This summer is my last as a camper at Ramah in the Rockies. After seven years, the thing I’ll miss most isn’t the amazing opportunities and experiences, it’s the people and the things I learn there.
Camp is a space of constant learning. You learn from your peers, your madrichim (counselors), yourself, anything and everything there. Part of this learning is one of our camps mottos, “challenge by choice”. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Rabbi Eliav (the camp director) give a schpiel about “challenge by choice”. Asking questions is something that is practically a mitzvah. In order to learn you have to question; to make the choice to challenge yourself.
At Ramah we go on masa’ot or excursions. These can be backpacking, rock climbing, biking, kayaking or rafting trips. During masa you are generally somewhere in the backcountry of the Rockies surrounded by nature, by your Judaism.
You sometimes learn things that are necessary basics for camping. My friend Celia challenged herself to learn a new camping skill on a five-day backpacking masa in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, “I had been camping many times before camp, but I had always used bear boxes. So, I decided bear bagging would be an important experience and skill to learn on Masa. It was not as hard as I thought, and I ended up bear bagging the gear almost every day of Masa.”
One of the challenges campers choose is JOLI, which stands for Jewish Outdoor Leadership Institute. It’s the oldest and smallest age group. JOLI goes on the longest Masa, a six-day backpacking trip. On this Masa the members of JOLI get to do a solo in which they are effectively alone in nature. Being alone in nature is a big part of the Jewish practice of hitbodedut, which is a form of Jewish meditation during which you just talk to G-d. In addition, part of being alone in nature is self-reliance, even though people often make mistakes. When Sheer took on this challenge, she had to use a little ingenuity, “On the solo night I forgot all of my stakes and ropes in the bear bag, so I used the nearby bushes and my hair ties to tie down my tarp.”
Masa is one of those times that miracles can happen. Appreciating sheer dumb luck is important to learn. When in the craziness of white water kayaking things can get lost pretty fast. Jonah told me a story that I almost don’t believe, “Kayaking this past summer a kid dropped his glasses in a rapid and lost them then down the stream. We stopped, someone reached into the river and pulled out the very same glasses.”
Masa isn’t the only time when you’re challenged by choice. At base camp leaning is a constant and brings people together. Be it Shabbos, Yom Sport (a color war) or a regular day learning and questioning brings people together.
Safety is very important and being at 8,000 feet you are much closer to lightning. Now lightning protocol, while important, can be very boring and last longer than we’d like to be stuck inside. Therefore, it’s necessary to learn to fill the time with the people around you. Last summer in the JOLI boys ohel (tent) something magical happened, “Max rigged up a deer skull, spine, pinecones, and pine branches during an hour and a half lightning protocol. We named it Boris.”, said my friend Daniel. “Max gets bored, we get Boris” was how Theo described the creation. Boris was truly a marvel.
A less grotesque marvel, is Shabbos. Kabbalat Shabbat. Everyone showers and gets dressed in white. The service starts and everyone sits down together madrichim give their campers “Shabbat-o-grams” that reflect the past week. It’s an opportunity to learn new tunes to old songs. And then, there’s this moment where everyone is jumping, running and dancing in the field welcoming Shabbos. It all stops. We come together to form one big circle to listen to Rabbi Eliav give an intention about Shabbat. As we walk back to our seats to finish the service everyone is a buzz trading bits of information with each other. The service finishes. We go eat. And in the morning we learn about the Torah, questions. In the afternoon we spend the time with each other, often talking with someone new. After night falls its time for Havdalah. We sing Shabbos goodbye and then… we dance.
After the traditional Havdalah prayers, we welcome back the craziness of the week with dance. It’s kind of a party. People like my friend Daniel use this time as an opportunity to share their talents that don’t come up often at camp. Daniel expertly spins glow sticks on string creating beautiful patterns. Thankfully he knows safety first.
The truth is these are all memories that people bring home with them. And this is what makes it all matter. There’s a line in Wicked (the musical), “I’ve heard it said That people come into our lives for a reason Bringing something we must learn […] I know I’m who I am today Because I knew you…” The learning that happens at camp is often times because of the people you meet. Even if a memory is just something funny that happened there is bond forged with someone else, a singular moment that you both or all learned from. These are the things that you think about during the year.
I recently reread a letter that I got from one of my friends from camp it was filled with all these fun random facts. I learned so much practically useless information, but that’s not what mattered. What mattered were the last words on the back of the page, “Have a wonderful day! and please smile” I almost started crying because I learned that someone thousands of miles away cared if I smiled or not.
At Ramah in the Rockies it’s everything you learn that you take with you, and you learn a lot, especially from the people around you.