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The Power Of Ramah

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Darrien Sherman, Co-Group Leader, Camp Ramah in Canada

After spending two weeks in the Carpathian Mountains at Camp Ramah Yachad in the Ukraine, I realized and appreciated the true power and beauty of Ramah. As our bus pulled in front of the camp, we were immediately welcomed by the Ukrainian staff with handshakes, hugs, and big smiles. We were the first American delegation to work at Ramah Yachad in the 24 years of its existence. We arrived Friday night before Shabbos and started to pray Kabbalat Shabbat together. Despite being on the other side of the world, the power of prayer united us together, as we began singing the same Kabbalat Shabbat tunes. We were surprised to hear that the Ukrainian staff’s Ramah trajectory was astonishingly similar to many of us Americans. A majority of the Ukrainian staff grew up at Camp Ramah Yachad as campers, graduated as madrichim (counselors), and continue to return as staff members summer after summer. The counselors led normal lives as doctors, lawyers, accountants and students during the year. When asked why they return to camp each year, the staff simply replied that this is more than a summer camp, this is their family.

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Sitting in a crowded chadar ochel surrounded by chants and cheers around the room, it was as if we were transported into a typical Ramah chadar ochel. A handful of the Ramah Yachad campers live in tough economic conditions, and many arrive at camp after a 15-hour train ride. For many of these campers, this was their only opportunity to receive Jewish education during the year. The discussion topics and the level of Jewish content integrated into each activity reminded me of the peulot I experienced at Ramah as both a camper and staff member.

This sense of family was perfectly demonstrated in the Ukrainian wedding that took place at camp. The groom, a camper and current staff member at Ramah Yachad since the age of 6 wanted his wedding ceremony to be held at camp in front of his family and friends. It was extraordinary to hear the wedding being translated in three languages — English, Russian, and Hebrew. Gila Katz, the Director of Ramah Yachad, said this wedding was the 10th marriage from camp. As we engaged in song and dance around the newlywed couple, I was blown away by the similarities of Ramah Yachad and our own Ramah camps. I realized that the magic of Ramah camps is universal and not limited to my own Ramah camping experience.

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As the camp came to a close and we were getting onto the bus, the campers started to chant, “U.S.A., U.S.A.” The campers began hugging and kissing our cheeks, writing phone numbers on our arms, and squeezing in one last picture. As the bus pulled away from camp, the campers and staff stood waving us goodbye. It was a heartfelt moment seeing both sides teary eyed and blowing air kisses out of the bus windows. A beautiful partnership was created. We realized the impact they had made on us as well as the impact we made on them.

This experience has made me even more proud of my Ramah roots. We are so privileged to be part of a larger network that provides us with plentiful opportunities to practice our Judaism, meet others from different backgrounds with similar interests, and to create enduring memories that will last a lifetime. So, savor your Ramah gear, wear it proudly, and you never know who you might meet in the world who have seen the power of the Ramah experience.

Darrien Sherman is a native Detroiter and has been working in the Ramah Detroit Davidson Fellowship program for the past three years as a Detroit Fellow and Project Coordinator. Darrien has spent many summers at Camp Ramah in Canada as a camper and most recently as a Rosh Edah for the two oldest age groups during the summers of 2014 and 2015. This past summer, Darrien staffed the Ramah Ukraine Teen Leadership Experience where she co-led a group of 11 Ramah camper graduates to work at a Camp Ramah Yachad, a Jewish summer camp in the Ukraine. 

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A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

All photographs are courtesy of Vladimir Vork.

It’s Not Over, It’s Just The End

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Nathan Pitock, Camp Ramah in the Poconos

Last summer at Ramah in the Poconos, my edah had a catchphrase to deal with the sadness of ending our final year as campers: זה לא נגמר; זה רק הסוף – it’s not over; it’s just the end. After spending the past week at Ramah Yachad, this phrase has again been on my mind. The camp’s 10-day session was drawing to an end, but there’s much more to take away from the experience than immediately evident.

On Monday night, many campers were visibly upset as it hit them that camp is almost over. They were dreading leaving their friends who live all over Ukraine. It marked the end of camp, but the beginning of lasting friendships. Phone numbers were scribbled on arms in pen, as campers promised to keep in touch. Their friendships aren’t over; it’s just the end of living with their friends until next year.

