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.
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.
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.
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.