Friday, July 27, 2012

Perhaps There is Hope...אולי יש תקוה - Lamentations 3:29

Friday night services two weeks ago were the most ordinary and, simultaneously, the most extraordinary services of the summer.  Mincha was led by Rachel, Shir HaShirim was read by Noam and candles were lit by Shelby.  Kabbalat Shabbat was led by Jonathan, Ma’ariv was led by Tyler and the d’var Torah was given by Ari.  Sounds like every other Friday night at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.  What made this ordinary Erev Shabbat so extraordinary?  The people who led services all came from the Tikvah Aidah, our special needs program,  and the Atzmayim Program.  Several of the campers have Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome.  One of the campers was born both blind and deaf, and he led Ma’ariv.  There was something else that felt ordinary about this extraordinary group leading services: it was totally typical of camp.  Tikvah and our independent living skills program, Atzmayim, are such an embedded part of camp that nobody thinks twice when Tikvah/Atzmayim participants take public leadership roles.

Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and the entire Ramah camping movement are, and historically have been, at the forefront of partnering with the special needs community to design and create programs for this extraordinary group.  Some of our camps take a more “mainstreaming” approach where participants live in typical camper cabins with special assistants and extra staffing.  Others, like here at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, take a hybrid approach where Tikvah campers have their own cabins and specialized staff, are connected to either the Bogrim or Machon aidot, and participate in both “typical” camp aidah activities as well as those designed just for them.  Our camps differentiate our programs so that a wide variety of special needs can be met in ways that will insure the greatest success.  As is so often the case, it is the so-called “typical” campers who partner with Tikvah campers and staff members of Tikvah who are most transformed by the experience.  They become ambassadors for and often choose to become professionals in the field of special needs education as a result of their experience with the Tikvah program.

What follows are the words of ARI SCHNEIDER-GANS, a graduate of the Tikvah program and participant in the Atzmayim program, which he shared with the entire camp on Friday night:

Shabbat Shalom.

Tikvah. This common Hebrew word, meaning “Hope,” has been used all throughout Jewish history. It can be found in so many places that the Israeli national anthem takes the word for its title: HaTikvah. The word has also meant a lot to me in my own life. Six years ago, I came to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin with almost no hope. I had struggled at other summer camps and was pessimistic about my chances for success. In 2007, my father told me that he wanted to send me to an environment that was friendly for people like me. He found the Tikvah program here and as they say: Vizohi Rak Hahatchalah- This was only the beginning.

When I first started Tikvah I was the only person standing in my circle. But during my summers here I began to see myself growing and changing in positive ways. Tikvah helped me make these changes—not by forcing a new perspective on me, but by helping me realize my own potential. It took a growing circle of people here to guide me to that conclusion. The Tikvah tzevet I had over the years--Ralph Schwartz, Barak Lanes, Joseph Eskin, and especially Daniel Olson--struggled with me in some areas. But for every hard time there was a learning experience for me, and possibly even for them.

The circle gets bigger with all of the friends who supported me too. They were my Tikvah aidah-mates, of course. They shaped my summers by sharing brilliant ideas for Tikvah Lunch Theaters, and filling my free time with fun antics. They are my friends for life.

The circle is completed by all the Machon aidot that spent their summers with Tikvah. Without Machon ’07, ’08, ’09 and ’10, many fun things like the plays we did, the sports we played, and chaver time in particular would not have been nearly as fun. I would like to ask anyone who has ever been in that circle—Tikvah campers, Tikvah staff, and Machon chaverim, past and present—to rise. Na Lakum. Look how big this circle is! I realize now, six years later, because of all of you, that my time in Tikvah was one of the best times of my life. 

If Tikvah was designed to help me feel comfortable in my own skin, Atzmayim is helping me discover an even bigger circle: the adult world. I was nervous to begin this program because I was so comfortable as a Tikvah camper. After much encouragement from Ralph Schwartz and Margaret Silberman, however, I was willing to give it a shot. I now work at the Olson Memorial Library in Eagle River, which has friendly staff and provides an easy-going environment. Working at the library really has been a benefit to me, and it helped me get a job at a radio station back home.