Today was our last day at camp. We had our last peulot, exchanged gifts, and ate our last potatoes. We packed and prepared for our goodbyes. Dinner came, dinner went, and we shared a short video expressing our gratitude to the camp. Seemingly out of nowhere it was time to leave. The day, for the most part, had been a regular day, but instead of heading to our evening activity, we were driving to the Budapest airport. Campers ran back and forth hugging us all goodbye and once we boarded, they waved at the bus until we drove away.

Coming into this experience, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that we would spend about a week and a half at a Jewish camp called Ramah Yachad in the Carpathian Mountains. Leaving the camp, I have valuable memories and experiences.  I had to learn to communicate and bond with campers; I had to learn to work with other madrichim; I had to learn to balance being a counselor and a friend to my campers. All the while, I had to deal with the language barrier of working with children who knew little to no English. For me, it’s the end of this experience, but just the beginning of learning to work with campers and peers in the coming years.

More importantly, though, it marks the end of the first year of a lasting Ramah partnership. The relationship between Yachad and the American Ramah camps will grow and strengthen. The American schlichim will know better what to expect. The Ukrainian madrichim will know how to work better with the Americans to give the campers and even better camp experience.

Rather than thinking of this day as just the end to deal with the sadness of leaving, I see it as only the end because of the bright future of this program, working to help the camp grow and thrive as more campers come and meet more friends, and the American group works more with the Ukrainian staff to make a week that is unforgettable for everyone. The partnership between the American Ramah camps and Ramah Yachad isn’t over; it’s just the end of this session.

I’ve made close friends during this experience. I’ve learned valuable lessons about being in unfamiliar and strange positions. I’ve learned valuable lessons about being a madrich. I’ve made memories I will never forget. For me, without a doubt, this experience isn’t over; it’s just the end.

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A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

Ya, Ya, Ya!

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Samuel Margolis, Camp Ramah in the Berkshires

Ramah Yachad is like Bigfoot–you need to see it to believe it. I was told that it was a just another Jewish summer camp, but it is so much more. No one could have prepared me for the vitality of the campers and their love of shira and rikud, the mesmerizing scenery, the welcoming Ukrainian, Israeli, and American staff, the creative peulot, and just how much I would love it here.

My day started off like usual, with a bright and early 6:30 a.m. wake up for my morning workout with Sergei, the security guard. At 7:45, I climbed four flights of stairs to wake up my campers for tefillot, which included a lot of campers begging for five more minutes in bed.

After that we had Maccabiah. The campers circulated among nine stations, including dance, jump rope, chess, and a variety of team-building exercises. At the chess station, campers had to figure out how to get “checkmate” in only one move and win the game. Throughout the afternoon sport perek, I played volleyball with my campers, which was very entertaining. However I needed to train myself to stop saying “me, me, me” when I was going for the ball, and to start saying “ya, ya, ya,” the Russian translation.

During the evening peulat, the campers simulated making aliyah to Israel. They had to run around camp gathering different signatures on their passports, all while avoiding the security forces who were looking to arrest illegal immigrants. My staff was in charge of the “visa” station, and we could only give visas to campers who had all of the necessary signatures. The campers then had to ask for their visas in English to mimic the difficulty of the language barrier. As an additional obstacle, some of the campers were questioned about whether they were actually spies. Once they got their visas and thought that they would be allowed into Israel, they then found out that they needed to collect money in order to buy their plane ticket. The campers had a fun time during this activity, and we enjoyed running the visa station. We then participated in one of Ramah Yachad’s exciting dance parties, celebrating all of the campers “making aliyah.”

Throughout the trip I have been working hard to learn Russian to communicate with campers and staff. I now know how to ask for хлеб (bread), соль (salt), перец (pepper), чай (tea), and картошка (potato), which we have at every meal.

Since my last blog post, I become even more enamored with the machaneh, campers, and staff. Ramah Yachad is a truly unique place, and as we near the end of our trip, I know I will always cherish and remember my time here.

A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

Breaking Barriers

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Sara Heckelman, Camp Ramah in New England

Appreciation is sometimes hard to come by. Sometimes you give and give and never get. But at Camp Ramah Yachad, I never come close to feeling a lack of appreciation.

This week, after Havdallah, the members of Rikud chug performed a dance that my fellow American Ramanik, Annabelle, and I choreographed. We stood on the side of the small Bamah watching our campers smile and dance.

