Shana tova and chag sameach! The Jewish fall calendar is full of celebration and festivities and one of my favorites is Sukkot. During Sukkot, we commemorate the forty years during which the Israelites wandered through the desert and lived in temporary shelters. On this holiday, we are commanded to build a sukkah and to “dwell” there.
Sukkot is an opportunity for us to think about and explore the concept of “home”. My husband and co-director, Gilad, and I have been thinking a lot about “home” in the last few weeks. After seven years of living at the Ranch Camp full-time and having it be our primary residence, we now have officially moved to our own property a little ways away. Moving is truly bitter-sweet. After all, we have considered camp our home for many years, even before we moved there permanently at the beginning of our directorship. I know that many current and past campers out there will know what I mean when I say that camp feels like the truest version of “home”. It is a place that is constant, unwavering, a safe haven; a magical place where you can be the best version of yourself (if you allow it to be so) and where there are always loving arms to embrace you both figuratively and literally. While I look forward to establishing a home in this new house of ours, I am also grateful that camp will remain my “forever home” and my summer seasonal residence.
I encourage you during this holiday season to consider what “home” means to you. What constitutes a home? How do you make a new place feel like your home? What do you really need and what is most important to you when establishing a home? Perhaps in asking yourself these questions, you will come to the conclusion, as I have, that home has very little to do with the walls and things that surround you. Sukkot offers us an opportunity each year to ask these important questions, do some introspection, get back to the basics and re-ground ourselves as we enter into a new Jewish year.
So get outside and enjoy! And here are some suggestions for how to bring a little camp into this already very outdoorsy holiday:
Connecting with Nature
Build a fort using natural materials
Sleep outside under the stars
Have a picnic
Make fall decorations from natural objects
Visit a local orchard and harvest your own fruit
Tikkun Olam Projects
As the seasons change and the weather grows colder, we acknowledge that not everyone in our community is lucky enough to have regular access to shelter and food. Consider making a donation to your local homeless shelter and food bank!
The summer Torah portion, Matot, opens with Moses giving the following instructions to the Israelite tribal heads: “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do.” In other words, keep your promises and do not break your word.
Our words and promises carry great weight. Not only should we think carefully about what we say and how we say it but we should also carefully consider promises that we make before giving our word in order to make sure that we can fulfill these obligations.
At camp, children have an incredible opportunity to learn these lessons. Living in close quarters, having to make and keep friendships, and having to communicate with peers and staff without the help of parents can be challenging. Our campers must gain self-awareness and develop and understanding and tolerance for all kinds of people. This is not always easy of course.
On the first day of this session, I joined a cabin group while they were creating their cabin brit (agreement) and got to participate in a process by which the cabin created a shared code of ethics to live by during the session. Everyone contributed items that they felt were important to make the cabin harmonious and have a fun time during camp. I’m always impressed by how well campers can articulate what kind of cabin environment they hope to have and how well they understand what they must do individually and as a group to achieve this end; this cabin was no exception. As I walked around camp with a visitor later in the session, I saw that the cabin I had worked with on that first day of camp was awarded the degel yarok (green flag), signaling that they were the cleanest cabin in the village. This is a great indication that the cabin was functioning well and living up to the promises that they made on the first day of camp.
It’s hard to believe that our summer season is quickly coming to an end. However, it is exciting to think about all the valuable skills and lessons that our campers have learned during their time at camp, and the opportunities they have had to reflect on and keep the promises that they made in their cabin brit to create a fun, safe, and inclusive environment over the course of their session here. And hopefully this will better inform how they build friendships and community as they enter into their coming school year.
Our staff have arrived for training and summer is soon underway! All year long I work hard to recruit staff, interview them, and hire the most exceptional applicants to work with our campers. This process comes to a climax on the first day of staff training week, when all the individuals who I have hired over the course of the year arrive to camp and gather in our Commons. There we circle up, and I get to see the team I have worked to form.
I love that moment when I look around the circle of staff for the first time. All of these faces that I know from the interviews that I conducted, along with little facts about their lives, goals, and interests. I know them all as individuals and now during this training week, I will work to transform this a group of unique individuals into a strong, united staff team. It is a phenomenal process, one that is only topped by the arrival of our campers.
