Dear Ramah in the Rockies Community,
This morning I woke up to the light streaming through my window and to the sounds of chirping birds and rustling trees. I saw no campers playing along the road or in Ohel Koby, and no one was there to yell “Bo-bo-bo-boker Tov!” The blue sky and mountain air still greeted me when I opened my door, but I miss seeing the chalutzim (campers) bustling about, scurrying to the bathhouse or lounging at the picnic tables.
Tuesday marked the end of Session I. Our first session chalutzim and madrichim (counselors) took with them so many precious memories. In a single month at camp, we have hundreds of conversations, meet remarkable people from across the world, and practice a form of communal, joyous Judaism that many of us yearn for throughout the year. We walk more miles in a day than some walk in a week, and we summit many magnificent peaks. Since most of you reading this did not visit in person this session, I thought that the following three vignettes might provide a glimpse of our Session I community.
Mitbach – Kitchen
In over two decades of working at Jewish camps I can safely say that our tzevet mitbach (kitchen staff) this summer are producing some of the best food I have ever tasted at a camp. Our meals have been healthy and varied, and the food is always ready on time. We have enjoyed seared salmon and fish tacos on Friday nights, lunches of grilled cheese and pesto pasta, and homemade pizza and veggie burgers for dinner. Our baker, Sarah, has made delicious challah, fresh granola, and some off-the-charts cakes for dessert, including a berry cheesecake, served on the final Shabbat of the session, that could rival the ones sold in almost any New York bakery. On cold days, we have had soup with lunch, and most days we have a salad bar with protein options like tuna, black beans, and garbanzo beans. Our lead cooks have been experimenting with small batch hot sauces and pestos available at most meals that have become a favorite of our older chalutzim and tzevet. Rarely do we run out of our main course, and the food itself is always delicious. However, what makes our kitchen so special is that its members are an integral part of our community.
At many camps, the kitchen staff are an isolated group, employees who do their job with little interaction with the rest of the tzevet. Some do not even live on property. Here, our kitchen staff live alongside other tzevet members and interact with everyone at camp. They are part of our peulot (activities), hang out after hours in our staff lounge, and are on first-name basis with most of our staff and many of the chalutzim. It is common to walk into the kitchen and find a group of chalutzim dressed in aprons and gloves, helping prepare that evening’s meal, talking and laughing with the kitchen staff. At the end of the session, chalutzim showed their appreciation to their friends in the kitchen by writing them heartfelt notes. They wrote about how much they loved the food as well as their appreciation for the staff themselves:
Shira – Song & Music
Music is vital to the Jewish camp experience. We end meals in the the chadar ochel (dining hall) singing a prayer and then turn on Israeli music as chalutzim are cleaning their tables and sweeping the floor. As the sun sets on Saturdays, the whole camp sits in concentric circles on the ground, arm in arm, singing slow tunes to usher out Shabbat. Campers learn a new acapella tune and perform it each week at seudah shlishit (Shabbat dinner). And of course, we infuse our morning teffilot (prayers) with song. Most mornings, madrichim and chalutzim sing teffilot as an edah (age group), often accompanied by musical instruments. In certain places, I can hear the sounds of multiple edot singing ricochet off the hillsides of our ranch. While separate from each edah, wrapped in my own tallit and tefillin, I am part of the broader community.
We often refer to our camp as a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. It refers not only to how we interact with each other, but how we relate to Jewish ritual. When I am listening to four concurrent services and the sweet sounds of hundreds of young Jews belting Hallelujah and “Am I Awake?” as a prelude to the Barechu, I know that we really are living up to this moniker. I hear often that those who experience the song and prayer in our community yearn to feel the same sense of connection back in their home communities. Indeed, when one is immersed in ecstatic Jewish song in the Rocky Mountains, so much else pales in comparison. Since camp is not the real world, the task for our chalutzim and tzevet alike is to bring the energy and spirit of camp back with them into their everyday lives.
Masa – Excursions
Every other Friday afternoon a ritual occurs that I cherish. Starting in the late mornings, masa (excursion) groups hike, bike, and drive back into camp. The chalutzim arrive at Beit Masa (the masa tent), dirty and smiling, recounting some of the highlights of their trips, often in high-pitched, excited squeals. They show off their bug bites and scrapes as badges of honor. They recount the dinner from their last night where they took all the remaining food and mixed it together into a concoction that they would not dare to eat at home, but on the trail was a delicacy. And they tell me about the time they spent on their solo, sometimes just 20 minutes for our youngest, and up to 12 hours for our oldest, sitting alone in the woods or in an open field. During this first session I heard stories of sheltering under tarps during fierce hail storms and spending hours above tree-line in the Sangre De Cristo Mountains, which were greener and buggier than usual. Our JOLI chalutzim were beaming with pride as they recounted the story of helping a Search and Rescue Team in Wyoming provide shelter and warm water to a lost hiker.
While the stories told by those on masa’ot paint a picture of personal challenge and spiritual growth, one aspect that most do not identify until later is how their group has bonded because of their shared experiences. Since 2021 when we moved to an ohel-based (bunk) masa model for the first set of masa’ot each session, we have seen how chalutzim and madrichim return with a deeper level of trust in and friendship between each other that make the rest of their session so much richer. Chalutzim refer back to moments that transpired on these masa’ot throughout the remainder of their time at camp and as they transition into their home communities.
As I conclude this email, our tzevet has returned from their time off during the intersession break. We have cleaned the camp and reorganized the tents, and we are preparing to welcome over 230 new chalutzim who will be joining us for the second session. This Shabbat we will be celebrating with only our tzevet and a few honored guests. While chalutzim are an integral part of the camp experience, the college-age staff who run our camp obtain invaluable leadership experiences working here each summer. This Shabbat is one dedicated to reconnecting as a group, celebrating the session that passed, and looking forward to the final four weeks of kayitz 2023.
Rabbi Eliav Bock