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Reflections on the Summer Shlichim Seminar at Kibbutz Shefayim

Guest blogger: David Offit, Program Director, Camp Ramah in New England

David OffitI’ve led Kabbalat Shabbat many times before, but this time is profoundly different. As I sing out the opening words to Yedid Nefesh, I hear only the voices of a handful of Ramah directors amid a sea of 250 people. I look around and see newly-minted Ramah Israeli staff members opening a Masorti siddur, hearing Carlebach melodies, and sitting next to co-daveners of the opposite gender, some for the very first time in their lives. By the second psalm, even though the words are still new, more and more people start to join in, humming and singing along. At one point, moved by the power of the music, shlichim start to get up and dance, forming concentric circles in the middle of our makom teffilah.  This is the training seminar for summer shlichim, Israeli emissaries who come to Ramah camps each summer through the Jewish Agency, and I hold the heavy responsibility of being the first person to introduce them to Conservative Judaism in a real, tangible way – the way they’ll come to know and love Judaism at camp in just a few months.

mishlachat2016-c

Ramah Mishlachat 2016

On Thursday, March 31, hundreds of shlichim of different religious backgrounds, different regions of Israel, and different life experiences, entered into the gates of Kibbutz Shefayim, accompanied by rock-concert-loud migrash music, smiling and welcoming returning shlichim (who would serve as manchim, or group leaders, for the duration of the seminar), and the special brand of nervous excitement that can only exist on the first day of camp. My Ramah colleagues and I stood at the check-in tables, and happily welcomed the many shlichim who we had interviewed and hired back in January. As they were checking in, these shlichim were either overflowing with questions about their rooms, their bags, and their schedules, or were too speechless to even know what questions to ask at all. Even though the Ramah directors were the ones who had travelled across the globe to reach the seminar, the shlichim were the ones who were entering a completely new world. Summer camp, at least the version of it that exists in North America, is a completely foreign concept to Israelis who have not experienced it before. This was a fact I would have to remind myself of over and over throughout the four-day seminar, explaining the idea of camp totally from scratch.

At the end of check-in, the DJ (a returning shaliach with an iPhone plugged into speakers), played Lo Normali – an Israeli dance taught at last year’s seminar that was subsequently spread to all Ramah camps – and I jumped out of my seat, ran to an open space on the grass, and started dancing. Some shlichim looked on, confused. Others, more adventurous, joined in and tried to copy my dance moves. What a perfect metaphor for the beginning of the seminar.

mishlachat2016-aThe next four days were an intensive introduction to the Ramah movement, Jewish summer camp, Conservative Judaism, daily schedules, program planning, American Jewry, and the responsibilities of shlichut. What a whirlwind! At first, the shlichim were quiet in their many daily sessions, just going through the motions. They would try to absorb as many rules and explanations as they could, working hard to wrap their heads around the idea of a tzrif, and how we practice Judaism at camp. But, as the seminar progressed, I noticed a sizeable shift in the rapport of the group, and the ease with which they discussed the finer points of camp. We started to use the same language, and talk about places in camp as if they’d actually seen them before. Whereas in the beginning of the week, I qualified each time I said “edah” with “campers grouped by age,” by the end of the seminar we were all saying “edah” and “edot” without any explanation needed.

As everyone’s understanding of camp grew, so did their excitement. After dancing to Lo Normali multiple times a day each day, the shlichim learned the steps. They jumped up screaming each time the song came on, just as I had on the first day of the seminar. The shlichim were becoming Ramahniks right before my eyes.

In June, merely 70-something days from today, Ramah camps will greet nearly 250 shlichim at 9 overnight camps and 4 day camps across North America. As I told the shlichim on the last day of the seminar, I’ll be the first person they see when they get to camp, yelling Bruchim Habaim with a huge smile on my face. (I have chills now just thinking about it.) And on Friday night of staff week, when I lead Kabbalat Shabbat again, these new Ramahniks will recognize the melodies, remember the words, and be used to sitting next to someone of the opposite gender. Hopefully this time, they’ll be able to sing along from the start.

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