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Rabbi Eliav BockHello from the Ramah in the Rockies Ranch!

As I type these words, the weather is growing warmer and the snow banks are beginning to melt. Spring is in the air and that means summer is soon to follow! With our 2018 season quickly approaching, I wanted to take this opportunity to update our community on a number of exciting program changes that we will be implementing this coming summer.

As you may know, Ramah in the Rockies was recently awarded the 2017 Hazon Seal of Sustainability, which recognizes organizations that have worked hard over the past year to serve healthier food, reduce waste, and become energy efficient. This honor has inspired us to think about what else we can do to both reduce our carbon footprint and eat more intentionally, and we have come up with a plan of action that we think our chalutzim (campers) will LOVE. As of 2018, Ramah in the Rockies will only be eating what we grow in our garden. That’s right – kale, kale, and more kale! We will be upgrading our usual pasta to kale-based noodles and switching to powdered kale flour for our pizza crust. Though we know some of our campers may miss their usual standbys, we feel confident that even the pickiest eaters in our community will quickly adjust to our new camp-wide diet of organic, leafy greens.

Camper playingFurthermore, in order to conserve water, we have decided to embrace the trailblazing innovation of our campers who avoid showering at all costs. Starting in 2018, we will be encouraging all of our chalutzim to cultivate a healthy layer of personal dirt, which will also help to repel any potential bugs. To aid in this effort, we are demolishing both of our bathhouses. Those who desire cleaner hands for eating may wash their hands every so often in one of the property’s streams. After all, if our chalutzim can survive without taking a shower while on masa (backcountry excursion), surely they can make it through a month-long session without touching a bar of soap!

Campers posing for a picture on a MasaWe realize that this change might cause the ohelim (tents) to smell a bit pungent and understand that not all noses are accustomed to this type of healthy aroma. Therefore, we have decided to do away with ohelim entirely! Rather than cozying up in their bunks at night, campers will deepen their connection with nature by sleeping beneath the stars – rain or shine.

You may be wondering – what will make masa’ot unique and special when our campers are already sleeping outside every night and forgoing showers? Never fear! In 2018 we will be introducing a variety of amazing new masa options! From skydiving and bungee jumping to swimming with sharks, our chalutzim will never be bored. We will also be offering a Virtual Reality Masa, which will allow campers to experience all the fun of outdoor adventure from the comfort of our new Arts Pavillion. Though they will appear to be laying on the floor in silence for days at a time, they will be summiting Pikes Peak in their imaginations!

The adoption of Virtual Reality Masa has encouraged us to reexamine our technology policy as a whole. After much deliberation, we are excited to announce that in 2018 we will be repealing our “no screen” rule and encouraging chalutzim to constantly livestream, tweet, Instagram, and Snapchat their Ramah experiences. In light of this change, we will no longer be uploading photos of your campers to SmugMug. After all, you can just check their social media accounts to see what’s new at camp!

One last development that I’m thrilled to share is the pilot season of our new Tot Ramah Program! As you may know, we have recently expanded our Ta’am Ramah (Taste of Ramah) program into a four day, three night sampling of all of the fun activities Ramah in the Rockies has to offer. When this new program filled up within 24 hours of registration opening, we got to thinking about how we can share the magic of camp with even more kids, and Tot Ramah was born. Accommodating campers from infancy through toddlerhood, our new Tot Ramah program will prepare your baby for the backcountry with an intensive curriculum of mountain biking, rock climbing, and horseback riding!

At Ramah in the Rockies, we are constantly trying to evolve and improve. I feel confident that all of these exciting new changes will ultimately make our kehillah kedoshah – our holy community – even stronger.

– Rabbi Eliav

P.S. 99.9% of the this update is made up. Wishing everyone a happy, silly Purim celebration!

Rabbi Sarah Shulman, a recently ordained Rabbi, was one of our first staff members.  This summer, she is the Director of Camp Ramah in Northern California for their inaugural summer. We are so proud to have had Sarah as one of our founding staff members, and of the great work she will continue doing at Ramah Galim. This is the speech she gave at her ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. 

Makom Torah, an Ordination Speech by Rabbi Sarah Schulman

Rabbi Eliav presenting Rabbi Sarah Shulman at her ordination ceremony

Rabbi Eliav presenting Rabbi Sarah Shulman at her ordination ceremony

Thank you all for sharing this priceless moment with my classmates and I in this place of Torah, for helping us to reach it, and for sustaining us so we could reap from it. A special thanks to those who have traveled from out of town to celebrate with us and the Jewish community tonight. On a personal note: Laura and Gary, Ramah leaders, TRZ community, close friends and family – you are up here with me.

