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.
Miriam Shwartz, along with her husband, Gilad, is the co-director of JCC Ranch Camp in Colorado’s Black Forest.
My first and perhaps most impactful memory of camp happened on the very first day I set foot there at age 12. I came to Ranch Camp from the distant and sometimes seemingly foreign land of Iowa. My parents were adamant that I attend a Jewish camp to make Jewish friends and strengthen my Jewish identity, as both were hard to come by in Iowa. All I cared about was that at camp I was going to get my own horse that I could ride every day (every little girl’s dream). So, I found myself utterly surprised on my first day of camp to find something that I didn’t know I was looking for – kehillah (community).
As the whole camp gathered at the flagpole that first night of camp, we formed a large circle. I remember looking around the circle and being overwhelmed by the sight of so many kids of all different sizes, shapes, and colors and knowing that they were all Jewish, just like me. It might sound silly but I didn’t know that there were so many Jews and that they could look so different. I think it was this moment that my parents had in mind when they sent me off to Ranch Camp, the moment when I understood that I was a part of a global Jewish community. At age 12, I fell in love with camp; a love affair that has lasted for 16 summers and counting. It’s not just the beautiful setting of sprawling Ponderosa Pines, wide-open pastures, crisp Colorado air, and clear blue skies, it is the intense feeling that when I am at camp, I am at home.
Each year, we choose a summer theme and this year I’m so excited that the theme will be kehillah. What better place to think about, talk about, and experience community than within the confines of camp? We will explore this concept through camper and staff programs on diversity, inclusion, sensitivity, and group dynamics. Both through structured and experiential means, we will strive to strengthen existing connections and build new ones within our small camp community. In this way, I hope to create an atmosphere for others where they can feel a sense of pride and belonging just like I did around the camp circle so many years ago.