My work at the library would not have been as successful without the daily social and job skills class we have led by Scott Rosen. Scott is a very helpful individual who is full of insight and knowledge, and he has helped to fuel my summers in Atzmayim even when I was having a difficult time. Indeed, in both Tikvah and Atzmayim, the tzevet have been truly exceptional.

On behalf of all members of the Tikvah program—past, present, and future—I would like to conclude by saying that Camp Ramah in Wisconsin has become a large part of all of our lives. The members of this community here have encouraged all of us to make a name for ourselves in the world. I am so proud of my affiliation with Camp Ramah and have so many moments and memories that I am excited to share with an even bigger audience. Of course, the most important audience is already sitting right in front of me. Todah Rabah L’Kulam Sh’Yoshvim Po, thank you to everyone who is sitting here, for making us the people we are today, as well as the people we may become in the future.
As you can imagine, there was not a dry eye in the Bet Am when Ari finished speaking and that is just as it should be.

As we enter Shabbat, all of us at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin are appreciative of the willingness of every family to send their child to camp. We are honored to be a place where campers of all kinds, those who learn physically, those who are visual learners, those who learn by doing, make up the diverse and inclusive community that is Ramah Wisconsin. 

Todah Rabbah Ari for sharing your profound and moving thoughts with us all. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 20, 2012


Hard though it is to believe, we are celebrating the sixth Shabbat of the summer. In just a little over two weeks, camp will be over, campers and staff members will return home and we will begin preparing for the 2013 camp season. So much will happen in camp during the remaining weeks! Here is just a sample:

Shavua Sababa, a new Bogrim program, will start on Sunday. Campers will spend half the day in the specialty clinic of their choice:

Learning pastry baking with a professional pastry chef;
Painting murals with a well-known Israeli artist;
Developing their own works of creative writing;
Composing and performing in their own Jewish rock band;
Mixing and producing music with a professional percussionist/producer; and
Producing the first ever overnight camp stop-action Torah Commentary film.

And that’s just for Bogrimers! Machon campers will go on a fun, public-service oriented trip through Wisconsin. Shoafim will work on their tzedakah projects and select campers, together with campers from Tikvah, will make their own tefillin. We will have two guest scholars-in-residence, Tom Price, an alumnus of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and the US Foreign Service department, and Alon Futterman, director of new shlichim initiatives at the Jewish Agency for Israel and the creator of the Ashkelon Education Forum. There will be more Hebrew musicals, trips, lots of fun and strengthening friendships old and new.

While we now have three shorter session aidot, Kochavim, Garinim and Halutzim, the core of the camp is and will remain the eight-week camping experience. I mention that because we would not have the time necessary to take on the kind of projects we develop here in a shorter time period. Moreover, the blessings of longer time in the summer create opportunities that shorter sessions simply cannot. Over the course of a summer, people change. They become more open. They learn. Relationships at the beginning of the summer are inherently different after a summer of living together. They are richer, more diverse, more tolerant.

We are very proud of our new Kochavim program for entering fourth graders. The aidah doubled in size this year to over seventy campers. Almost 100% of last year’s Kochavim campers returned to camp as Garinimers and another thirty-one new campers joined them. Our Halutzimers are having a fantastic time at camp. These aidot represent the future of the camp. They will become the Nivonimers and staff members of the future. They will become the Jewish leaders of tomorrow as alumni of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin have been leaders of the Jewish community in the past.  

This week, we begin our Torah reading with a Triptik-like list of the stops our ancestors made along their way from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael. Sentence after terse sentence simply tells us where the Israelites stopped along the way. The absence of detail gives the midrash the opportunity to teach multiple lessons and to fill in the gaps. The double parashah leads us almost all the way to the Holy Land. It is as close as the Torah brings us. We end this week by chanting חזק חזק ונתחזק! Be strong, be strong and together we will be strengthened. We hear about all the stops on the journey, we get to the edge of the Promised Land, we chant about strength and we stop short of entering Eretz Yisrael.