Classmates, hevre, this is a moment to cherish and a moment where our past meets our future. Ten years ago I was on a much different path and so were you. Like many of you, I have found myself reflecting in the last few weeks as I prepare for ordination and for the next chapter in my life as a rabbi on what I would say to myself of 10 years ago. What blessings and truths do I carry with me today that I would offer to her and other young people in her generation as guidance?

In response, I offer a letter I have written to each of our former selves, to the younger men and woman who were driven to succeed, who had all the tools to succeed, but were without the companionship, grounding, perspective, or Torah to find genuine success. We had knowledge, we had passion, and yet many of us also had profound loneliness or aimlessness, whether we then recognized it or not.
I direct this letter to each of our former selves AND to each and every person in this tent regardless of age or background because there is a younger person within each of us and within each of our families who is a little lost or alone. We all have questions; we all have doubts; we all at times need the compass of Torah.

Dear younger Danny, younger Mathew, younger Jeremy, younger Nolan, younger Josh, younger Jeremy, younger Becca, younger Adir, and younger Sarah,

Stick with it, honey. You’re going to right this course. Believe us, we know because we have lived it. You’ve come into adulthood striving to find your way, striving to be successful in the footsteps of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Larry Paige because these innovators are the heroes of our time. Yet the narrative about success that you have internalized as truth about an individual’s search for a brilliant idea to save the world is not the only path out there to success or happiness or meaning.

Indeed, we have grown up with a narrative emphasized by the success of Google and Facebook and a few dozen other start-ups that inspires us to seek powerful ideas and with them, powerful positions. But we need to know that this narrative of success misrepresents reality for the vast majority of us on this planet. This is a fairytale about one person cultivating the brilliant idea that changes the world.

Each of you will indeed birth important ideas – as teachers, founders of new camps, communities, movies and podcasts, and as creative human beings. But nevertheless something critical is missing from this narrative. What is missing from this story (and from our ideal of success) is other people.

I’d like to offer an alternative narrative, and with it a path out of a present stuckness. Because although you have spent the first decades of your life chasing ideas, it hasn’t been enough, has it? Though knowledge has gotten you far, it has not helped you answer your big questions about life. It has not helped reveal a sense of purpose or quelled loneliness. And it won’t be enough in 10 years time either to navigate hate crimes, violence in Israel, ISIS attacks, or the trials and tribulations of illness. It’s time for a new operative paradigm in life.

Thankfully, Jewish tradition offers a vital counter-narrative to the uber-idea-man fairytale, one articulated in Mishnah Avot chapter 4 (and in your future ordination program in 10 years): Rabbi Nehorai teaches:

הֱוֵי גוֹלֶה לִמְקוֹם תּוֹרָה וְאַל תֹּאמַר שֶׁהִיא תָבוֹא אַחֲרֶיךָ, שֶׁחֲבֵרֶיךָ יְקַיְּמוּהָ בְיָדֶךָ. וְאֶל בִּינָתְךָ אַל תִּשָּׁעֵן.

Uproot yourself to live in a place of Torah, and do not say that it will come to you. For your hevre will make it stick with you. So do not rely on your own understanding.

This text offers a different road to success. It invites us to leave – as did Abraham and Sarah, the Israelites from Egypt, and the Jews of Rabbi Nehorai’s generation following the destruction of the Temple – what is familiar behind, to actively embrace change in our circumstances, our surroundings, and in ourselves. Go find a makom Torah, a deeply rewarding place to learn and a space for relationships. According to 16th century Rabbi Almosnino, this means a place where the atmosphere, surroundings, and community are pervaded by Torah. It’s not just a place; its other people. It’s time for each of us to consider where we need to go and who we need to seek out to gather the wisdom to collectively serve the world.