After their performance, they called Annabelle and I up to the stage. When we first heard our names, we didn’t think much of it. This was not only due to the fact that they were speaking Russian, but also because we did not expect to be recognized as choreographers of the dance. After much confusion and nudging, we realized they wanted us to come up on to the stage. We reluctantly stepped up in front of the crowd, confused as to why we were there, and everyone began cheering and clapping. They then proceeded to chant “Kol Hakavod, Kol Hakavod” in their special Ramah Yachad way. The chant, except for the beginning which is in Hebrew, is said in Russian. Although Annabelle and I did not understand the individual words being said, we did understand that we were being thanked–that our efforts and energy were being recognized.

Going into this unique experience, one of my greatest fears was the issue the language barrier would pose in my ability to communicate with campers. Dance, however, has filled this communication gap and has allowed me to build a connection with Jews from across the world, without having to speak a word. Although spoken language is crucial in the development of relationships, there are so many other ways to communicate just as effectively. Spoken language is geographically determined, but emotional and artistic expression is universal. Smiling is universal. Dancing is universal, and it is through dance that I feel I have made a difference here at Camp Ramah Yachad.

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A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

To Be A Jew Is…

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Annabelle Baer, Camp Ramah Darom

One week ago, as our trip was just beginning, we had an unpleasant encounter while davening in Budapest. We walked to a small courtyard in the Jewish quarter, occupied by Hasidic Jews, to pray. After a few slightly reassuring nods from men sitting in the courtyard, we began to pray together, for the first time as a group. Ten minutes into our Shacharit service, a man wearing a Kippah appeared from the other side of the courtyard. Without warning, he began yelling at the group in Hebrew saying “Get out right now! I am calling the police! Go to your reform synogogue down the street! Get out!” We were all shocked by this unexpected act of hatred, and silently walked out of the Jewish quarter so that we would not cause any more controversy. As we finished Shacharit outside the courtyard, I noticed our madrichim watching the street to make sure we were safe from any further confrontations. This was the first time I realized that not only are there major problems between Jews and other communities, but also between Jews and fellow Jews.

I left Budapest and entered Ukraine with a slightly bitter idea of what the Jewish people outside of America are like. However, the warm welcome I got from the madrichim and chanichim at Ramah Yachad completely wiped any bad taste from my mouth. During the morning activity with my eleven- and twelve-year-old chanichim, we participated in a program in which we had to choose three different papers that said “To be a Jew is…”. Many chanichim chose the paper that said to be a Jew is to love Israel, to be a Jew is to keep Kosher, or to be a Jew is to follow the Torah. However, I chose one that I was shocked that not a single chanich chose. I took a paper that said “To be a Jew is to love other Jews.” My experience a week before drove me to choose that answer but it suprised me to think that despite the difficult history of the Jewish people in Ukraine, none of the Ukranian chanichim prioritized loving other Jews. I explained my thought process to the group (which was then translated into Russian) and while all of the chanichim agreed, it still shocked me that not a single chanich chose that paper.

Looking back on my experiences while teaching the chanichim Shabbat songs, I now realize why I was the only person who said that to be a Jew is to love other Jews. For many of the kids at Ramah Yachad, camp is their main or sole Jewish experience throughout the year. Since the atmosphere at camp is so incredible, the children do not realize that there are certain Jews who are not as accepting as those at Ramah Yachad. When they come to camp, everyone welcomes them with open arms, whether they practice Judaism at home or have never opened a Siddur before. While our group unfortunately encountered an uncomfortable experience with another Jew in Budapest, my time at Ramah Yachad has proven to me the importance of loving and supporting other Jews.

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A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

Mishpachah Yehudit

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: David Zetley, Camp Ramah in the Rockies

My alarm sounds – it’s 7:35 in the morning and I have never been more excited to be jolted awake by my phone’s alarm. I throw on a sweatshirt and walk down one floor where I meet my co-counselor Sara. We then wake our campers, 15- and 16-year-old Ukrainians, with a classic boisterous rendition of “Boker tov!” better known at Ramah Yachad as “доброе утро!” pronounced “Dobroye utro!”

I flashback to early April when I opened my inbox to find an email from Hillel Buechler introducing me to the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. I sat there staring at my phone wondering why Ramah was sending kids to Ukraine, questioning how many Jews actually live in Ukraine, and thinking “how could there possibly be a Jewish camp in the middle of Ukraine!?” After three days of living, eating (potatoes), and breathing Ramah Yachad, all my questions have been answered and my doubts placed aside. This has all been due to the amazing programming, staff, and ruach which creates an incredible haven for Jewish Ukrainian children.