I can’t wait to see how these staff members grow over the course of the summer and work to change the lives of our campers. They have so many talents to share, stories to tell, and skills with which to enrich the camper experience. For some staff members, this summer is a goal they have been working towards for years as a camper that grew up at camp. For others, this is an entirely new experience and one they are taking on with an open mind, open heart. But no matter our various backgrounds, we are all here for a common purpose – the kids.
We are really looking forward to the arrival of our campers so that we can work to change their lives in positive ways! I once attended a seminar where the presenter said something to the effect that without our campers, camp staff would simply be a collection of very trained, talented, and enthusiastic adults with nothing to do. As much fun as we are having this week, the magic isn’t created without our campers. So enjoy your final days of camp preparation at home and make sure to fill out all of your pending camp forms! We are waiting for your children and can’t wait to have the best summer ever.
“At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.” ~ Maya Angelou
When I think about the most significant experiences in my life to date, events that helped propel me into adulthood and that gave me the confidence to venture out on my own, my last year as a camper here at the Ranch Camp always comes to mind. At age fifteen, I participated in Ranch Camp’s TASC (Teen Adventure and Service Corps) program, where I learned a lot about the art of surrender.
Ranch Camp’s TASC program consists of a 10-day trip away from camp where campers go backpacking, whitewater rafting, enjoy a Colorado hot spring, and participate in a community service project. My parents were never especially outdoorsy, so I went into my TASC year as a total backpacking novice having never spent any length of time on a camping trip. We went to a camping store to buy all the gear I needed (most of which I still have to this day) and I headed off to camp that summer facing “the great unknown” both excited and nervous.
During our first day of hiking in Colorado’s beautiful backcountry, we were plagued by heavy rain. One boy on my trip was especially slight of build and was weighed down by a very heavy, ill-fitting pack. He had been headstrong and not listened to the staff when we were packing for our trip as they warned him against carrying so much weight. A few miles into our route, he was visibly weak and was having trouble maintaining his footing on the now slippery trail. Seeing his distress, we all stopped and together unpacked his pack and redivided his gear amongst the whole group in order to lighten his load. By each of us taking on a little more, the boy was able to continue and succeed during the rest of our hiking trip. From this experience, I learned the importance of surrendering one’s pride in order to accept the kindness and help of those around you.
My next big lesson came a couple days later when we arrived at the most memorable campsite of our trip. The site was reached after a long, exhausting day of hiking. The site was located next to a gorgeous circular lake that was nestled beneath a horseshoe shaped mountain. And although we were all tired from the long hard hike that day, seeing that the conditions were ripe for a beautiful sunset, one of our staff members invited anyone who wanted to join him to go on an optional hike to catch the sun as it set across the vast mountain range that surrounded us. About six of us decided to join him that evening and we quickly scrambled up a hill to the high vista above our campsite. There we were rewarded by the most spectacular sunset that I’ve ever seen, even to this day. The views were breathtaking and the colors were so vivid – it was majestic, magical, and memorable. I felt like I was on top of the world that evening and it was there that I learned the beauty that can be beheld when you surrender your bodily exhaustion and push yourself to find your inner strength.
We finished an amazing TASC trip and headed back to camp for the final few days of the session, and suddenly the last day of camp was upon us. Like all last days of camp, I remember there being hugs, tears, and prolonged goodbyes. It’s never easy to leave camp, your friends, and the staff members you grow to love. For me, this particular last day of camp was even more difficult because I knew that I was never going to come back to Ranch Camp as a camper. This chapter in my camp life was ending and the next time I would come back to camp, I’d be returning as a staff member. Nothing was ever going to be the same and I had no choice in that moment but to let go and embrace the future. It was here that I learned the importance of surrendering what has passed for the prospect of what is to come.
Camp has taught me so much over the years but my TASC trip at age fifteen was a profound learning experience. During that summer, I learned that not only was surrendering honorable but also empowering. For giving yourself over totally to an experience is as awesome as it is fulfilling.
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Gilad and I welcomed our baby girl into the world on January 1st. Sivan Amali Shwartz arrived just in time to help us celebrate one of my favorite Jewish holidays, Tu Bishvat, which began last night.