If you do, you’ll be grateful to find many places of Torah in schools, synagogues, the beit midrash, camp, and in the arms of spouses and partners, friends and children from Los Angeles to Jerusalem that offer an essential sense of learning, connection, and solidarity.
In the precious makom Torah that is housed within American Jewish University you’ll find other people who will change your life. For your journey is not over by discovering a place of learning, rather it is your future classmates and teachers who complete this new paradigm. According to Rabbi Nehorai, it is your hevre, or the colleagues, friends, family, and mentors around you who support your growth and guide you to find meaning and purpose in your work in this world. “Do not rely on your own understanding” because change is not about one person coming up with an idea that changes the world; rather real change is and has always been about changing the nature of our relationships in this world. Who is wise, Ben Zoma asked? Our tradition answers: The one who learns from every other person. You have already learned so much from your families and teachers up until this point. And now what your new hevre will give you is the training to become an inspiration and a companion who also others find and create m’komot Torah in our communities. I cannot even describe to you how much you will benefit from the teaching and spiritual guidance of your future rabbis, mentors, family, and friends within the walls of rabbinical school and beyond its borders. They will show you that the act of Torah is not complete without the love of others.

You may be wondering, what is the cost of not switching to this alternative narrative? The Talmud in Shabbat 147b tells us about Rabbi Eleazar ben Arak, who went off on his own to the waters of Diomsith, determined to pursue his learning and ideas without others. What was the result? It was neither success nor satisfaction. Rather he lost his Torah, he lost a grip on his learning. It wasn’t until his colleagues assembled to pray for him that his learning and equilibrium returned to him. This is how the second half of Rabbi Nehorai’s teaching is a commentary on the first. It’s not enough to find a place of Torah, but you must share it with others and let others share it with you, or you may end up in dark, lonely waters.

The rabbi you’ll each strive to be, and frankly, the rabbis that the Jewish community will most need, are not just idea generators but community generators; not just people of Torah but democratizers of Torah; not just priests or prophets but teachers, and all different kinds of teachers. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us: Moses himself could have been called many things. But what did they call him? They did not call him “Moses the liberator,” “the lawgiver,” “the prophet,” or “the hero.” Though he was all those things. Jewish tradition called him none of those things. When Jewish people wanted to give him the highest honor they called him, “Moses our teacher.” To be a teacher in Judaism is the highest honor” for to be a teacher is to lovingly connect Torah with other people, giving and receiving. Nolan and Becca, Jeremy and Josh, Adir and Danny, Mathew, Jeremy, and Sarah: be patient because one day you will have the opportunity to teach from the deepest place within you and use that place to guide and inspire a future generation of young searching souls. One day you will look back on your former self and feel proud of every step you took and every hand you held along the way to get from the narrow bridge to the bimah.

Yours truly,
Your older and wiser, but humble Rabbi selves

[Turning to the whole tent]

On the one hand this is a message to the younger version of our nine new rabbis tonight, but really it is for each one of us. For at times we are all lost or fearful, at times we are all caught up in a narrow image of success for ourselves or for our children that neither serves us or them. The affirmation of Jewish life is that we never have to take this journey alone. The promise land is a place for a whole people. In it there are no prizes or plaques, no pats on the back or six figure pay checks but there are arms to hold you and teachers to guide you and the laughter flows like milk and honey. It is no coincidence that one of the names of God is Hamakom, “the place” – for we find God in our lives in those holy places where we sit across from another and listen.
So I invite each of us to consider, what is your makom Torah, what is the place of learning and the people of learning that you need right now in your life? And what is stopping you from seeking them out tomorrow?

I bless each of us with the courage to let go of going it alone and to instead seek out the people and places in our lives that inspire us to collect, to personalize, and to share our own precious Torah with others. May we all find a place of learning that inspires and challenges us, and through it may we join one another to build and bridge communities; break down boundaries and borders; actualize shared ideas and heal one another.

This was originally published on E Jewish Philanthropy

Eliav headshotSome say leaders are made. Others believe that leaders are born. I believe that leaders are nurtured and developed from a young age in spaces where failure, honesty, fun, and creativity can thrive.

When I look back on my childhood, my most formative experiences were during my years in the Boy Scouts and attending Boy Scout camp from age 12-14. During this time I learned how to make emergency shelters using only wood and bark, swam a mile for the first time, and spent a night sleeping under the stars as part of the Order of the Arrow ordeal ceremony. While I was never going to become the next Michael Phelps or the next mountain man, these experiences taught me the importance of taking initiative, setting goals, and overcoming fears.

In 2009 I had the opportunity to start a summer camp for Jewish children (while still completing my MA at The Davidson School), one that would inspire young people to become the next generation of leaders. I turned to the lessons I learned as a Boy Scout to craft the vision for what is now Camp Ramah in the Rockies. I hoped to create a place young people could come and experience many of the values present in the Boy Scouts combined with so many of the Jewish core values I had learned over the years at Camp Ramah and JTS.