The eight-week experience at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is a summer-long journey. There are multiple stops along the way. At each stop, campers grow and change. Campers develop new skills, participate in complex projects, and develop ever deeper friendships. Staff members who have never worked together become strong advocates for one another by the end of the summer. Projects that are not be possible in week four become realities in week seven. The spiritual journey that one starts in Kochavim continues summer after summer at Ramah, well into the staff years, and is nourished by the summer experience. This is one of the things that makes the experience at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin unique.  

As week six comes to a close and week seven begins, camp is abuzz with projects and activities, fun and friends. The investment of the first six weeks of camp is paying off now and will reap dividends throughout the year for campers and staff members, families and communities, synagogues and our People. I know that when your children come home in a little over two weeks, what they tell you about the summer will sound like a Triptik, lots of stops and little detail. Over the course of the months after summer, more and more detail will come out and you will be amazed at how much your children accomplished and grew this summer. Hopefully, you already see the power of eight week camping in terms of impact on your children. Please be sure to share it with others. In that way, we will all be strengthened.

Shabbat Shalom.

An Important Statement from the National Ramah Commission

Our moral and religious compass supports inclusion of all members of our community, regardless of their personal challenges or exceptionalities. Ramah has always prioritized the value of inclusion, and continues to be a pioneer in this area with new programs and initiatives. It is our belief that all Jewish institutions including schools, synagogues and summer camps need to emphasize this value within our communities.

However, each individual's situation is unique and unfortunately, there are times when the importance of inclusion conflicts with the circumstances of a particular camper, staff member, or the rest of the camp community. Decisions in such cases are taken very seriously and discussed directly only with those involved. We at Ramah cannot comment publicly on this or any other individual case due to concerns of privacy.

We understand the sadness and pain these conflicts can create. However, we find it unfortunate that one perspective, however well-intended, has created the false impression of injustice or anything other than caring staff and leaders charged with supporting many people safely.

We appreciate the notes of concern and support we have received from those who have read about the recent situation at Camp Ramah in Canada. To those who have reacted to one blog post with harsh conclusions, without firsthand knowledge of the situation, we would hope that you can understand that sensitive matters like this one are often more complex than presented. Public reactions by those with limited knowledge can be dangerous and hurtful, particularly to those dedicated staff members who work so hard to care for our children.

Camp Ramah in Canada and Ramah camps throughout North America have an outstanding record of inclusion. We have been accommodating children with special needs, educating the entire camp community (and beyond) about the boundless gifts of difference, and have been raising needed funding to extend our program to children with exceptionalities for decades.

The Ramah Camping Movement will continue to nurture inclusive Jewish communities that embrace the value of difference.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Director
Sheldon L. Disenhouse, President

National Ramah Commission of The Jewish Theological Seminary

Friday, July 13, 2012

And on The Sabbath Day

The laundry truck is pulling into camp.  Groups of shrink-wrapped laundry will be picked up and carried to the tzrifim.  Cabins will be cleaned even more than normal.   The various activity areas are finishing up earlier than usual.  In a few minutes, music will pour out onto the kikar and campers will race from all corners to join rikud al hakikar - dancing on the kikar.  The atmosphere of camp is changing.  The shift from the mundane, the regular to the kadosh, the sanctified, is palpable.  In just a few hours, Shabbat with her sense of The Divine Presence will arrive at Camp.

Late in the afternoon, Chanichim and Madrichim will gather by aidah to prepare as a group to enter our outdoor synagogue on the lake. They will sing, exchange shabbat-o-grams, hugs and high-fives.  After that, we take our places along the shores of Lake Buckatabon and pray together, singing and dancing the various prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat.  We are led by campers from Tikvah and Atzmayim, including a d’var Torah by Ari Schneider-Gans.  As the sun sets and tefillot end, a collective  Shabbat embrace takes place, brothers and sisters finding one another for Shabbat hugs, friends embracing, hand shakes exchanged.  Slowly, the camp makes its way up to the chadarei ochel for Shabbat dinner, for more singing and dancing, talking and enjoying. There will be short evening programs for the aidot, an energizing tisch for the Nivonim, and a talk by Rabbi Michael Seigel of Anshe Emet Synagogue on the question: “Does Conservative Judaism Still Matter?”

