Reflections on a long awaited return trip to Ramah Canada.
After my first summer as Director of Ramah Outdoor Adventure, I had a chance in November 2009 to return to the place where I started my Ramah career as a 17 year old lifeguard. Driving past the Palmer exit on the Massachusetts Turnpike, I decided to go visit Ramah in New England (aka Palmer). I wrote a blog post reflecting on the feelings I experienced roaming through an empty camp, as distant memories flooded back into my mind.
Last week I had another returning of sorts. This time it was to Ramah in Canada, where I spent five incredible summers (although one was only for a small portion of the summer), mainly working in their tripping program. This time, I was there with all of the Camp Ramah directors for our post‑summer meetings.
While most of the days were spent in meetings– reviewing the summer and planning for next year, the time I had to walk around the camp and swim/boat in the agam [lake] again unleashed a flood of emotions and memories. These memories were equally profound to the memories I experienced on my return trip to Palmer. If Ramah in New England taught me lessons about life and relationships that I could take with me through college, Ramah in Canada taught me lessons about being a Jewish educator that set me on the path to becoming a Rabbi, and ultimately to founding Ramah in the Rockies.
In 1999, as I was preparing for my final summer in college. I had convinced myself that I needed to get a “real” job that I could put on my resume to be an attractive candidate for an investment bank or a management consulting firm. But in my head, I knew that I needed to be in camp. I could not return to the camp of “my youth”, because all my other friends had outgrown Ramah Palmer.
My college friend (Rabbi) Ilana Garber convinced me to apply to work at Ramah in Canada where she was headed for the summer, as they were known for the best outdoors program in the Ramah movement and I could put my camping skills to use. A few months later, I found myself in Utterson, Ontario working for an incredible camp director, Rabbi Mitch Cohen, leading campers on multi-day back country canoe trips.
Throughout my time last week at camp, I had so many moments where I could stop and appreciate how much my life continues to be influenced by my experiences at Ramah in Canada.
As we took the barge out for a spin on the massive lake, I spotted Ramah Island for the first time in nine years. I can still picture myself back in 2000, standing on the cliffs at the back of the island 20 feet above the clear lake with a group of 12 year old boys. I translated Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea of Radical Amazement to this group of young men. This notion that we can experience God in those moments of time when we are left speechless has become an integral part of my own theology, and it i s something we discuss regularly at Ramah in the Rockies. That moment of teaching theology high above the water was one of the first times I could see myself as a Jewish educator, even if I also had to convince myself that what I really wanted was a career on Wall Street (where I did eventually work for the next five years).
Walking around the camp I recalled one of the most important leadership lessons I continue to follow to this day. As a rookie tripper, I made numerous mistakes on the first trip I was asked to lead. What started as a series of small mishaps (or, “lemons” as we called them) resulting mainly from my poor planning, careened into a situation. Starting around 1:00 a.m. I felt I had lost control and eventually had to flag down a passing boat around 6:00 a.m. to call the camp for help, and ask for a rescue. On our ride back to camp, the head of tripping, Daniel “Dice” Brandes, did not utter a word; his disappointment in me was palpable. I was wondering whether I would be fired or whether I would ever be allowed to lead trips in the future. Either way, I was certain I would no longer be seen as one of the best trippers of the summer.
It took some time once we arrived on shore, but eventually he asked me a simple question: “So what did you learn?” We processed the entire episode together and where I could have made any number of different decisions that would have led to a better outcome. Two days later, rather than benching me, Dice awarded me with leading the best trip the following week. I went on to lead numerous other trips, and never made those same mistakes again (I made plenty of others instead). Dice’s lessons in leadership, and recognizing but not dwelling on mistakes, are something I continue to use to this day as I manage a staff of over 100 people. When people make mistakes, I use the same sort of imposed self-reflection to allow them to uncover where they erred. They will be their own harshest critic and their own best teachers. Had Dice lost confidence in me at that moment, I doubt I would have continued to lead trips and eventually go into this line of work year-round.
Walking into their newly remodeled tripping shed, seeing the names on all the plaques, brought back one of the most powerful images I have from my years on tripping staff. It came at the end of a 5 day canoe trip in Kilarney Provincial Park. Each morning after breakfast, we would take 20-25 minutes to go off on our own to pray. I told the fifteen year olds, whom I was leading, that they could pray using the words in the siddur or the feelings in their heart. The teens took this time very seriously and often I would hear their voices echoing from a distance off the water. On the last morning of the trip, one of the campers came up to me and asked: “can I keep this siddur?” I asked her why she wanted the old stained siddur we used on trips. She answered: “because this week I learned how to pray and I want to take this as a reminder of my prayers.” I was floored. After years as a camper at Ramah and even more years in Jewish education at home, it took her being on this intensive trip, given the freedom to express the words in her heart, to learn about real prayer. I knew at that moment that there was incredible power about teaching Judaism to people using the outdoors.
Finally, there I was back during my early morning swim in the agam [lake] on Wednesday morning looking at the red roofed buildings on the shore, nine years since last setting foot in the camp. I looked towards camp from the center of the lake and felt an overwhelming sense of appreciation for the camp and the time spent there. I also know the 1200+ young people who have been part of our Ramah in the Rockies community continue to have their lives changed for the better because of my time in the Canadian Wilderness. Ramah in the Rockies emerged as a dream from a few of us who had experienced the Ramah in Canada tripping program. We knew that there was no better way to teach about Jewish values, traditions and texts than by being in the outdoors, connected with nature. Judaism was a religion started for an agrarian people and evolved into a religion for more urbanites. One of our goals at Ramah in the Rockies is to reconnect our modern youth to these agrarian roots.
It is funny how life works! I often wonder where I would be today had I taken that “fancy internship” back in 1999. I often wonder where my life would be had I really given up the dream of camp when I became an equity trader in September 2000, after camp ended. And I wonder where my life would be had the campers at Canada not transformed so magically on every trip I lead. I doubt I will ever know the answers to these questions, but do know that last week while spending time at camp, I had the opportunity to feel this overwhelming sense of gratitude for a place and a program that continues to affect my life today.