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This week, I made a huge change. Instead of zooming into classes from my favorite armchair, I actually sat on the couch! Okay, perhaps it wasn’t such a huge variation. But in these days of endless Zoom calls, my routine has become so fixed that the tiniest alteration feels huge. Lately, I have found that newness and excitement are hard to come by. This feels particularly challenging while we’re in the month of Elul, and “newness” is exactly what we’re supposed to be preparing for. During Elul, we reflect on our decisions and actions in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah, a brand-new year. In a time of so much sameness, I’ve been feeling a little lost. Will anything really feel new this year?In my skepticism, I turned to my experience at camp for inspiration.
Each Shabbat morning at Ramah Galim is marked by the excited shouts of “Hafoch ba! Hafoch ba! Hafoch ba!” – “Turn it and turn it and turn it again.” As we spin our “Gal gal shel Torah,” (Wheel of Torah) to explore the week’s parsha, we shout these words from Pirkei Avot 5:22, a reminder that no matter how many times we read the same stories, the Torah always has something new to offer.
This week’s parsha, Ki Tavo, offers a similar piece of wisdom. Just as the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, Moshe reminds them of the blessings and curses contingent on their adherence to God’s commandments. He frames the list with these words: “Adonai your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul” (26:16). The commentator Rashi suggests that the words “this day” are intended to tell us that each and every day, we should treat the commandments as if we are receiving them for the very first time. Even though they are ancient, even though we strive to follow the same commandments all the time, we should find novelty in them every day.
When Camp Ramah in Northern California made the same painful decision as other Jewish camps around the country to cancel our 2020 camp season, we knew that our anticipated vision of campers running into the arms of old friends and, by the end of the summer, putting their arms around new friends, would be lost.
We also knew that campers would miss out on being embraced all summer long by staff and madrichim. In addition to keeping our camp running like a well-oiled machine, our staff – from song leaders to bunk supervisors to those who prepare our food each day – serve as role models to our youngsters and teens.
As we transition out of the mournful days leading up to Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, we seek comfort. This Shabbat, for that very reason, is called Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of comfort. On Tisha B’Av, we are meant to mourn our loss–we mourn the destruction of the Temples and many other tragic events that befell the Jewish people over the course of our history. Then we move into comfort-mode, we think about caring for one another and about how to rebuild.
This trajectory mirrors how I see these past few months. We lost many things, things that are worthy of mourning: we lost in-person communities and we lost experiences. We lost camp as we knew it. Right after the loss, right after our time of mourning we read in the Haftarah this week from “נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י”, “Comfort, comfort my people” (Isaiah 40.1). Why is the word Nachamu repeated? According to Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra, it means we must comfort immediately and repeatedly. When we lost in-person camp, we, the Ramah Galim community, quickly turned to comfort one another. We reached out to each other, we sent videos acknowledging our feelings and speaking words of comfort. With time, we also pushed ourselves to rebuild and reimagine.
Ongoing training and professional development is an integral part of the summer experience for our Tzevet. Unfortunately we are not able to be together in person at camp, immersed in an environment that promotes the growth and development of our staff. We are grateful for the Nachshon Project’s Camp Counselor Fellowship, which trains our young Jewish leaders, and we are excited that five of our counselors have the incredible opportunity to be a part of this inaugural program.
Over the course of the last two weeks, our counselors have been a part of a cohort of camp counselors both from within the Ramah movement and across the Jewish camping network. Together they have learned from professionals throughout the Jewish world, and worked on developing and honing their skills as leaders in our camp community. “Being one of hundreds of teens and young adults who are dedicated to improving our leadership skills is truly inspiring. I know that I will take everything I learn with me back to camp – both virtually this summer, and hopefully in person next year. I am glad that I have this opportunity to grow, so that I can come back to camp with a new set of tools to make it the best that it can possibly be,” writes counselor Eliana Saidel. This interactive learning experience engages our staff in conversations around child psychology and camper care, Jewish learning and Israel engagement. Counselors also have the unique ability to hear keynote addresses from major Jewish personalities. The experience culminates in the creation of a final project, where each counselor will reflect on their experience, take inspiration from what they learned and translate it into a camp project that they will implement for our campers to enjoy this summer, as a component of our virtual programming.
Much as days in quarantine can flow one into another without much variation, the chieftains of the Israelite tribes gave offerings to God, one after the other in similar succession. Parshat Naso concludes with God receiving offerings as twelve gifts accepted through the hands of Moses. Though all very similar in content, the Torah still describes each gift separately, as each gift is unique. They are unique because of the significance not for God who is receiving it, but for the chieftain and their tribe. Routine, in gifts or daily activity, the Torah teaches us, promotes a different point of view. It is important in these times to not dwell on the uniformity but celebrate the unique opportunities and perspectives every day provides.