This past Sunday I went back to camp 50 years after I had spent my first night there.
Along with more than 950 other people, my husband and I and two of our three kids made the trip to Wingdale, New York, for the celebration of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires at 50. I had been a camper at Ramah in Nyack during its brief tenure as an overnight camp, and then was among the first campers to go to Ramah in the Berkshires when it was opened by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1964, somewhat misnamed because it is really more in the foothills of the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains.
I spent three more summers as a camper there, five years on staff, and I can’t figure out how many as a visiting day parent. My husband, Richard, actually spent a few weeks there as waterfront staff member before I knew him after an illustrious career running the agam (lake) at Camp Massad. We were both devoted Jewish summer camp people, but we were not a “Ramah couple.”
Even though it has been a few years since we came to Wingdale for a visiting day, I still had the same jolt of joy and expectation as I got out of our car on what’s always been called the golf course but hasn’t seen a golf club in half a century. I felt as though I hadn’t seen my kids in four weeks (even though we had just spent Shabbat together) and worried that I didn’t have enough food to share with their bunks!
My three kids, Zachary, Rebecca and Ilana, started in the youngest edah (age group) and continued on for many, many summers. All of them returned on staff in some position or other (bunk counselors, sports, and one particularly hot summer, as a water-boy). Zach is married to Jordana Kaye, who falls somewhere in age between him and Rebecca and whom he met at the camp’s Labor Day Alumni Weekend. (For some reason, I still am not sure of all those details.) They certainly would have been in Wingdale on Sunday if they didn’t live in Utah! Rebecca has expanded her Ramah experience to become a senior program manager at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a job that seems custom made to her skills and experiences. (And because I am a Jewish mother, I must add that Ilana is a social worker at NYU Medical Center; I don’t want her to feel left out.)
So what did I think? The camp looked beautiful (although the fact that it was the nicest day out of seven last week certainly helped). The new buildings are impressive. The numbers are reassuring. The connections are very real.
But what is most fascinating to me was not that I reconnected with people I hadn’t seen in 40 or 50 or even 10 or 15 years. What is most intriguing is the many people I saw at camp whom I see regularly but who weren’t necessarily part of my crew as a camper or staff member. They are people who share my love of things Jewish, a commitment to Jewish education, and involvement with the Jewish (and specifically Conservative/Masorti) world. We share all this now, I think, because of our individual experiences at Ramah, because of how Ramah forged our love of yiddishkeit, of Israel, of tikkun olam. We might not have done these together at camp, but we do them now because of how each of us processed the Ramah experience. I have come to appreciate how this was not by chance, that Ramah had an agenda, and that my Jewish life – and that of my family – was part of that agenda.
I’ve spent the last 25 years as a professional in the Conservative movement. Richard and I probably spent 30 years volunteering for the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. Richard is an officer of the Masorti Foundation. We don’t take our Judaism casually and I think our children appreciate that. But even more, they have benefited from how they, too, processed the Ramah experience. We were moved almost to tears on Sunday when they showed us the paving stone they had purchased in our honor. It said, “In honor of Richard and Rhonda Kahn for giving us the gift of camp.” They, too, have been forged by the Ramah experience and have processed their Judaism to include the same things that have been so important to their parents. What better gift could they have given us?
- Rhonda Jacobs Kahn is the Communications Director at Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, and Editor at CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism