Reflections on Teaching at Ramah, Summer 2015

Dr. Ben SommerGuest blogger: Dr. Benjamin D. Sommer, Professor of Bible, The Jewish Theological Seminary

I spent time this summer teaching at Ramah Nyack and Ramah Wisconsin, and very much enjoyed being at both camps and teaching staff. Even more than the teaching, talking to college students one-on-one outside the formal shiurim was even better. Quite a few of them wanted to talk to me about one thing or another. One young man in Wisconsin even put together an additional session for incoming college freshmen who had been at Orthodox yeshivot in Israel this past year; that group found my teaching especially interesting and challenging, and they wanted to talk more about the tensions between emunah and being a modern person. The fact that kids took the initiative for these conversations was really heartening, and the conversations themselves were great. (This happened more at Wisconsin than Nyack, since being there 24/7 facilitated this in several ways.)

As I told the rashei eidah in Wisconsin when they thanked me for the devar torah I gave at their weekly meeting, I wanted to thank them, because visiting Ramah is the one time I feel really good about the future of American Judaism. To the extent that there will be a non-Orthodox Judaism in mid-twenty-first-century America, a lot of it will be coming out of Ramah. The staff members are really doing עבודת קדש, and they are doing it extremely well. I wasn’t sure whether they realized that themselves.

Sommer at Nyack

Dr. Ben Sommer teaching at Ramah Nyack, Summer 2015

I found both camps incredibly well run, well thought-out, and intentional. In particular, the way that the college kids prepare and run programs themselves makes them take ownership of their Judaism in a meaningful and effective way. That amounts to quite a lot in terms of building Jewish life and leadership.

And of course, there’s nothing quite like seeing hundreds of happy kids running around.

For me as a JTS professor, biblical scholar and a chasid of Moshe Greenberg, z”l, it was really something to hear close to 500 kids singing his Himnon Ramah in Wisconsin, and really belting it out! I also really enjoyed a conversation with a counselor who came to me for advice about a program he was running for his Nivonim kids about the end of their years at camp, what they got from camp, and what they’ll take away from it. He asked me if I had a recommendation for a biblical or rabbinic text he could center his discussion around. Before I could come up with one, Jeremy Fineberg (Ramah Wisconsin’s Program Director and JTS rabbinical student), who happened to be sitting next to me, suggested that this counselor might want to use the opening and closing of the Himnon, with its talk about how Ramah ישכון לבד (what most of them get at camp is so different, Jewishly, from what they get back home) and how the camp can be מופת לאלפי רבבה (what they bring with them from camp makes a big difference to the communities they’ll be part of – this is very important, as they get ready to go to college).

The counselor went ahead and used it, and I was pleased to know that the Nivonim not only can sing the song by heart but also actually know something about what Greenberg’s poem is about. By the way, at a poetry slam for staff one night, I recited a few lines from The Epic of Gilgamesh in the original Akkadian — I thought that Moshe and Yochanan Muffs, z”l, (who were both superb Assyriologists) would have appreciated that.

I really enjoyed this opportunity to be at both camps. And best of all, my daughter Eliana really enjoyed the Sha’ar Hebrew immersion program in Nyack!

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