A Return trip to Ramah in New England, an emotional journey 12 years in the making

I never went to Jewish camp as a kid.  I went to Boy Scout camp instead.  My parents did not want to send me to a place that they said was basically “a spa,” — which is how they described most Jewish summer camps.  I loved my Boy Scout camp (Camp Kunatah in upstate NY), and learned a ton about being in the outdoors and being a leader.  Even though the boy scouts are a mission based organization, and my camp was kosher (though not Jewish), I never felt an overwhelming connection to the other kids in my troop or to the camp as a whole.  I was friendly with all of them, but did not develop any deep, lasting or meaningful relationships with the group of kids with whom I spent three weeks at camp each summer.

After 11th grade, when I was finally able to work at Ramah, I went to Ramah in New England (AKA Ramah Palmer) where I worked as a lifeguard.  This summer literally changed my life!

I fell in love with the community at Ramah.  I developed deep relationships with people, campers and staff alike.  Our relationships were not only based on our love of the outdoors (or swimming in most cases) but also in our desire to explore our Jewish identity in a deeper way, and to spend two months in the bubble known as “Jewish summer camp.”  I will never forget a letter I wrote to my brother during the first week of camp (by hand—it was pre-internet days!) in which I described my complete ecstasy of being in this intense Jewish environment where everyone , from the youngest camper to the oldest staff member, were excited about being Jewish and learning more about Judaism.  Coming from an Orthodox background, I referred to it as finally meeting Jews “from the real world!”

My four years on staff at Ramah in New England were some of the most emotional summers I can remember.  At age 17, 18, 19 and even 20, I have to admit, that I returned to camp for my friends.  While I loved working with kids, and was good at my job, it was my friends who I treasured most.  And my life has been intertwined with many ever since:

–  Those were the summers where I worked with Jeremy on the waterfront, only to join him on the trading desk on Wall Street a few years later.

– Those were the summers where I worked with Josh, only to introduce him to his wife a few years later and in return they introduced me to my wife, Dina.

– Those were the summers where I met Tara, Yoni, Rachel (a few of them!)  and many more, all of whom have remained friends throughout even though we might see each other occasionally at this point.

– Those were the summers where I learned with teachers like Rabbi Gordon Tucker and Rabbi Shaul Maggid.

– Those were the summers where I met Beth, who eventually convinced me to take a leave of absence from Wall Street to work in the camp she was directing, which eventually led me to return to rabbinical school.

– Those were the summers where I fell in love for the first time and started to imagine myself spending my life with one person.

Although I grew up in an observant and loving family and attended Orthodox Jewish day school for 12 years, I connected with my Judaism in an entirely new level at Ramah in Palmer.  The secret behind this camp (like all Ramah camps) is that kids/staff live in an intense community developing deep friendships all within a Jewish context.  My relationships with the people mentioned above were not just about hanging out and having fun.  While we had lots of fun, the relationships went to an even deeper level; one of relating through religious practice.  For example, while Josh , Jeremy and I used to work together on the docks throughout the week, on Friday night we use to gather to sing Aishet Chayil and then long after dinner had ended would sit with a group of friends singing zemirot.  Similarly, while Tara and I use to hang out and spent numerous nights at UNOs and IHOP, I remember so many conversations about our Jewish upbringing.  Even after camp ended, I remember exchanging letters about her experience as a freshman at Hillel and her trying to figure out how to be an active Jew in secular university.  Or, I remember standing with Yoni during one Mincha service at the back, were we claimed that we were allowed to talk during davening, because we were both products of Orthodox high schools!

The last time I had been to Ramah in Palmer was in 1997.  I moved onto work at other Ramah camps, where I have developed new relationships and new memories.

But on Thursday I found myself driving past Palmer on the Mass Turnpike and decided it was time to make a return visit.  I was nervous to go back to camp and see that it had all changed.  As anyone who has been to a camp knows, change is always hard, especially when “it has always been this way.”    In some ways the camp had changed.  The bunks had been painted, the road paved and new climbing towers erected.   Of course, most of the people whom I associate with Ramah in Palmer have moved on to other things as well (and no one other than the caretaker was there on Thursday). But my memories of my time in this haven remained as vivid as ever: there was the spot I spent the night talking with my girlfriend about our coming long distance relationship; there was the place I sat with Yoni, and Gordon and Tzvi studying Jewish texts together; there was the spot where we use to gather for Kabbalat Shabbat—always a highlight of the week.

When I left camp and headed to Boston I spent some time thinking about why it was that I got so emotional visiting a place 12 years later.  I think that the answer lies in the emotional attachments I made to the place, the people and my own identity in this camp.  Jewish summer camp is such an effective educational forum because it links one’s Jewish experience with intense emotional experiences.  Staying up late into the night talking with a friend about life in college in itself is not a Jewish experience.   But if in the morning, when one spends 45 minutes davening (praying) together, and then that night joins with the campers in singing and learning together, then the conversation one had the night before becomes ingrained in these other emotional experiences.  When one looks back on a week, a month or a summer at camp, all these experiences get melded together in ones mind.

It is for this reason, many years later as a camp director, I tell our staff that they are first and foremost   Jewish educators.  While they might be expert equestrians, hikers or climbers, they must also be excellent Jewish role models.  They must be able to engage each other and the chalutzim (campers) in their Jewish journey and encourage others along their own path.  Ramah is not only a place to learn practical outdoors skills, it is really a place to develop deep & meaningful  friendships grounded in more than just skill building.

I feel so fortunate that I was able to drive back into camp and re-live four amazing summers all in a forty-five minute period.  One of my goals in starting Ramah Outdoor Adventure is to provide yet another forum within the Jewish camping world, where campers and staff form their own meaningful and lasting relationships with friends, campers and their religious identity.  I can only hope that they too can return in 12 years to the Ramah Ranch in Colorado and be as emotionally moved as I was on Thursday at Ramah in Palmer.

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