This vibrant combination was perfectly showcased in the wedding of a former camper, who has attended Ramah Yachad since 1998. Last night, after returning to Ramah Yachad at age 28, Lev, wed beautiful bride, Miriam. It was incredible to experience a Jewish wedding in Ukraine and absolutely something I never would have dreamed of happening in my lifetime. It was heart-warming for me to attend a Jewish wedding half-way across the world, yet somehow I felt at home. Surrounded by my new family and friends celebrating this simcha, we enjoyed the ceremony which proceeded through traditions that were so familiar.  As I sat watching the groom walk down the aisle, escorted by the camp director Gila, goosebumps ran up and down my spine thinking about the struggle that Lev went through in order to live as a proud Jew in Ukraine, compared to the relative ease in which Ramahniks live in the North America. The ceremony, which was attended by American Ramahniks in addition to all of the chanichim and madrichim of Ramah Yachad, was translated in English, Hebrew, and Ukrainian, creating a welcoming atmosphere for all. The ceremony was then followed by very spirited Israeli dancing. The whole camp then circled around the chuppah, as we sang and danced Havah Negillah in honor of the tenth couple married at Ramah Yachad.

Dancing has been such a key element of my time here at Ramah Yachad. Over the past week ריקוד has allowed me to establish connections with the campers and staff without the use of any verbal language, simply through the joy of Israeli dancing. This ריקוד really allowed the camp to come together as one mishpachah yehudit, as we welcomed the newlyweds with open arms and grapevine-ing feet.

During the evening program (following a two-course dinner!) each kvutzah presented a gift to the newlyweds. These gifts ranged from Israeli dances, a Jewish parody of a Ukrainian pop song, and an animation of the couple’s journey up to their wedding day. The gifts helped solidify the theme of mishpachah yehudit, because they showed the campers’ support and love for their Ramah Yachad mishpacha. I can’t wait to return to Ramah Yachad in twenty years and witness my campers get married, carrying on the tradition of mishpacha yehudit לדור ודור.

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A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

What Makes Camp Beautiful?

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Samuel Margolis, Camp Ramah in the Berkshires

What makes a desert flower so beautiful? Is it the beauty of the flower, or the absence of anything else in the vicinity?

For Camp Ramah Yachad, it’s both. In a little village where cows roam the roads, and a rooster wakes us up every morning, 120 kids and teenagers gather for a unique Jewish camping experience. Some take a fifteen-hour train from Kiev, and many others travel even farther to come to camp. Ramah Yachad is an oasis of Judaism in an otherwise barren land of Jews.

The second day of camp managed to surpass an unbelievable first day. My day began at 7:30 AM, when I woke up to run with my friend Mike, a Ukrainian security guard at camp. At 8:30 I davened Shacharit with the chanichim, and I received many questions about my teffilin. My two favorite questions were, “is it made out of cow?” and “why are there two boxes?” Later in the day, during free time and chug, I was able to play Ultimate Frisbee with the kids, a great Ramah pastime. It was amazing to see how excited the kids were while throwing the Frisbee, especially those who were throwing for the first time.

I also enjoyed simulating the First Zionist Congress with the chanichim, and debating whether the Jewish state should exist in Israel or Uganda. For the evening activity we witnessed “David Ben Gurion” announce Israel’s newfound independence. This exciting announcement immediately led to a dance party with Israeli music, and ultimately ended with fireworks after we sang Hatikva. All throughout the day my chanichim taught me Russian, and I am working hard to learn the new alphabet.

The Ukrainian staff has made every possible effort to include us. Even with the language barrier, I am succeeding in forming relationships with my kids. The most meaningful part of my day was when some of my chanichim expressed that my co-counselor and I were a highlight of their camp experience so far.

A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

The Language of Ramah

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Dahlia Lehman, Camp Ramah in New England

Yesterday afternoon, after months of anticipation, and three days of training in Budapest and western Ukraine, we arrived at Camp Ramah Yachad. Despite the strong connections that our American group had established internally throughout the week, I was personally very worried about the language barrier between the members of our group and the other staff at Ramah Yachad, many of whom speak only Russian.