But there was a key element that might not have been present as much in the Boy Scouts or even in more formal academic settings that I wanted to make central to a new community inspiring leaders for the 21st century. And that element was failure. Yes, I wanted to make sure that everyone from campers to counselors to the highest level of staff members knew how to fail and that failure was usually the first step to succeeding.

Joli2And this is why we decided to focus our efforts on creating an outdoor adventure camp. Campers and staff who come to Ramah in the Rockies know that it is impossible to get it right 100 percent of the time, or even 95 percent. If we are getting straight As then we are not pushing ourselves hard enough. We strive for excellence, but know that “good enough” is sometimes best.

When our campers return from a climbing trip, they are scarred with bruises from their slips on the rock slab (only to be caught by the safety ropes/harnesses). Bikers return from attempting ever more challenging trails, knowing that at some point they will fall, scrape themselves, and get back on to try again. Bandages, cuts, and bruises are worn with pride. Even in our non-physical programming, be it our meals or evening activities, we push our staff to try new ideas, knowing that some will work wonderfully and others will fall flat.

So what does it take to create such an environment, assuming that not everyone has access to magnificent mountains and inspiring natural surroundings?

Here are four recommendations that I suggest are replicable in almost any environment:

1. Create a relatively flat organizational structure where every person is mission aligned. Yes, you need a director, and yes, you need someone to wash dishes or to take out the trash, but make sure that every person has the opportunity to create change and feel that they have a voice in the organization. If an employee who has been there for two weeks wants to try something new, then let her. What is the worst that can happen: someone tries something new that advances the mission in a way you did not expect? Or perhaps someone has even more dedication to the organization because she was given the chance to take initiative.

2. Create a place where complaining is not allowed. At Ramah in the Rockies, any senior staff member will listen to a complaint once, but the next time the same person/people come with a similar complaint the answer is always: “What do you want to do to fix it?” Assuming the answer is mission aligned, then the next line is, “Please go make it happen.”

3. Create a place where failure is celebrated and be open about failures. No one likes to mess up, but we all need to make mistakes. I have said some regrettable things to staff and parents over the years. I have created some abysmal programs (as well as some pretty awesome ones). And I am open with my staff about these. When a staff member makes a mistake, I often ask them what they learned from it and what they might do differently next time. End of story. No need to harp on it; usually we are our own worst critics.

4. Have fun. Many camp people of my generation grew up singing songs by the Indigo Girls around the campfire. A quote by Indigo Girls member Emily Saliers that still rings true is: “You have to laugh at yourself, because you’d cry your eyes out if you didn’t.” A community that creates impactful leaders should be imbued with a sense of fun and purpose where we laugh with each other and only we alone laugh at ourselves.

Camp is often seen as a microcosm for the real world. We all want our children, our teachers, and our leaders to aspire to be even more effective and to create an even better community. To constantly create the environment that allows children, teens, and young adults become effective leaders requires these places where we can fail, be honest, be creative, and have fun.

Rabbi Eliav Bock is the director of Camp Ramah in the Rockies. Eliav received his rabbinical ordination from The Rabbinical School and his MA in Jewish Education from William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Matt Levitt, our Assistant Director, will be leaving Ramah in the Rockies in June. In his next adventure he will be pursuing graduate school as he and his wife, Sara, move to Tulsa. Thank you, Matt, for all you have done for Ramah in the Rockies!

