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.
The other night we had our traditional second night game of Capture the Degel (flag), which pits adom (red) against kachol (blue). All the campers run back to their cabins after dinner to dress in their team colors and mentally prepare for the game at hand. Then everyone gathers at the designated “Center Line” to rally their team and begin to play. Capture the Degel is definitely a camper favorite and is an activity that is greatly anticipated and looked forward to by all. Perhaps it’s the sense of competition, or the ability to roam around camp with a sense of freedom but also with purpose, or maybe its that the game arouses a deep-seeded sense of tribalism within our human psyche. Whatever it is about this game that makes it so beloved, a camp session would not be complete without it.
Although it might not appear so at first glance, Capture the Degel is a great teaching-learning opportunity within our camp environment. To begin with, the game is all about teamwork. Even though it seems like it is each man for himself out there in the field, you are not striving for personal glory but rather for team honor. There is a common goal (to find and capture the other team’s degel) but each person must do their part, and sometimes make personal sacrifices, in order to achieve the ultimate goal at hand. This game also reinforces our summer theme of kehillah (community). As opposed to most of the activities that we do at camp during a session, Capture the Degel divides the camp into two teams and this means that campers of all ages, banim (boys) and banot (girls), get mixed together and have a chance to interact. It is really neat to see our youngest campers side-by-side with our oldest campers and witness how they support and encourage one another during the game. Smaller campers are often faster and more stealthy than their older camper peers, while older and more experienced campers can offer strength, stamina, and strategy. In this way, everyone has a sense of value and worth and each individual is a commodity to their team.
Last Shabbat we read the portion Va-etchanan, where we read the Shema and Ten Commandments. It’s an incredibly important parasha that has informed the fundamental principles of modern human society. It speaks to the oneness of G-d, of each individual who was made in G-d’s image, and outlines how we should treat one another. Activities that we do at camp, like Capture the Degel, give children a hands-on opportunity to live and experience these principles first hand, making them stronger as individuals and making us a tighter kehillah.
Miriam and Gilad
This month, my husband and co-director, Gilad, and I are grateful for our wonderful camp kehillah (community) and for life and health. Two weeks ago, the Black Forest Fire in Colorado necessitated that we evacuate the JCC Ranch Camp just 3.5 days into our first session of the camp season. I’m happy to report that not only did all of our 140 campers and 80+ staff make it off site without incident, so did our 37 horses, 5 chickens, 3 cats, 2 goats, 8 dogs, and 2 cows.
Faced with this urgent situation and subsequent logistical challenge as we were, Gilad and I had a unique opportunity to assess what really matters to us in our life together. I can tell you without a doubt that what we concluded is that what really matters are the people and animals that we share our life with and not our material possessions. For the past six years, we have chosen to live at Ranch Camp year-round; camp is literally our home. When faced with losing everything we own in the Black Forest Fire, I can honestly say that when I had a few moments to decide what to take with us upon evacuation, it did not take me long because I knew in my heart what was really important to me – and it was not much. I am happy to have gone through this experience because it afforded me a rare opportunity for self-reflection and renewed perspective, which has been both extremely gratifying and refreshing.
I’m grateful to report that not only did our camp site remain safe and untouched by the fires, but we were able to welcome campers back to camp the morning of June 17th to resume our camp session! We feel so blessed to be a part of a wonderful and supportive camp community and appreciate the outpouring of love and good wishes since our evacuation. I hope that we will not have to go through this again but I feel quite confident now that whatever might befall us in the future, we will come through it successfully and be stronger for it.
1. Get Outside and Get Moving. Make sure your camper increases their physical activity prior to camp so that they feel ready to be active all day long. If your child is going to be participating in trip camps this summer, be sure to start wearing new hiking boots whenever possible to break them in and avoid blisters on the trail. For those campers who love Maccabiah (Color War) and Capture the Flag, getting in shape now will pay off during friendly camp competitions as well.
2. Read the Parent Manual. Getting ready for camp should be a family affair, so be sure to include campers when reviewing the camp Parent Manual. This is a great resource to help mentally prepare yourself and your child for what’s in store at camp, including how you will be communicating with one another and what a typical day at camp will look like.
