened skills in their respective areas, and gained deeper knowledge of and appreciation for the greater Ramah Movement.  The core group attending the Weinstein Institute consists of second and third year madrichim who commit to returning to camp in the upcoming summer.  Taking time from winter vacation is a statement about their commitment to Ramah and to growing professionally in order to more effectively mold the campers in their tzrifim.  In sessions devoted to serving as effective mentors for junior counselors, eliminating bullying in camp, Torah study, program sharing and more, madrichim get into the mindset of the summer, becoming spark plugs for others -  directors included -  with new ideas for the upcoming camp season.

This year, we added a track for Daber Fellows, staff members who commit to increasing the excitement for and use of Hebrew at camp.  Ramah continues to be one of the most effective settings to inspire people to want to learn Hebrew and Daber is designed to make sure that Hebrew is alive in camp outside of the formal study.  By grouping madrichim in aidot to work on Ivrit, ownership for strengthening Hebrew usage expands beyond the Hebrew department and the senior leadership.   Our three veteran Daber Fellows strengthened their own leadership skills in this area by running activities in the chadar ochel and a Peulat Erev for the entire Weinstein Institute.  Ramah’s ability to inspire a desire to learn Hebrew is embodied by all of our fellows but I want to share the brief story of one Fellow in particular.  Following her first summer on staff, this Fellow committed herself to learning Hebrew during her gap year in Israel.  When we met in February of last year, we carried on entire conversations “רק בעיברית” or only in Hebrew.  We did the same during the summer.  This staff member did not attend day school.  Her passion for Hebrew was the result of her summers at Ramah. 

The third cohort, also meeting for the first time at Weinstein, was for Tikvah Staff members.  I cannot fully describe how excited this group was to be getting together to share ideas and programs, challenges and opportunities with one another.  Tikvah literally brings hope to countless families with children with special needs across North America by creating space for children and families that are too often excluded from Jewish educational institutions.  Tikvah inspires staff members to become future Jewish special needs educators.  It provides opportunities for learning independent living skills.  Ultimately, it also opens the eyes of members of the “typical” Jewish community to the gifts that every soul brings to the world, regardless of a diagnosis or a challenge.  Tikvah is, in so many ways, one of the crown jewels of Ramah and it is a blessing that we now have funding to bring together Tikvah staff members for greater professional development.

Finally, several participants in the nascent Ramah Service Corps cohort attended the Weinstein Institute.  This National Ramah Commission program is making it possible for Ramah-style experiential education to be imported to congregations that want it.  The development of the Ramah Service Corp is one more way in which the impact of Ramah is reaching deeper into the Jewish world expanding beyond the summer and our own facilities into the broader Jewish world.  We look forward to seeing how this program grows, creating year-round opportunities for our Ramah graduates, and impacting ever growing circles of people of all ages.

One of the overarching messages of the week, emphasized over and over again by our National Director, Rabbi Mitch Cohen and Assistant National Director/Director of Ramah Nyack, is that Ramah seeks not to create a bubble of Jewishness limited to the summer.  We work to create a lifetime possession, an אחוזת עולם, for learning and living Torah.  We start as a setting that is a “blessing for the children” a ברכה לנערים who grow into adults who are proud to be called by our ancestors name, to be called Yehudim, Jews, and who increase the number of Jews and the amount of Torah in the world.  This week, I was blessed to see the next generation of emerging leaders and I know two things:  they will continue to grow in their commitments and will inspire the generation that follows them to do the same.  That is truly a blessing

Kol HaKavod to our Weinstein Institute Participants:

Madrichim and Madrichim Miktzoiim:

Debra Linfield
Ilana Lupovitch
Natlie Salzman
Judah Schvimer
Aliza Small

Daber Fellows:

Rena Forester
Elana Horwitz
Aviva Schwartz

Ralph Schwartz - Director of Special Needs Programming
Scott Rosen - Atzmayim Director
Nate Gottleib
Alex Kahn
Navah Kantor
Daniel Olson

Shabbat Shalom. 

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