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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.

You Spoke, We Listened

Rabbi Eliav Bock

Eliav headshot

The better part of the past eight weeks or so since leaving the chava (ranch) have been spent reaching out to you, our camper families, to gather your thoughts about us and our camp program this last summer.  We did this by personally calling or emailing each of our over 350 camper families.  We also sought your input via an anonymous survey, which was administered by a third party foundation.  But we didn’t stop there.  We also asked all 90+ staff members for their perspectives as part of their exit interviews at the end of the summer.  And then we requested them to complete a similar survey as well.  

We heard from many of you and cannot thank you enough for your time and responses to our questions.  Now that we have had time to review and evaluate it all, here is what we have learned and our plans for the future.

(I apologize for the length, but firmly believe in sharing as openly with you as you have with us.)

 

TWO THUMBS UP:

Our Community

The geographic and religious diversity of our camp population enhances the warm and nonjudgmental community that we create each summer.  Many of our chalutzim (campers) have “never felt so welcomed”, never felt so accepted for who they are, and “never [felt] so able to pursue [their] own passions without fear of being judged by others.”  There is an overall feeling among those who responded that most people at camp share the same values as they or their children do.

Our Outdoor Programming

While there were a few masaot (excursions) that did not go as planned, this part of the program continues to be the most memorable and impactful aspect of camp.  Our chalutzim who participated in multi-day experiences felt challenged and returned to camp with a great sense of accomplishment. Equally as important as the venues was the peer-to-peer bonding that took place.

Although the weather at the start of summer put a damper on some base camp activities, we received many compliments on the excellent balance between program quality and content, skills instruction, and fun factor.  There were no complaints that our chalutzim had biked, climbed, or rode too much.  (In fact, many would have liked more opportunities to do these.) And while there was high praise for the equipment used at camp, there were also times when there were more chalutzim wanting to participate than the equipment could accommodate at a single time.

Our Quality Staff

Many parents commented, and many of our older chalutzim noticed, that not only was our staff older than they had expected but also how eager and motivated they were to be working at camp and with the campers. While there were some critiques of missed follow-ups, a few poor choices made by staff, and some less-than-ideal counselor pairings, the overall consensus was one of a stellar team running a safe, educational, and inspiring summer for their children.

From the staff side, 100% stated that they were working there to advance the camp’s mission. Nationally, only 80% of Jewish summer camp staff members answer this affirmatively.

MIXED REVIEWS (& WHERE WE CAN IMPROVE)

Our Food

Overall, we received the most comments about the food at camp.  Some loved it, others wanted more meat, some wanted nuts, and others wished for more menu variety.  Our food program is an integral part of our camp’s mission.  At the same time, we know that little else matters if our chalutzim are hungry or wondering about the menu for the next meal.  During the off season we continue to refine our menus, replacing less popular choices with new options, integrating more mainstream plant-based proteins, and improving our between-meal snack variety.  This past summer we learned that while some campers were aware of readily available snacks, many of our younger campers did not know that they could grab something from the Ohel Ochel (dining tent) whenever they were hungry.

Improving our communication to campers about snacks is an easily accomplished goal.  Other menu challenges, particularly meat availability, have multiple variables involved.  Each year, a farm family in upstate New York raises free-range (organic) chickens for our summer needs.  We made the switch to free-range chickens in 2012  after receiving negative feedback about serving factory farmed meat that did not fit in with the values we are living by as a community. In 2015, however,  due to the unusually colder winter and spring in the northeast, the chickens were not of eating size and not schechted (ritually slaughtered) until late June, delaying meat on the camp menu until early July.

Acquiring additional organic chicken and meat from other sources and making it more often would answer that need, but would ignore the reality of our available facilities.  Quite simply, we do not have a suitable meat kitchen at camp.  Until we are able to build a new, $3+ million dining hall/commercial kitchen, we do what we are able which means that our only method to cook meat is on an open grill.  And while we use the main kitchen to keep things warm (double wrapped in the dairy warmers) and to prepare parve side dishes, meat meals require us to shut down most of the regular kitchen and cover it in plastic for much of the day resulting in simplified dishes served for breakfast and lunch on those days.

While the shortage of meat/chicken is not readily fixed, we continue to offer eggs at most breakfasts and include protein options during the week as part of the salad bar.  Meanwhile we continue to review our menus with a nutritionist to ensure that our community’s nutritional needs are met.  We realize that this situation is not ideal, but hope our clarity helps explain why our meat situation is the way it is.

Our Younger Camper Experiences

Each year we continue to grow our camp programs for all our edot (groups), however, this summer it was clear that our younger campers needed us to rework their schedule to accommodate more of the popular base camp activities and incorporate additional outdoor adventure experiences particularly for our Ilanot chalutzim.  The wet start to the summer did not help their adventure opportunities!

To address these issues, starting kayitz (summer) 2016, we are:

  •  Forgoing most day trips, which will enable our younger campers to participate in more base camp activities including horseback riding, mountain biking, and rock climbing.
  •  Conducting more outdoor-based overnight experiences that are age-appropriate to take advantage of our ranch and surrounding national forest, leading to an increased appreciation for all nature has to offer.
  •  Ensuring that any additional equipment needed for our youngest campers are available BEFORE any campers arrive.
  •  Aspiring higher in each of our program areas, ensuring that our younger campers are learning the basic skills needed as foundations for their progress in the current summer and future seasons.

Our Interpersonal Connections

Jewish summer camp works as an educational medium in large part because campers develop close, personal connections with their counselors and friends.  This summer we noticed that, especially among our two-week participants, these connections did not take root as we hoped they would.  For many of these chalutzim they had fun activities but not emotionally memorable experiences.  Although we have had four-week campers in tents with mixed 2-week and 4-week campers, the transition of saying goodbye to one set of friends and welcoming another proved more difficult than in years past.

Moving forward, we will improve our staff training to ensure that social connections are being made within the ohelim (tents) and require counselors to complete regular socio-grams to aid them in identifying and encouraging healthy group dynamics.  We will also encourage more  activities that foster positive early connections and adapt our scheduling to include more bunk-specific bonding activities are all being worked into the programming vision for summer.  Our goal is for each ohel, when they are in base camp, to have a minimum of one peulat erev (evening activity) just to themselves and then other activities with the broader edah (age group) or entire camp.  Plus we will be adding more ohel time on Shabbat before havdallah.

Two-week programming will continue to be available to our edot through their Bogrim summer for 2016.  However, we are evaluating the feasibility of requiring our Bogrim chalutzim to register for four weeks starting with the 2017 season.  While we continue to believe that it is possible to create memorable and impactful experiences for our younger campers within two weeks, independent research has proved that longer sessions result in greater impact, deeper relationships, and additional personal growth.  For our older chalutzim we may need to make this change to fully realize the outcomes we strive to achieve in our program.

With the exception of our first-time Ilanot-Sollelim campers, we will continue to encourage families to consider the four week options over two-week sessions.  No matter how incredible we make our two week program, it simply cannot live up to the magic experienced over four weeks.

We feel incredibly privileged that so many families have entrusted us to care for their children each summer.  We know the awesome responsibility that this entails and are aware that a child’s experience at camp can influence decisions throughout life.  We are constantly seeking to improve our camp and to fully realize the values that guide us throughout our summer.  We also know that there will be times when we fall short of expectations, and cannot thank our parents, chalutzim and tzevet enough for continuing to push us make our camp better and stronger!