The morning brings tefillot, more discussion, more time for friends and fun.  Lunch, time to rest, friends walking around camp, talking about issues of import and of the day.  Softball games, free swim, more discussions and a strong sense of community.  As the sun goes down we gather on the kikar to be serenaded by the “Ramah-capella,” our very own a capella group.  After seudah shlisheet, the third meal of the day, many campers and staff members choose to sing the songs of seudah shlisheet.  This is perhaps the most moving and powerful part of the day.  The melodies and harmonies are beautiful and powerful.  The sense of the departure of Shabbat is apparent.  Outside the chadar ochel, the activity level is rising as the younger aidot enjoy peulot erev - evening activities - before Havdalah. Then, standing in the middle of the kikar, I will hear havdalah coming from every corner of the camp, the collective ending of Shabbat in the Northwoods.

Ask most members of our sacred camp community what their favorite day of the week is and they will, most likely, tell you that it is Shabbat.  The ebb and flow of the week is built around Shabbat, anticipation of its arrival and sadness at its departure, the ever-present hope that this will be the Shabbat that brings the advent of the Messianic era. Each successive Shabbat of the summer is one of joy tinged with just a little bit of sadness that comes from knowing that the eighth Shabbat will arrive and we will have to leave the kind of Shabbat community we wish we could live in all year long.  

Yet, Camp Ramah is dedicated to being a place where Shabbat is modeled not just for the summer but as a demonstration of what powerful Shabbat community can feel like all year long.  Sure, we can’t have Lake Buckatabon with us every Shabbat nor can we be surrounded by sixty of our closest friends and mentors when it is time for Havdalah.  We can, however, take the skills learned at and the experiences felt at camp and use them as inspiration to build and join similar communities during the months between camp.  This is part of Ramah’s approach to all things Jewish, from learning Torah to speaking Hebrew to living righteous and just lives: camp is a model for living Jewishly all year long.  

As the sun begins to set and we gather on the shores of Lake Buckatabon for Kabbalat Shabbat and as you prepare for Shabbat wherever you are, I hope that we are all inspired to make our summer Shabbat a living model for our non-camp Shabbatot.  The rest and renewal, the reconnection to family to community and to God will do us all a world of good.

We look forward to seeing those of you who are coming up for Visitors’ Days on Sunday and Monday.  We will miss those who will not be here for those days as well.  Thank you for entrusting us with your magnificent children for the summer.

Finally, the topic of this letter was inspired by an article written by Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, President of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.  A long time Ramahnik, Rabbi Skolnik describes Shabbat at camp as an inspiration for revitalizing Conservative Judaism.  I fully agree with his assessment and appreciate the inspiration I received personally from his writing and for this edition of the Director’s Letter. You can read Rabbi Skolnik's article in the Jewish Week at

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Balak, Ramah and The Lookingglass

This week’s parashah, Balak, reads like a script for a play. We meet a wide variety of characters like Balak, King of Moav and Bilaam ben Beor, a prophet-like character, and watch as they develop throughout the story. There are stage directions, talking donkeys and Heavenly Beings. We have narration, dialogue, poetry and even high drama. Threatened by the other, in this case, the Israelites, Balak seeks out Bilaam and requests that he curse our ancestors. Before any interaction with the Israelites, the others, Balak is frightened. Rather than meet and discover, Balak seeks to destroy. Ultimately, Bilaam is unable to curse Israel and instead proclaims the famous blessing:
מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל

How Goodly are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel...
Numbers 24:5

The story ends with Balak and Bilaam parting ways and with Israel being blessed. The script-like narrative of the parashah mirrors our emphasis on theater in camp this week. This coincidence extends beyond just the theatrical nature of things and includes an encounter withthe other that serves as a blessing for all involved (I will have more to say about that later).

Theater season opened in camp this week! In the span of five days, we saw performances by the Nivonim English Play Company, The Lookingglass Theater Lab Company, Aidat HaShoafim, The Northwoods Ramah Theater Company Camper Workshop and The Tikvah Arts Festival Lunch Theater. Shoafim wowed us with their production of Beauty and the Beastin Hebrew. Campers worked so hard during the first few weeks of camp and the effort paid off in the form of an outstanding production. The Tikvah Arts Festival Lunch Theater just concluded with a variety of short plays written, directed and performed by members of our Tikvah program. They cast the shows to include not only themselves but their chaverim from Machon and their CITs from Nivonim. The enthusiasm of the Tikvah campers was infectious and the cheering was incredibly loud at the end of the performance. Campers from a variety of aidot worked with members of our Northwoods Ramah Theater Company to write, direct and produce their own short theater pieces and performed them for each aidah throughout Thursday morning. The amount of imagination was just astounding.

