Where The Mountain Meets The Sky by Debbie Wohl Isard
This post was originally featured on the Jewish News of the Greater Phoenix Area. Debbie was a guest of ours at Shavuot this past year, and we are touched and amazed at her words here. If you are interested in coming for Shavuot camp this year, please contact Matt Levitt.
For one week in June 2014, I made aliyah. Not to Israel, but up the mountain to Ramah, my spiritual home, where the mountain meets the sky. It had been many years since I stepped onto the hallowed ground of any Ramah campus, and though this ascent was not to my home camp of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, I was instantly in my element at Ramah Outdoor Adventure in the Rockies (ROA) in Deckers, Colorado. Because my daughter had been a member of the brave “Chevrat HaMeyasdim” (founding/pioneering staff members) in 2009 and 2010, I already recognized some names and faces and was familiar with landmarks from her photos and descriptions. I had heard her sing ROA songs and chants, and knew a bit about what made this Ramah camp similar yet different from the original Ramah prototype.
There is no mistaking the ruach of Ramah, the ineffable bond that exists among generations of Ramah-niks all across the country. Shared values, curiosity, connection to the place and each other. Even as a camp that is only four years old, all of this is part of ROA. This is a place to feel Jewish and be Jewish in a way that reaches deeper inside than any experience you can have back in your everyday school-year world. What makes ROA extra special is the exploring spirit brought to just about every activity. Everyone hikes, bikes, climbs, rappels, kayaks, works on the farm and backpacks in the rugged, yet serene, Rocky Mountain wilderness. Founded on the principle of “challenge by choice,” Ramah Valley is like a vortex where campers and staff learn things about life and themselves, creating a kehillah kedosha — a holy community.
The gardens for fruits and vegetables (enjoyed at meals) are built and maintained by campers and staff. The horse pastures are accessible in the center of the camp. The sounds of tefillah (prayer), limmud (learning), shirah (singing), rikud (dancing) and amanut (arts) may be concentrated in rooms adjoining the Chadar Ochel ohel (dining room tent), but the life of this camp is breathed everywhere among acres of both semi-developed and undeveloped land.
I knew most of that, or thought I did, before I arrived. But I didn’t fully get it until I found myself living it. Last spring, I opened an email newsletter from ROA. It contained a small announcement inviting interested families to contact the camp for more information about a new Shavuot study opportunity. There would be holiday-specific programming as well as free time for these visitors to the ranch. They would be joined by senior tzevet (staff) who were readying the camp for the beginning of the summer season. Right away, I signed up, encouraged by my daughter and her formative experiences as a young adult.
Upon arrival, I learned that the other families who had expressed interest had not been able to come that week. I was the only person not on staff there, yet immediately I knew that I was not an outsider. Just as I had a sense of familiarity with ROA based upon my daughter’s involvement, all I had to do was introduce myself as Risa’s Mom and, immediately, I was embraced, literally and figuratively. Lucky me, I was invited to participate in every aspect of staff orientation, study sessions, discussion groups, and even wilderness first-responder training. I volunteered in the farm-garden, braided challah, and assisted in the kitchen. Soon, I wasn’t just my daughter’s middle-aged mother. I quickly became a member of a tight-knit family of young people, some in college, some recent grads, and some rabbinical students.
I hiked up the mountain with the entire community as we symbolically received the Torah from Sinai on a glorious Shavuot morning. Moses may not have brought dogs with him, but faithful pets accompanied us. Amidst the group of tallit-clad fellow hikers, wearing a kippah that I had crocheted decades earlier as a camper, I was called up for an aliyah as the Torah was read on the mountaintop.
Like all Ramah camps, every meal began with hand-washing and motzi. But ROA goes further than that, by also beginning each meal with announcements by the food educator, a dedicated position on staff, who described what was on the menu, what the health benefits were of the locally sourced ingredients, and what the vegan/gluten-free option was. This was unlike any camp food I’d ever eaten. Every tasty dish was crafted with the intention to maximize nutrients, and was energy-fueling and appetite-quenching. Each table had a designated helper/cleaner, yet everyone pitched in. There was always room for one more person to sit on the bench. And of course we “benched” after every meal, conscious of which food groups were represented.
What ROA lacks in sprawling manicured lawns, paved sports courts, and cathedral gathering halls, it makes up for with rustic-but-civilized ohelim (tent-bunks) where windows are unzipped, and light comes from flashlights, headlamps and solar-powered lanterns. (Helpful tip for first-timers: place the solar-powered lantern outside in the sun during the day!) There is no need to clean the bathroom in your ohel, because there isn’t one; just walk up the hill to the bright and airy communal bathhouses. (Tip: DO remember to bring your bucket of toiletries.) While you won’t find yourself crossing perfectly sodded fields to get to your next activity, do allow time to hike up and down the rocky hills and valleys, and to stop to watch the caterpillar spin its silk, the aspen leaves flutter, and the deer in your midst. (Tip: DO wear sturdy shoes daily. DO carry your day-pack everywhere. DON’T try to capture these experiences with a camera; you simply can’t.) Most important tips: drink water, lots of water; apply and reapply sunscreen; and always wear your hat. ROA is located at serious altitude.
From one Jewish mother to another, if you think that your son or daughter might enjoy the challenges and confidence-building experience of developing outdoor physical skills while being supported by a Jewish-values-driven community, check-out the information about an upcoming meet-and-greet event being hosted here in Phoenix/Scottsdale on Tuesday Nov. 18th. See you there!