It started with a letter from my rabbi, Henry Sosland of blessed memory, to my parents. No emails or texts way back in 1976, just a typed letter. It was an invitation to send me to Camp Ramah in New England, accompanied by an offer of financial assistance from the rabbi to help make it happen.
My parents didn’t know much about Ramah. They knew it was a Jewish camp. I think (?) they knew that daily prayer, daily learning and Hebrew were part of the program. They knew the rabbi sent his own kids there. In fact, Rachel Sosland, who was one grade ahead of me, was the only person I knew who attended. I’m not really sure why I agreed at the age of 12, sight unseen, to be shipped off for the summer to a dust bowl in Palmer, Massachusetts. But it was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
This year, Ramah is celebrating 75 years of Jewish camping. Since the founding in 1947 of the first Camp Ramah in Wisconsin—intended in part as a training ground for future Jewish leadership and in part as an experiment in enhancing Jewish education for children—Ramah has grown into a network of five day camps, ten overnight camps, family camps, Israel programs, global partnerships and educational experiences that continues to shape the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, teens and young adults. Ramah has produced a foundation for Judaism’s Conservative movement and continues to be the jewel in its crown. Nearly one quarter of our own synagogue families share a connection to the Ramah vision through camping or staffing. Our proximity to Ramah Day Camp in Nyack in particular has led to a unique relationship that has been mutually beneficial to both communities. Over the past 26 years, our OJC professional staff has been fed by the Ramah pipeline of educators. Today, Rabbi Drill, Rabbi Hersh, our youth director Sharon Rappaport, our music director Amichai Margolis and I can all trace our earliest connections to each other through Ramah.
I learned about the creation of Jewish family and the Jewish home from my parents and grandparents; but I learned about the creation of Jewish community from my time at Camp Ramah. What stayed with me from my three summers as a camper was not the feeling of praying on a Friday night at the lake; it was not the thrill of intra- or inter-camp competition; it was not the excitement of camping out on a three-day canoe trip. What I took away from camp—and what has informed my life all these years later—was an appreciation of the power of Jewish community.
When I finally chose the rabbinate as my career, I knew that my goal in serving a synagogue community would be to help fashion a community in the image of camp, the kind of community that I experienced and loved as a child. I also knew that the way there was not to bring a lake or a sunset to the synagogue, as some suggest. The emotional attachment to a physical space is insufficient for the purposes of creating holy community, though our stained glass windows certainly provide a beautiful focal point for gathering. For me, camp was—and synagogue would need to be—about empowerment, acceptance, and inclusion; about passion, care and connection; about experiences, growth and aspiration. Ramah taught me that Judaism is not a spectator sport, that prayer is best practiced and best received as a communal endeavor, and that Torah is best understood in the context of our personal interactions and shared moments.
Nancy, our four sons and I have 125 combined years of Ramah experiences. This summer, as Jason and I head to Ramah Sports Academy (RSA) for the summer and Nancy continues in her post as Communications Director of National Ramah, that number will climb a little higher. The Hebrew word ramah literally means “level” or “height.” As we give of our passion and experience to raise Ramah, its staff and campers to new heights, I know that we will bring back to our communities a renewed appreciation for what it means to be in kehillah kedoshah, holy community. I know that we will continue to learn, grow and be inspired by what Camp Ramah is teaching us about Jewish living.
Join us this Shabbat as we host Ramah‘s National Director Amy Skopp Cooper and celebrate our community’s connection to Ramah. Hopefully, together, we will continue to reach for new heights in Jewish learning and living, bringing us closer to each other and to the realization of our Divinely imbued potential.
And if you happen to get a letter from one of your rabbis….
Rabbi Craig Scheff
I have been back at the OJC for two weeks and cannot count the number of times I have been lovingly asked, “So how was your sabbatical?!” I found myself answering the question with some version of: it was meaningful and valuable and I will tell you all about it soon.
Putting off the description for the future started feeling more and more troublesome until this past Friday. I experienced one of those sacred rabbinical days that make me feel grateful for my profession and also put into perspective the gift of the past three months.
I will start with a narrative of Friday and work backwards to the delayed description of my sabbatical. Early in the morning on Friday, Rabbi Scheff and I met our colleague Rabbi Mark Cooper and a wonderful young man with his family at the Temple Israel Center mikvah in White Plains. Jason* studied for two years in preparation for conversion and then found the conclusion of his journey delayed by Covid. He spoke with intelligence and thoughtfulness about becoming the Jew whom he has always felt himself to be. The privilege of sitting on his Beit Din (rabbinic tribunal) and granting a Hebrew name to a person of deep integrity lifted my soul.
Back in Rockland County, I visited the hospital room of Janice*, a congregant who had survived a life-threatening illness. When I walked into her hospital room, she wept tears that had been stored up for the past three weeks. She was surprised to find herself weeping, but I understood. I represented her community, her Jewish faith, and perhaps even God. We sat together, speaking quietly. Her heartfelt response to being granted a second chance opened my soul.
I drove to the home of Susan*, a congregant who has been isolated for the past two years due to Covid precautions. As we sat and talked about matters serious and not, I felt the importance of connection face-to-face. Her friendship and her optimism despite difficulty filled my soul.
Just before Shabbat, I welcomed into my office Harry*, a man who has been investigating Judaism. He described the study, prayer and experiences he has been seeking. Perhaps wanting to show how much he had learned so far, he offered to chant Shema for me. When I heard his beautiful voice, I closed my eyes and felt tears well. My soul was connected through his words of prayer to God.
As I led the Ma’ariv prayers for our in-person and virtual minyan, I reflected on the very full soul with which I was entering Shabbat. Throughout the day, my soul had been lifted, opened, filled and connected. Such intense interactions with people is a privilege and a gift. I am granted a window into their souls. Their thoughts, hopes and prayers pour in to me; and at the same time, my energy must pour out to them.
As I began to pray the Amida, I suddenly understood how to answer the question, “So how was your sabbatical?” My sabbatical lifted, opened, filled and connected my soul for three months without requiring me to give back anything. I was filled to the top so that I have plenty to give back now.
I studied virtually and privately. I traveled, hiked and practiced yoga. I did a great deal of writing, reading, and spending time with family, most preciously my grandboys. I was filled up.
Those of us who work have demanding jobs. Many of us who are retired have time-consuming volunteer positions and caregiving responsibilities to family members. Sabbatical is a great idea for all of us.
For clergy, three months without waiting for phone calls with someone else’s emergency is a respite that is more valuable than can be described. It is a complete rest of the soul.
I do not want the precious gift of sabbatical to be lost amidst the rush and intensity of work. I have dedicated myself to taking full advantage of the weekly opportunity for sabbatical that we Jewish people call Shabbat.
I encourage you to take the time to enter into Shabbat in the way that feels most reasonable for you. However you do it, practice self-compassion and care. Feel yourself lifted, opened, filled and connected. If you are not sure how to do this, ask Rabbi Scheff or me. We have lots of entry ways into Shabbat to suggest. I guarantee you will have more to give to others if you begin by taking care of your soul.
With a full soul, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
*All names and circumstances have been changed for this blog post.