Dear Ramah in the Rockies community,
I woke up today to the sound of silence. Usually that would sound like heaven, but after ten weeks of awakening every day to the sounds of chalutzim (campers) and tzevet (staff) busily preparing for their day, it seemed unnatural not to hear children running to the bathhouse or playing ping-pong at Ohel Koby. This summer, over 550 youth joined us on our ranch, with as many as 340 members of our community here at one time. With our final tzevet departing in the coming hours, we will have to wait nearly ten months until our community is whole again. Though it is impossible to truly encapsulate what has happened this season, I hope to give you a taste of the energy present on our chava (ranch) this summer.
Camp is a place that gives chalutzim the ability to explore a screen-free world, something that is hard to do back in our wired world. We encourage kids of all ages to use the tools that nature gives them. This kayitz (summer), many chalutzim would take it upon themselves to build forts around our ranch. Some lay down by the creek just below the lower circle, while others were constructed behind ohelim (tents) or alongside the bathhouse. It was not an uncommon sight this summer to walk by these forts and see chalutzim inside, using them as meeting places or bases for imaginative games. Some were started and finished in the first session. Others were being continuously built throughout the summer.
Not only do we encourage chalutzim to build with nature, we also encourage them to use natural rocks and logs to practice their balance. While the older members of our community may appreciate our 40 minute meals, the younger chalutzim aren’t yet used to sitting still for so long. This summer, after they finished eating, our Ilanot (3rd/4th graders) and Metaylim (5th/6th graders) chalutzim would flock to the circle of boulders beside our mirpeset (porch) to climb, jump, and play. While at first, they would hesitate to jump the boulders, over time they became more confident in their footing, learning to take calculated risks in a relatively safe environment–something many kids don’t get to do often enough in our world.
A core aspect of the experience that we create here is our masa (excursion) program, where chalutzim have the opportunity to engage in outdoor exploration and face challenges that they would never otherwise have at home. This year, we offered three new masa options. On mindfulness masa, Sayarim (10th grade) chalutzim were invited to hone their spiritual development surrounded by the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park. On the long-awaited tipanayim (tipus-ofanayim/biking-climbing) masa we combined two of our most popular chuggim (activities). Under the leadership of some of our most experienced tzevet, chalutzim biked each day from their campsite to a new climbing location and then on to the next campsite. We also offered wildcraft, a masa that we piloted at the end of last year and fully rolled out this summer. On this masa, chalutzim in Bogrim (8th/9th grade) put their outdoor survival skills to the test under the tutelage of a survival expert, learning to build their own shelters, survive the elements, and use rudimentary tools to achieve incredible results.
One of the best parts of masa week is Friday afternoons when all groups have safely returned. As they pack in their gear and get ready for Shabbat, the chalutzim and tzevet will share the incredible stories from their weeks. During our first session, JOLI (11th grade) chalutzim brought back one of the most impressive masa stories that I’ve ever heard from their intense backpacking trip in southern Wyoming. During a hailstorm, a search-and-rescue team looking for a lost, cold hiker encountered the JOLI group as they had finished setting up camp for the night. The SAR team asked if the group could set up a shelter, make a fire, and heat up water for the lost hiker. The chalutzim set off to work and prepared to care for the hiker while the rescuers continued their search, and when they returned with the lost hiker, the chalutzim were able to put the wilderness first aid skills they learned the week prior into practice. While we certainly plan programming with intentionality for each masa, there are so many amazing unplanned moments that teach and instill our values.
To Till and To Tend
Every summer, we select a theme through which we can intentionally format our programming and learning. This summer, our theme was l’avdah vel’shamrah, based on Genesis 2:15: “God settled humans in the garden, to till and to tend.” We face an oncoming global catastrophe if we do not adapt our ways; climate change threatens our existence, and it is more important now than ever that we instill our youth with a level of appreciation and kavod (respect) for the natural world that we inhabit. By teaching a greater appreciation for the natural world, we hope that our chalutzim will also want to become active citizens in their communities and the Jewish change makers that we so desperately need to improve our world. Each edah had programs that taught about climate change; our tisha baav program focused on the theme of adapting to new realities. We planted herb garden outside of our chadar ochel (dining hall), grew our farming program, planted two new plum trees, removed many invasive plant species during service projects and finished the installation of our solar panels, allowing me to proudly say that 50% of our annual electricity will now come from a renewable source.
However, l’avdah vel’shamrah is about more than just our connection to the earth. At its core, this theme is about each person’s kesharim (connection) with Judaism. This summer, we were intentional about sowing an interest in ritual, even among our youngest chalutzim. Those in Metaylim got to try on tallitot and tefillin for the first time in their lives, and our Solelim chalutzim were able to make and wear their own custom tzitzit. As an arm of the Conservative Movement, we sit at a valuable vantage point, where we try to connect with our Jewish values through a link to the past with a focus on the future. Our shira b’Ramah service was stronger than it’s ever been, beautifully blending a traditional service with invigorating new tunes. Our traditional service took to ending each Shabbat service with spiritual zemirot (songs), drawing larger-than-ever crowds in the process. A longtime tradition of our Torah service has been asking questions and interpreting the parshah that we have just read. And this year, a key area where we have tried to innovate is the haftarah. In many congregations, it is either read traditionally or skipped entirely. Instead, each week we have had alternative prophetic readings in Hebrew and English as well as modern interpretations focused on the weekly haftarah or a theme of the week. One example is a beautiful and poignant poetic reimagining of Isaiah chapters 49 and 50, written by longtime camper and tzevet member Noa LC.
The end of the summer is always bittersweet. All summer long, I look on as the future leaders of the Jewish community experience tzmicha ishit (personal growth), whether through challenging themselves on masa, celebrating b’nei mitzvah at camp, or forming new and lasting relationships.
Now the summer is over.
That growth is put on pause or must happen elsewhere. It will be nearly ten months until we can resume our mission and come together again as a kehila kedosha (holy community). It’s a strange thing to think about. On one hand, I know the wait will be long, and the off-season work will be hard, as it is every year. Yet, on the other hand, I know that the pain of our parting will be nothing compared to the simcha (joy) of seeing each other again.
To all those who were a part of our community this year, the donors who believe in our mission and make our summers possible, the parents who entrust us with their children, the tzevet who work tirelessly to create a safe environment for children to thrive, and the chalutzim, who come back year after year, excited to spend another summer together on our ranch: thank you. It is because of you that we can create this magical experience, and I can’t wait to do it again next summer.