When the bus finally arrived at the camp after a long trip through the pouring rain, something amazing happened; it stopped raining, the sun came out, and the entire staff ran outside to greet us. I immediately forgot about the language barrier as I eagerly ran off the bus to the rest of the staff, which welcomed us with open arms, smiles, and an incredibly inviting atmosphere. To me, it almost felt like the rain washed away all of the worries that the language barrier may have posed. We were all there together for a common purpose — to celebrate our Judaism and provide an exciting and fun summer experience for the chanichim (campers). It was that common purpose and hope, which Camp Ramah in New England has instilled in me since I started my journey as a camper in 2007, that allowed our group from halfway across the world to feel immediately at home. Just as my new Ramahnik friends and I noticed that a rainbow had appeared in the sky, I realized that despite the differences between our American group and the Ukrainian staff members, we all know the language of Ramah.

As our group continues this journey for the ten days following the campers’ arrival on Monday, there will inevitably be challenges and setbacks. But at the end of the day, the language of Ramah will hopefully guide all of us — Ukrainian staff and American teens alike.

Dahlia Lehman, 17 years old, was born and raised in Potomac, Maryland. Dahlia started as a camper at Camp Ramah in New England in 2007. She even admits to begging her mom to send her to Camp Ramah the moment she entered Kindergarten. 

A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

What Can Happen In Ten Years?

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Emma Siegel, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin

What can happen in ten years? From 2006 to 2016, we have experienced countless shootings, a growth/birth of a massive terrorist organization, bombings, Apple developing a touch screen phone, a watch, and an iPad, among countless other events.

What occurred from 1939 to 1949 in Ukraine was the desecration and demolition of almost an entire peoplehood, culture and way of life. While standing in front of an intersection which used to be a ghetto, walking to a hub for Jewish and secular learning, and listening to the tragedies that occurred, I was reminded of a statement I heard last night from a local Chabad rabbi.

The rabbi said that living here feels as if the Holocaust never ended because people lost ties to our Jewish world.  What are we, as a connected Jewish community, going to contribute to a people who have become entirely secularized?

Our tour guide, Ilan, told us a story while standing outside of the former center for Jewish and secular learning. Twenty male students had made a promise that in ten years, they would reunite in Israel right before Pesach. After the war, three of the students reunited before Pesach, seven came later, and ten had perished. Half of these innovative, Zionist students were able to return to our homeland. Following this story, Amy Skopp Cooper, National Associate Director, asked us, “Where do you hope to be, and what do you hope to be contributing to the Jewish world in the next ten years?” Walking through the cobblestone streets of western Ukraine, I was struck by the memory of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words ‘as I walked in Selma I felt as though my feet were praying.’ It is only when you stand in solidarity and identify with someone from a different culture are you able to make a difference in the Jewish world and the larger world holistically.

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A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through theRamah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

In The Footsteps Of My Great, Great Grandfather

Reflections from The Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience

Guest blogger: Jonah Eisen, Camp Ramah in Canada

Today we got to explore the Jewish district in Budapest, specifically three different synagogues which have been restored since the Holocaust. The final synagogue we visited, one of the largest in Europe called the Dohany synagogue, was very special to me. This was the synagogue where my great, great grandfather, Joseph J. Klein, had his bar mitzvah in 1901, before moving to America in 1905. It was really an awe-inspiring feeling walking in the footprints where he once walked. I felt a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for the synagogue and for my great, great grandfather who gave me the opportunity to practice and be proud of my Judaism in America. In the midst of the sheer beauty of the architecture and design of the synagogue, my eyes gravitated towards the grand bimah. As I approached this beautifully crafted bimah, I could almost see my great, great grandfather reading from the Torah and chanting the prayers. I imagined what it would be like for his parents and family members to watch him become a bar mitzvah, just as my family watched me. As a descendant of Joseph Klein and a young Jewish teen, I know that this emotional and powerful experience in the synagogue will help mold my Jewish identity and will be in my heart forever. I am thankful and proud that I had the opportunity to explore my own family roots here in Hungary and am very excited to continue to learn about our important Jewish heritage throughout the rest of the trip.

Jonah Eisen

A fantastic group of high school students from Ramah camps across North America are exploring Hungary and Ukraine through the Ramah Ukraine Leadership Experience. They will be serving as counselors at Camp Ramah Yachad, run by The Schechter Institute.

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