Eliav headshotI still remember in the Fall of 2009 receiving an email from one Matthew Levitt, then a junior at Indiana University, asking me how he could apply to work as a counselor at our yet-to-open Ramah Camp in Colorado.  As a counselor during our inaugural summer, Matt showed innate leadership qualities that I knew could help us grow our camp.  We offered for him to help us with logistics during the off season following camp and were eventually able to bring him on board full time in 2012 as Program Director.
It is hard to understate Matt’s impact on nearly every aspect of our organization.  From recruiting to hiring and from program design to organizational infrastructure, he has accepted every challenge that has come his way and has constantly sought to improve our camp program.  He has an incredible organizational mind and always finds creative solutions to complex problems.  When we found ourselves in 2014 without a head chef and campers due to arrive in 24 hours, Matt stepped in and took over running the kitchen, often working 18 hour days since he still had his assistant director job to do, too.  Although not a world-renown chef, he did organize, empower, and motivate others to help us through a tough summer in the kitchen.
Matt informed us last summer that he would be transitioning out with the intent of pursuing an MBA. He has spent the better part of this year working closely with our incoming Program Director, Julia Snyder. Over the years, Matt has become a good friend and mentor.  I have relied on him for a listening ear, honest conversations, and good laughs.  While I wish him and Sara only success in the next chapter of their lives together, I will miss working with him daily and know that his impact on Ramah in the Rockies will be felt for years to come.
Below is a note that Matt wrote about his impending transition.
-Rabbi Eliav Bock
MLSLDear Ramah Community,
With gratitude my journey at Ramah in the Rockies will come to end on June 30th of this year as my wife Sara, Watford, and I begin the next chapter of our lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Sara has accepted a new position as the Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Congregation B’nai Emunah, a long time Ramah-supporting synagogue. Given the upcoming move and opportunity, I plan to return to graduate school for a degree in business in Tulsa. My passion and interest for business and operations was developed right here at Ramah in the Rockies and it is something I would like to pursue further.
Words cannot describe how appreciative we are for the tremendous opportunity Rabbi Eliav Bock, Douglas Wolf, Don Skupsky, and the entire Ramah community have given me over the last 5+ years. I could not be prouder of our growth over the past six summers. From my first days in 2010 as a rock climbing instructor for 120 campers to this season where we will welcome close to 500 campers, the power of this kehillah kedosha (holy community) truly shows.
It has been an incredible journey for Sara and me. The generous support, both personally and professionally, has left a special place for Ramah in our hearts. We feel confident in saying that Ramah will be in our future but for now this chapter will come to a close in June.
Please feel free to email me at matthew.levitt@gmail.com if you find yourself in Tulsa or would like to keep in touch.
Thank you again!

-Matt Levitt


This is the second installment in a series of blogs from our camp staff. Each of the staff were asked how their area of camp (rock climbing, archery, horseback riding, etc) and Judaism was linked for them, and how they have brought the two together in their lives.

Matt Levitt

matt atop mtn w sunGazing out of my college dorm window towards the yellow and orange leaves blanketing the beautiful Indiana University campus each fall, a few ideas swirling around in my head, I decided this would be my last “available” summer.  A double major in Political Science and Arabic, soon I would need a summer internship with the state department, if my dream to work in Middle Eastern policy was to be realized post-graduation.  

After some online digging, I found a new camp, a Ramah specialty camp, was scheduled to open in the heart of the Rocky Mountain during the summer of 2010. Intrigued by this idea, I contacted Rabbi Eliav to see if any positions remained. Luckily, he had several available positions and I found myself on the inaugural Tzevet [staff] in the summer of 2010 as a rock climbing instructor and madrich [counselor].

While much of the ground work for the educational program was put in place by Rabbi Eliav, Sarah Shulman (Former Ramah in the Rockies Assistant Director and now the Director of the new Camp Ramah in Northern California), and several others before our arrival, it was clear that my entrepreneurial spirit would thrive here. During our first summer I developed a rock climbing curriculum asking the essential question, how can the ancient texts of the Jews relate to the modern day rock climber?

Part of the program at Ramah Outdoor Adventure includes a five day backcountry excursion for our oldest chaluztim [campers]. One such trip culminated with a 5 a.m. climb up one of the most beautiful rock faces in the Lost Creek Wilderness.  We woke up to the campers’ groans of an early morning, but soon after a little oatmeal and some hot tea, our group was ready to depart for our last day of climbing before heading back to camp for Shabbat. Several hours later, our group reached the top of our climb and sat atop a beautiful vista overlooking the entire Lost Creek Wilderness.

Atop that beautiful vista, we decided to engage our chalutzim [campers] in a discussion about Moses’ journey as a biblical climber. By the end of our discussion, our chalutzim [campers] had come to the conclusion that Moses acted as the “belayer” or safety, Joshua played the role of the “climber”, the explorer of new land, and God secured us as the “rope” and “gear”, linking the two through rope and safety.

It was in that moment, sitting atop that breathtaking cliff, I realized the true beauty of experiential Jewish education and the mission of Ramah Outdoor Adventure. Seeing the campers engage in Judaism that way, relating our past traditions to today, changed my life.

When I returned back to Indiana University, I changed my major to Jewish Studies and Education. Now I work for Ramah Outdoor Adventure at Ramah in the Rockies year round, continuing to follow my passion of experiential Jewish education, a passion developed here in the heart of the Rocky Mountains during our very first summer.