I sat with a dozen boys and their counselors, singing to them and telling them stories. Harga’ot are a sweet bedtime ritual at Camp Ramah, and I’ve been part of this beautiful practice many, many times. But tonight was different in a few staggering ways, and the least I can do is share the gratitude welling up in my heart through these words.
The songs were an eclectic blend of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Garth Brooks, Rabbi David Paskin, and Joey Weisenberg, mixed in with one or two of my own. The story was my favorite, a defining one I learned along my journey towards becoming rabbi. The setting was the children’s Mo’adon (lounge) at Camp Ramah in Northern California.
One song was a musical adaptation of the classic Chassidic story of a young boy who whistles during prayers instead of reciting the Hebrew words. People around the boy (including the Rabbi) are annoyed, but the boy explains that he simply doesn’t know Hebrew yet, and he’s expressing himself in his own way. This summer, Ramah Galim (literally, “waves,” named for the ocean shore upon which this beautiful camp is located) incorporated the National Ramah Tikvah Program for children with special needs. As I sang, a Tikvah camper joined in and called out a few times, restless or perhaps just happy to be there. In so many settings, he would have been unwelcome in small or large ways. But in this moment, the ease of his place took no effort to establish. The song’s message was embodied in the moment. And we sang. We sang…
I then shared my Olam Chesed, a song that poured out of my soul as I carried my newborn daughter on my chest many years ago. The room was full of the words and melody that point to building a world out of love, the love that coursed through me as my little girl’s heartbeat combined with my own. As we sand, I paused to look across the hall at the camp office where that now-15-year-old is working for part of the summer. And I suddenly remembered the summer after my grandfather died, when my grandmother worked at the office at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. Her great-granddaughter is starting to do her own part in building this world, this loving world, one sorted mail pile at a time. Oh, the love this world contains… Oh the prayers that are sometimes answered…
And then something happened that made my heart stop and eyes fill with tears. It is that moment that triggered this outpouring. I pray these words somehow communicate the depth of that encounter.
The story I told focused on not missing moments of blessing. I spoke of a rabbi I met many years ago. I was traveling through England with the Jewish a cappella group Pizmon and was contemplating rabbinical school. This rabbi’s story changed my life, and I’ve told this story in every community I’ve visited since, hoping to share a small spark of inspiration like the one I was lucky enough to experience at a pivotal moment. As I brought the story to a close, I looked around the room, shared that this was my 26th summer as part of Camp Ramah, and that what made me most proud was that my children are part of the Ramah family, experiencing sweet joy and sacred learning, laughter, play, and personal growth.
I looked into the eyes of the boys before me and shared that Ramah makes me so proud to be a Jew.
And then a young man approached me and told me that he had been a student of mine at Camp Ramah in New England in 2014. He had been part of a class I was teaching on June 30 that summer when we learned about the fates of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, three Jewish teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered in Israel. I remember that class vividly, crying with my students and trying my best to speak from a place of wounded conviction, of pain and pride at the same time. I can’t honestly recall what I said, but I do remember sitting in shock and crying, seeing my students and knowing that Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal were barely older than the children before my, barely older than my own children.
Tonight, just moments ago, this young man who is now a teacher to my own children and many others told me that, among other moments that have made him proud to be a Jew, it was that class he and I shared that he thinks of often, that it helped spark in him a pride in being Jewish, a commitment to sharing the goodness and joy of Jewish tradition as part of his life. It was a moment of affirmation, yes. But more than that, it was a clarification. It’s all worth it. It’s all worth it.
We dare not miss these moments of blessing, these gifts we sometimes receive and sometimes give. I’m home here at Ramah, witnessing the possibilities of a world of love, blooming before my very eyes. My heart knows this to its core, and tonight I have gained something even better than the joy of a beautiful summer: hope.