When I arrive at Ramah Galim in just over a week, I will be greeted with familiar and beautiful sights: the glittering Pacific Ocean, rolling agricultural fields on the perimeter of camp, and a community of tzevet (staff) eager to create a summer of fun, meaning, and connection for all the chanichim (campers) and participants in our programs. After spending close to fifteen months working from home, enclosed in my four walls, staring at a computer screen all day long, I will feel a jolt of excitement knowing that, at least for the next few weeks, I’ll be surrounded by real people, working collaboratively in a shared physical space. Finally!
But not every sight will be familiar. I’ll see tents set up outside the kitchen for eating, I won’t be able to walk down to the stables adjacent to camp, and every room will likely have extra masks. Ramah Galim needs to make these adjustments to stave off COVID-19, a disease which has already caused so much heartbreak, including the loss of loved ones and the cancellation of in-person camp last summer.
The upcoming shavua hachana (staff week) is our chance to scout out how camp will run under pandemic conditions before the campers arrive. Our Torah portion this week, Sh’lach L’cha, offers a model for how we should–and shouldn’t–go about this preparatory work.
God commands Moses to send twelve spies, one from each tribe, to reconnoiter the land of Israel. They will report back to the people with answers to the following questions: What kind of country is it? Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Is the soil rich or poor? (Numbers 13:18-20)
All twelve spies are impressed by the agricultural bounty of the land of Israel, and return with a cluster of grapes so large that two of them have to carry it. (Ever since my first summer working at Ramah Galim, whenever I read this passage I can’t help but make a comparison to the incredible produce grown in the Salinas Valley, some of it right next to camp!)
But the majority of spies then go on to offer a negative report. They tell the people that any attempt to enter the land will be thwarted by the strong and powerful “giants” who live there. They so lack confidence in themselves and in God that they see themselves as mere grasshoppers, and assume that the giant inhabitants of the land see them in the same way.
But two of the spies–Caleb and Joshua–are more optimistic. Where the other spies perceive calamity and ruin, Caleb and Joshua perceive opportunity. They remind the people how good the land is and tell them that they will succeed in their mission to enter it. While every other Israelite of their generation is condemned to die in the wilderness during the 40-year wandering period that serves as punishment for the sin of the spies, Joshua and Caleb will survive to enter the Land.
This summer, we must follow the model of Caleb and Joshua. While the virus itself is physically small, its impact on the world has indeed been giant, making us humans feel like grasshoppers in our vulnerability to illness, unemployment, and loneliness. Yes, keeping the virus away from camp will take work from all of us, but instead of running away from that challenge, we should look for opportunities within it.
For example, when I helped found the Ezra vocational program at Ramah Galim for young adults with disabilities four summers ago, we partnered with the small animal farm right next door to camp as a jobsite for one of the participants. It was a fantastic job, with a predictable routine, and the chance to connect with animals and other workers on the farm.
Because of COVID, it won’t be possible for an Ezra participant to work off site this summer. So, during staff week, I will scout out job sites within camp. I’ll talk to every staff member I can and help them see what jobs they might be able to create for Ezra participants, like being a chug assistant, a nishnoosh deliverer, or office helper. Among other vocational skills the Ezra participants will hone this summer will be following pandemic protocol, just like all the other tzevet (staff).
I know that all tzevet will be doing that Joshua-and-Caleb work when we arrive for shavua hachana, looking for opportunity within the challenges of a pandemic summer. By doing so, we are sure to create that safe, meaningful, connected, and fun summer all our campers and participants deserve.
Daniel Olson, Ezra Coordinator