Thoughts from Ramah in Argentina
Written by 5th years counselor: Jordan Anderson
Every other week during the summer at ROA, we go out on masaot (excursions). We leave camp for backpacking, kayaking, rafting, horseback riding, climbing, and mountain biking. And each of those weeks, on the Sunday before we leave, Rabbi Eliav gives us a talk about what to expect for the next week. He tells us that we’re about to experience incredible highs and some not so incredible lows. He tells us that we will push ourselves beyond anything we ever thought ourselves capable of. Rabbi Eliav stands in front of the entire camp and tells us that we’re about enjoy views seen by very few and only accessible by horse, bike, foot, or river. But my favorite piece of wisdom Rabbi Eliav shares with us is this: he tells us we’re going to learn about who we are and, if we allow ourselves to grow, we will come back different people with a week’s worth of stories to tell.
This December, I embarked on a different kind of masa, spending two weeks as a part of the Ramah Steinberg Fellowship to Argentina. The fellowship takes staff from each of the Ramah camps in North America and sends them to Buenos Aires to work with Jewish communities in their summer programs. There were eleven participants, all from different camps. We functioned as shlichim, or delegates. We ran programs and taught songs and dances. We spent time with the campers and staff at meals, on the beach, during our down time. And we watched, trying to take everything in. I wish there was a way to give you a taste of my experience there, to share everything I felt and saw and heard. But that’s just not possible, so I’ll have to settle for giving you a taste of the changes this latest adventure inspired for me.
The way summer camp works in Argentina—and really, in the rest of the world—is that camp is a short capstone experience to celebrate the end of a year of programming. Our delegation worked with three communities, each belonging to a different synagogue in Buenos Aires. Those communities used the same campsite (a beautiful public site on the beach) but hardly ever interacted, except to express rivalries. During the year, staff (who are 17 or 18 years old) facilitate formal programming for kids in their communities. Each week, they come together to study and establish their Jewish identities. The week they spend at camp is a celebration of their learning as well as a transition from one year to the next. The oldest campers take their time at camp seriously: most are preparing to become staff for the next year.
At Ramah, we take two or four or six weeks to create a summer experience. Tzevet gets about 9 weeks to enjoy camp. These communities in Argentina get only one week. The staff arrived the same day as the campers. Everything needed for the week is transported on the buses that will drive five hours from the country’s capital to the coast. The staff gets the opportunity to work with their campers all year, acting as fundamental members of their Jewish communities. The week they spend at camp is filled to the brim with the camp activities we enjoy at our Ramah camps: color war, Shabbat, swimming, day trips into town, Israel programs. The end of camp brings tears as the group shifts from one year to the next. In short, the camp I experienced in Argentina was really just a condensed version of my two-month summer.
My time in Argentina gave me a sense of perspective. Not only do we experience camp differently in the United States, we forge personal reactions at a different level. In Argentina, you are expected to kiss everyone you meet on the right cheek. More than that, though, there is no concept of a stranger. Once you’ve been introduced, you can count on your new acquaintances to take you in for a night or to spend Shabbat with their family. Coming in as outsiders, our group was invited to dance, to participate, to be a part of the community. We worked through language barriers, cultural differences, and a lack of scheduling. I left camp at the end of that week feeling very much attached to the communities with whom I worked. Despite the fact that I had spent only a week at camp, muddling through conversations in quick-fire Spanish, I walked away having both given and taken from these three communities.
So I guess that speech Rabbi Eliav gives every other week is true, even when your masa happens on a different continent and in the middle of winter. I experienced some incredible highs. There were even a few not-so-incredible lows. I pushed myself to speak Spanish, to try swimming in the ocean. But, perhaps most importantly, I left camp a little different and with a week’s worth of stories to tell.