Guest blogger: Hannah Platt, Program Director, Camp Ramah in California
We do a lot of incredible things as Ramah camp people. We educate and inspire hundreds of campers, we train our staff to be future Jewish leaders, and we create communities where Judaism lives and breathes effortlessly. However, one of the more remarkable things we do as a Ramah movement is bring nearly 300 young Israelis to our camps each summer. I always knew that shlichim were a great part of camp, but until I first attended the Summer Shlichim Training Seminar in Israel, sponsored by the Jewish Agency, I didn’t realize just how impactful the mishlachat program is.
I feel lucky to say that this was my third time attending the Shlichim Training Seminar and that it was just as emotional and inspiring as it has been in previous years. Watching the shlichim get off the buses is not much different than watching our staff or campers arrive on the first day of camp. There are so many mixed emotions, the joy of starting something new, the excitement of meeting new friends, and the trepidation of embarking on a new journey with new people and in a new environment. The seminar is filled with sessions that teach shlichim about North American Jewish culture, what the Ramah movement is all about, and the layout, traditions and daily life of each camp. But some of the most powerful sessions are the ones where shlichim reflect on their Judaism and their feelings about their own Jewish identity. For many, it was their first time sharing these deeply personal thoughts. It was fascinating and moving to listen to them speak about their own beliefs, about their personal connections to Israel, and about their fears of opening themselves up to a more — or sometimes less — religious environment. For many of the shlichim, Ramah is their first glance into Judaism outside of Israel. To watch their reactions while they explore this for the first time is truly special.
For me, what was perhaps most inspiring and thrilling was hearing the returning shlichim (“vatikim” or “veterans”) speak about the impact of Ramah on their lives and their reasons for coming back. I remember seeing the vatikim, as first-year shlichim, share their fears about coming to camp. Two years later, they have become spokespeople for Ramah and the mishlachat experience. They spoke of the families in our community who made them feel at home, of the chanichim who sought out opportunities to connect with them and who left a lasting impression on them, and of the support they received from our senior staff and from the tzevet as a whole. Watching their transformation and seeing them reflect on this journey was something that reinvigorated me and reminded me just how powerful a job we all have.
At the end of a beautiful Shabbat, I led havdalah with two of our Ramah directors. As I looked around the circle and saw the smiles and excitement of the new shlichim, the comfort and enthusiasm of the returning vatikim, and the friendly and encouraging faces of my Ramah colleagues, I couldn’t help but become emotional. Here we were, in Israel, on a beautiful kibbutz, surrounded by people who were feeling inspired, ending Shabbat and this week of training with a magnificent havdalah. The group beamed with the excitement of knowing that the summer is only two months away. This trip to Israel was the perfect reminder of why what we do is so important not just for our communities in North America, but for those in Israel and for all of us.