The crown jewels of the week, however, came from the Nivonim English Play Company and The Lookingglass Theater Lab Company. Each group, working completely independently, wrote powerful, thoughtful shows about religion. They developed complex narratives, characters and themes. Nivonim created a show called The Museum of Religion about a future where all religions were banned, where everything required some basis in rational, factual knowledge and where, in the name of unity, no difference regarding faith and belief was tolerated. Along the way, the high school student characters encounter tableaux that force them to reconsider whether or not they believe in a Divine Being. While the intent of the museum visit is to strengthen commitment to rational knowledge and the banning of religious particularism and faith, the outcome of the visit is the exact opposite. In arguing against religion, the campers from Nivonim end up reaffirming their faith. Writing and performing from the depths of their souls, Nivonimers shared with us a religious journey and set of struggles that each of us encounters throughout life. Their show was a work of beauty, creativity, faith and honesty.

For the first time ever, the Lookingglass Theater Lab Company, a program for 14 - 19 year old teens living in Chicago, visited a summer camp. If you are not familiar with The Lookingglass Theater, here are a few things worth noting. They perform in a theater space on Michigan Avenue in Chicago that used to be part of the old Water Tower pumping facility. Second, they won this year’s Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. Most important for us, however, is the fact that their Executive Director, Rachel Kraft, is an alumna of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin (Nivonim 1980). The group from Lookingglass was incredible. Their performance, titledTainted Beauty: A Spiritual Journey, was created through a process almost identical to that of our Nivonimers. The show was developed by the participants. Their self-created mission statement said:

Religion creates unity as well as separation, so individuals must question to find what is beauty or tainted about their own faith.

While using different techniques, creating different characters and approaching the subject from a very different perspective, Lookingglass cast members created a show that struggled with nearly identical themes as those of our own Nivonim. Their show was also a work of beauty, creativity, faith and honesty.

Prior to their arrival, there was both excitement and trepidation about a visit from theater students who were outside the Ramah bubble. None of us knew exactly what would take place, if the groups would blend and bond, or if this would be an experience more akin to Balak, Bilaam and the Israelites. Many of the participants in Lookingglass had never left their own neighborhoods let alone the city of Chicago. They had never been to overnight camp or to the Northwoods. Many had never been in a canoe and most live in neighborhoods where meeting Jews is not very likely. Our Nivonimers were writing their first show and were doing so in camp. Would their work rise to the level of those participating in a lab from a professional theater company?  Would the groups be able to give honest, open feedback to one another? From the moment they arrived, however, the encounter with the other was positive and powerful. It was the antithesis of the Balak, Bilaam, Israelite experience.

The joint venture between The Lookingglass Theater and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin was a total success, as were the rest of the theater experiences at camp this week. Like so many encounters, participants often learn more about themselves than they do about those they encounter. The questions Lookingglass Lab members asked about camp, about Judaism and about the process of developing The Museum of Religion caused campers to be reflective about their own experiences and beliefs and to appreciate camp even more. Lookingglass members learned about themselves and their faiths and grew in knowledge about Jews and Judaism. All in all, it was proof that we can all meet in the beautiful tents of Jacob and there encounter God.

Special thanks to Charlotte and Michael Newberger for their ongoing support of the Northwoods Ramah Theater. Special thanks to Rachel Kraft, Executive Director of The Lookingglass Theater Company, to David Kersnar and Emilio Robles, directors, and to Lizzie Perkins, Director of Education and Community Programs for partnering with us to make the joint experience a reality. Special thanks to Jonathan Adam Ross who was our liaison to the project and to Lynda Bachman for working with our Nivonimers to create one of the most powerful pieces of theater I have seen.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Loren Sykes