Tu Bishvat is known as the New Year of the trees, or Jewish Arbor Day. It is an opportunity to celebrate trees and all their fruits, as well as the beauty and wonder of Nature. There are many different ways to celebrate Tu Bishvat – planting trees, participating in a Tu Bishvat seder, writing prayers for the trees, decorating trees with personal prayers and/or psalms, or simply eating fruit!
During camp each summer, it feels like a 10 week Tu Bishvat celebration in many ways. It is amazing to see campers arrive to camp and become immersed in the natural world around them. Free of their video games, computers, smart phones, and other technology, campers return to picking up natural materials and playing with them. Many of these materials come from the plethora of ponderosa pine trees that are situated on the Ranch Camp property. Sticks, pine cones, and pieces of bark transform from something that campers may not even take notice of at home to exciting toys and building materials here at camp.
For the last two summers, one of our most popular chuggim (electives) has been Fort Building. Boys and girls eagerly venture out into the forest, collect tree branches and construct natural structures with the help of staff members. I love to walk out and observe campers doing this activity. It never ceases to amaze me how really little it takes to make kids happy when they are given a mission and are turned loose in nature to use their imaginations and make it happen. The children play with and amongst the branches of our forest and in turn, become reconnected with the natural world around them.
Sivan is a little too young this year to truly celebrate Tu B’Shevat but I’m grateful that she will share her birthday roughly with that of the trees each year. Tu Bishvat is a great opportunity for us to get out in nature with our children and share with them the wonders of Creation.
Chag Sameach! Here are some resources to help you celebrate Tu Bishvat with your family this year:
1. Punk Torah’s Tu Bishvat Ideas
2. Make a Fruit Mandela With Your Kids, From Kveller
3. Creative Jewish Mom’s Tu Bishvat Crafts
4. MyJewishLearning’s Tu Bishvat Recipes
Have you ever felt immediately welcomed in a new place? Well recently, Gilad came back from a recruiting trip to a congregation here in Colorado beaming from his experience. We had never been to this particular synagogue before and therefore, didn’t know what to expect or how we would be received. But as soon as Gilad arrived, he was immediately greeted by a point person for the synagogue who welcomed him and invited him to partake in a lunch they were having. There she introduced him to some of the congregants to help him build connections and then some of the children came out to help him bring his materials from the car into the building so that he could set up for his presentation. Gilad felt so embraced by everyone there, so welcomed and included. This spirit of hospitality extended into his presentation, where the children and adults were actively engaged by participating, asking questions, and showing enthusiasm for the information that he was giving.
It is so fun and warming to enter into new environments where this is the experience you have. And this is exactly the kind of environment that we try to build every day at camp, starting from the moment campers arrive.
A few years ago on the first day of Session 2, I remember stepping into our dining hall for the first lunch of the session. The chadar ochel (dining hall) was bustling with ruach (spirit); the air was full of chatter, cheering, and a sense of anticipation for the session ahead. And as I waited in line for my food, a first-time camper approached me and said, “Miriam, I have not even been here a whole day yet, and I already feel like this is my home.” This moment stands out to me as a highlight of my directorship of Ranch Camp because it optimizing our camp mission and what camp is all about really. Ranch Camp has been my home since I was 12 years old and it is always a tremendous thing for me to hear our campers and staff talk about camp in these terms.
We all need a place to belong and thrive. A place to connect, to love, and to be loved. I am so happy to discover new places that make me feel like this in my community, and even happier to provide a camping atmosphere that creates this for the youth that we serve each summer.
*The title of this blog was taken from an Arik Einstein song. Arik was an Israeli music icon who passed away suddenly a few weeks ago, sending the country into a state of mourning. You can listen to this song here.
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We continue our series on giving.
Autumn is definitely my favorite time of year. I love the change in weather, the trees changing color, getting to wear comfy sweaters, and above all, I love the holiday traditions that span the fall months. Thanksgiving has got to be one of the best American holidays ever. Does it get much better than celebrating with friends and family, expressing gratitude, and sharing in a delicious feast? I think not. I also love that leading up to Thanksgiving, I see a lot of people on social media actively thinking and talking about they are grateful for and how they are celebrating the holiday through acts of giving.
