A past-president of our synagogue, Nohra Leff, once said to me, “I don’t just believe in miracles, I EXPECT THEM!” What a great way to go through life. Expecting miracles means that we engage in behaviors that ultimately create an environment where what some perceive as the “miraculous” becomes that much more possible.
In the fall of 1995, I took a job as part-time cantor at the OJC. Still a full-time student and father of two young boys, I treated the job like it was the fulfillment of a dream. A year later, I was negotiating my first contract to be Student-Rabbi and to stay on as Rabbi after my ordination. I was advised by people “in the know” to avoid such a commitment. After all, the synagogue had gone through so many rabbis in its relatively short history, and I “could do better,” according to the more experienced. Three years later, another past-president, Michael Scolnick, would ask me how long I thought the honeymoon could last. I am glad to say that, even in my 20th year, I still feel like we met just yesterday. Okay, maybe just the day before yesterday.
When I speak to rabbinical students in their final years at JTS, I try to emphasize that every synagogue community has the potential to be a place that can be transformed and re-dedicated to Torah, service and deeds of loving kindness. That can only happen, however, if the rabbi is willing to see him or herself as spending the rest of their professional life serving that one community. If we invest ourselves in a plan believing that we have only two years to work toward achieving our goals, then we doom ourselves to failure; but if we invest ourselves planning for the long term, we can create an environment where the seemingly impossible is indeed achievable.
In the midst of Chanukah, we consider the nature of miracles, and the role that “dedication” (the literal meaning of the word Chanukah) plays in making one day’s worth of oil last for eight, or in leading one small band of soldiers to victory against overwhelming odds. I am so proud of what we have achieved and how we have continued to grow as a Conservative egalitarian community. Beyond our impressive numbers, we have attained a level of learning, service to the broader community, participation and spirit of which we can all be proud. The dedication that has brought us to this place in our history, however, has also given us the wisdom to understand that we must continue striving to build and to deepen relationships; to reach in to our membership and to reach out to those still searching; to develop more pathways into our OJC community, into a life of purpose and meaning, and into relationship with God; and to lookto the future with faith, optimism and vision. Some people might call our success a miracle. Perhaps we have witnessed something miraculous as a community; if so, the miracle only happened because of the wise people–presidents, boards, volunteers, congregants, professionals and clergy–who were looking for one, who expected one, and who acted to create the environment where such a miracle could take root.
Chag Urim Sameach,
Happy Festival of Lights,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
This past weekend, OJC’s rabbis, cantor, and youth director attended a celebration for Ramah Day Camp in Nyack (the place that introduced us to each other!) and its director, Amy Skopp Cooper, who is entering her 18th year in the role. The hall was filled with some of the Conservative movement’s finest young rabbis, innovative educators, and budding leaders, all of whom have received a piece of their training at camp. While Ramah as the camping arm of Conservative Judaism is certainly one of the brightest spots among our achievements, and a major factor in shaping and ensuring our children’s future Jewish identities, it has also been crucial in shaping the leadership of our movement. Most synagogue success stories will include in their narratives the profound effect that Ramah’s model of experiential education has had on clergy, educators and youth leaders. The experience of a camp Shabbat is something we all try to replicate for our synagogue communities, and those synagogues with engaging and participatory services usually point to the Ramah model as a major part of that success.
For our own synagogue, Ramah has deeply influenced our professional leadership and the way we try to educate. We have been blessed with some marvelous rabbinic interns over the past 12 years; most of them have come to us with Ramah experience that has enabled them to offer creative programming and to transition with ease into the role of educators in our synagogue, and later in synagogues of their own. Our award-winning youth program is directed by a long-time Ramah division head. We take great pride in our religious school and our youth programs, and it is no coincidence that the leaders among our youth in both of those settings usually have had some Ramah experience as part of their resumes. We are blessed to be able to boast of dozens of campers and staff members in our synagogue community who have attended and worked at Ramah camps, and our services and programs have benefited immensely from their experiences, their comfort level in leading prayer, and their love for Jewish community.
I believe that the future success of the Conservative movement will largely depend upon the extent to which the the Ramah educational model will be utilized in our synagogue communities for our children, our families, and our adult educational experiences. Camp Ramah has the advantage of a unique eight-week laboratory every summer in which Jewish educational experiences can be offered to learners of every age. If given the opportunity and support to work in partnership with our other institutions (including our synagogues, Schechter day schools, USY, and Hillel), Ramah could serve as the primary educational resource for our schools, our youth groups, our family education, and our ongoing learning.
At the end of each of my summers at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, I would tell the college-age staff members that they had been trained to be our future builders, but that it would take work and determination on their part. Perhaps that was not fair of me; perhaps I have expected too much and offered too little. Instead of losing our most promising young leaders to communities with stronger senses of belonging and Jewish connection, it is time that we reclaim and promote our own, empower and support them, help them recreate their best Jewish moments and reshape our synagogues in their image. Ramah has already begun doing so through a variety of projects being heavily funded by major foundations. While there are few experiences as intense as a summer at camp, our congregational communities can become places of growth, of empowerment, of participation, of communal caring, and of holiness if we allow Ramah to serve as the model. Funders are apparently seeing the possibilities of what Ramah can do for the Jewish future. It is time for our synagogues communities to recognize the same potential, and to bring Ramah–and our Ramahniks–home at summer’s end.
Rabbi Craig Scheff