3. Get Psyched, Set Goals. Help your child think about the activities they are most excited to try, try again, and/or learn more about. This discussion will help your camper anticipate all the fun that they will be having at camp and also help them establish some goals that they have for themselves this summer.
4. Keep an Open Mind. Be sure to prepare yourself and your child for the best summer possible by managing expectations and keeping an open mind about the new experiences your camper will have in nature, trying new activities, eating new foods, making new friends, and experiencing Judaism in new ways.
5. Brisket and Babka. Shabbat is a special time of week at camp. Pack a nice outfit for Friday evening and get excited for a beautiful community experience involving fun services, an amazing dinner, dancing and song sessions.
6. Packing Party. Pull out your child’s duffle bag or trunk, clean out their closet, and start picking out clothes to take to camp. Make sure not to bring anything that you or your child would be upset about losing or damaging. Don’t forget to pack different color shirts for Maccabiah (Color War), a white item to tie dye, pre-addressed envelopes to home or other family members, a couple of water bottles, lots of sunscreen, and a flashlight!
7. Plan Pre-Camp Overnights. This is especially important for younger children! Have your kids do pre-camp sleepovers with grandparents and friends to help get them used to sleeping in different settings. Lots of positive encouragement and follow-up praise is helpful in building confidence leading up to camp.
8. Practice Life Skills. Start to encourage your child to make their own bed, fold their own laundry, and just do more in general for themselves. At camp, staff are always there to lend a helping hand but campers are expected to know how to and actually perform many life skills on their own. Now is the perfect time to help your child establish a certain level of independence before departing for camp.
9. Backyard Campout. As a way to get excited for life in the great outdoors and also to help your camper feel comfortable with a possible campout during their camping session, pitch a tent in your backyard on a warm night and have your very own backyard campout! It will make everyone appreciate your comfy bed inside a bit more and is also a fun family bonding experience.
10. Camp Connection. Have questions, concerns, or feedback about camp? Be sure to be in touch with the camp administration staff so that they can help you feel prepared and heard. We are here to serve our families, so make sure to provide us with all the information you can about your camper and their needs by way of forms, phone calls, and emails so that we can prepare to provide your camper with the best summer possible.
Miriam Shwartz is the co-director of JCC Ranch Camp in Colorado’s Black Forest.
We’ve just passed the 10,000 feet mark on my flight back to Colorado. I’ve spent the last week at camping conferences in New York and New Jersey and although I am exhausted, I am also invigorated and enthused about getting back to the office and planning for this summer’s camp season. My head is full of ideas to share with my camp team, as well as hard questions that we must answer in order to push our camp to the next level.
Over the past few days I attended some 40 hours of seminars on a variety of subjects related to the running of a stellar (Jewish) camp program, but here I want to share with you some of the learning that I took away from the very last presentation that I attended before heading out. It was given by Molly Barker, the founder of “Girls on the Run,” a national program that empowers girls through the act of running and reflection. I hope that you will find meaning in this message and are able to take away something to incorporate into your own work and/or family life, as I intend to do myself.
Here is the message that resonated with me–
At our core, each of us has a divine spark, an energy that is uniquely our own. This might be referred to as our neshama (soul) in Hebrew. All too often along our life journey, our inner spark is diminished by those around us as and by society as a whole, which then can give way to negative self-talk. What we must do and strive for is to find space in our lives where all the “should’s” and “ought to’s” that we are served by others and by ourselves give way to our own inner power. In other words, we must find the strength to not let others define the spirit that is our self.
Here are some principles to live by from Molly and “Girls on the Run:”
- Acknowledge and devote time to your own gifts and talents.
- Surround yourself with others who balance and compliment you.
- Embrace the ebb and flow of life.
- Create intentional space for your work and personal life.
I believe that these principles are really lived out within the camp environment. Often I hear staff and campers say that they love camp because it is a place where they can “just be themselves.” At camp, both campers and staff are able to get in tune with their core essence, their neshama; we are able to provide a place where individuals feel that their inner spark is not only acknowledged, but is nourished to shine. Although there are a lot of great skills and take-homes that camp affords, I believe that this is perhaps the most important skill of all.