Giving is a concept that is very deep-seeded in Jewish tradition (as is celebrating with loved ones and eating lots of food in the process) and one that I’d like to briefly explore with you here. In Judaism, we commonly use the word tzedakah to describe charitable giving. The Hebrew word tzedakah actually means “justice” or “fairness”. This implies that according to Jewish tradition, giving of one’s self to another, whether with money, time, or kindness, is less about going “above and beyond” and more about acting in a righteous way that that is really just expected of us.
At Ranch Camp, we provide opportunities for campers to take part in tikkun olam projects each summer. Our teen travel programs for instance, all have components in which campers go and volunteer in a variety of worthy settings. It is an important part of the trip program experience, giving our teens an opportunity to develop leadership skills, humility, and compassion. Our hope is also that their volunteer experience instills a sense of the importance of tzedakah in our campers and encourages them to undertake such work throughout their lives. After all, giving of yourself to others feels good. Camp is a great setting to develop a love and passion for tzedakah and tikkun olam – it certainly did for me.
The work projects I took part of through my childhood synagogue and at Ranch Camp made me love volunteer work, and in my adult life, I try to take advantage of any opportunities in my community to give back to others in need. In September, certain areas of Colorado were devastated by flash floods. It was heartbreaking to see homes, businesses, and synagogues in Boulder County destroyed knowing that so many in our camp community were being effected by this unprecedented natural disaster. The Denver JCC organized a group of staff to go up in the aftermath of the flood to one of the synagogues to assist in clean up efforts. Seven of us spent the day moving out sludge, taking down dry wall, and trying our best to wipe away the damage that four feet of water had inflicted on the synagogue’s basement. We worked side by side with men and women who call the synagogue home, both figuratively and literally. You see, this synagogue not only is a spiritual home for congregants but also serves as a community homeless shelter. These special workers were giving of themselves to a place and community that had open their doors them in their time of need – they were giving back. It felt incredibly good to be there that day and volunteer my time to this effort. I felt that I was a part of something bigger than myself and that I was making a difference, even if it was small.
During this holiday season, I ask you and your family to consider dedicating part your Thanksgiving celebration to giving. A donation of money, time, or kindness to those in the community that could use support or aid is sure to enhance your own holiday cheer. I have really found that there is something about getting involved in giving to others that is in turn very beneficial for my own sense of well being and psyche. As Maya Angelou noted, “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.”
I wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving and Hanukkah season ahead!
In addition to beginning to plan for the upcoming 2014 camping season, Gilad and I find ourselves also busy preparing to become new parents in approximately three months. We recently started Jewish Baby University (JBU) classes through the JCC, which are not only helping us gain important knowledge about items related to delivery and infant care but perhaps more importantly, giving us an opportunity to discuss how we want to create and maintain a Jewish home.
Rabbi Jeffrey Kaye, a community leader, Ranch Camp parent, and JBU instructor, led a session for the group that Gilad and I found to be very interesting and I want to share it with you here. In the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a)*, there is a list of things that parents are obligated to do for their child after birth. Interestingly enough, basic necessities such as providing food, shelter, care, and love for a child are absent from the list. Perhaps the Talmudists felt that these were items likely not to be neglected by parents and therefore unnecessary to mention. Instead, “spiritual care” items are listed related to the obligation to provide a child with knowledge about values, morals, and a sense of shared history or collective memory (Torah). This is interesting in and of itself but then, there is something completely unexpected and even more interesting – included at the end of the list is the obligation to teach your child how to swim! Fascinating.
At first glance, teaching your child how to swim might seem very out of place. However, upon further reflection, this makes a tremendous amount of sense. Certainly, there is great value in literally teaching a child how to swim after all, humans have lived next to bodies of water for tens of thousands of years and certainly this is a matter of basic survival. However, I think the rabbis had a larger intent in mind when writing this. After all, learning how to stay afloat in inhabitable, dangerous, and/or difficult conditions is what life is all about really. And the teaching does not say, “hold your child afloat when swimming” or “make sure your child wears a flotation device at all times when in water,” no, it indicates that we are obligated to teach our children skills that will allow them to survive independently of our help when the need arises. And I think this principle is perhaps the essential function of effective parenting.
Gilad and I were really taken by this concept. I think it resonates so strongly with us because of what we feel camp provides to children each summer. There are so many “hard skills” that campers learn every day at camp such as swimming, archery, horseback riding, and mountain biking that will help them to survive, thrive, and be healthy, active adults. But within each activity and social interaction at camp, we are able to impart “soft skills” such as confidence, resilience, and cooperation that gives them a secondary set of competencies that are invaluable in leading a successful and independent life. As parents, I think this is what we all ultimately desire for our children and together, through skills we teach at home and in places like camp, we can successfully fulfill our obligation to teach our children how to swim.
*Kiddushin 29a: A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well.
Shanah Tova from the Ranch Camp! We wish your family a year full of happiness, health, and fulfillment.
The High Holiday season is a like a spa for the soul. Each year we are given the opportunity for rest, reflection, and renewal and if we seize this opportunity wholeheartedly, we can achieve a true sense of cleansing, empowerment, and renewed purpose.
In thinking about my past year and the year that awaits us, we are bombarded by imagery of both personal and professional triumphs and challenges. We think about all the wonderful relationships that we have been able to maintain over the year and all the new friendships that we’ve begun to cultivate with parents, campers, staff and alumni. Camp is really about Kehillah (community) and the many facets that this word embodies. Our role as directors of Ranch Camp, at its essence, is really about relationships and community. It is incredibly important to us not to serve to our constituents but to work together with them as partners. It is only through partnership that we feel like camp can truly have a meaningful and lasting impact, one built on trust and respect, which carries on from the summer into the rest of the year. We are grateful for the trust that our families have all placed in us in the last year that has enabled us to run a successful camping program and carry Ranch Camp through its 60th year of operation.
It’s hard to believe how close we were to losing our beloved camp this year to the Black Forest Fire. It was a humbling experience to have to evacuate our campers, staff, and animals from camp in June and not know if were going to be able to return. But sometimes it takes events like this to refocus on the big picture of what really matters in life. We know that it certainly did for us. Now that we’ve been faced with losing everything, we know with utmost certainty that the only things of value in life are the intangible things that you cannot take with you in a suitcase – memories, relationships, and love.
We think that these lessons learned will serve us well in the next year as we undertake perhaps the biggest adventure our lives – parenthood. We will welcome a baby girl to our family around the first of the calendar year; this is both an exciting and daunting prospect. But as with everything in life, we know that all highs and lows that await us will only help us in our on personal paths towards learning and enlightenment.
As the Semisonic song goes, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” And as we wrap up our Ranch Camp summer and I reflect back on our season, this seems to ring especially true. It’s not simply the succession of the summer, where one session ends only to usher in the next. For me it is the sense that everything is connected and that everything happens for a reason; and that one thing always leads us to another.
With this philosophy in mind, you will understand and appreciate that August/September is my favorite time of year. Now is the time when we clean and pack-up camp, rummage through mounds of lost and found, and get feedback from our families and staff. I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to hear from families about the wonderful experiences that their children have had over the summer with us at camp – learning new skills, meeting new friends, and asking important questions about themselves and the world. Of course, I would be amiss if I did not also recognize that some of this feedback is not always so positive or easy to hear. But I want to take this opportunity to state very clearly from a camp director’s perspective, so that everyone knows – as wonderful as it is to get compliments, it is critical to receive and accept criticism as well. After all, as James Joyce said, “Mistakes are portals of discovery.” It is truly rare in life that we improve as a result of success; we must struggle, and sometimes fail, in order to achieve greatness.
With our successes and failures, we become stronger as a camp, just as our campers become stronger from the opportunities and challenges that they face during their time with us. As your children’s camp season finishes for the summer, I encourage parents to fill out your camp’s end of the season survey and let them know how they have impacted your children this summer. Sifting through this information helps camp teams to pull together and start to plan for the next summer season. As I said at the start of this piece, this is a wonderful time of year. From where I stand now, I can see all of what we have accomplished over the course of the last 10 weeks since the start of camp, but I can also see all the potential of what is yet to come; all of the new beginnings that will emerge from closing and reflecting upon the end of this season.