learning to live and love from a new perspective

Archive for July, 2017

Warming up for Tefillot (and the day)

One of the things I love most about working at Camp Ramah is the impact that it’s had on my own personal spiritual development. I grew up going to a Jewish sleepaway camp, so I remember how profound it is to live in an immersive Jewish community for weeks at a time. I remember how the pace slows on Shabbat, how the spirit lifts during an exciting round of Israeli dance, and how the soul is refreshed during quiet Saturday night singing under the stars. I remember all of these things, but the depth of change in my own spiritual being now that I’m experiencing Jewish camp as an adult has come as a surprise to me.

This year, in particular, I came to camp seeking a particular kind of change. During the off-season, I work in a supplementary Religious School. Part of my job is to teach students to read and chant tefillot. I get a lot of satisfaction when my students can recite all the words of Birchot Hashachar or can chant the Amidah flawlessly after weeks of practice. However, I’m aware that these accomplishments would feel much more rewarding if reciting these prayers felt more personally meaningful to me. And so, I came to camp this summer primed to deepen my own prayer experience.

I had several “Aha!” moments during Staff Training week. The first was during Tefillot on the second morning of training. The leaders of the activity encouraged all of us to brainstorm ideas for getting our campers “physically and spiritually ready” for tefillot each morning. This was a new thought for me. I always just show up at tefillot. I never thought about how the experience would be different if I did some type of preparation. But once I thought about it, it made so much sense. Musicians can’t produce beautiful music without tuning and warming up their instruments. Athletes can’t accomplish amazing physical feats without stretching and warming up their bodies. To what new heights could we lift our campers’ prayer experience if we helped them get physically and spiritually ready for tefillot? To what new heights could I lift my own tefillot? I left the session eager to explore.

The next “Aha!” moment came during a staff learning session about the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. I was deeply moved by Amichai’s simple but elegant imagery, as he explored themes of man’s relationship with G-d, peoplehood, and prayer. The poem that resonated with me the most was titled simply, “A Tallis Poem”. In the poem, Amichai uses beautiful images to explore the experience of wearing a tallis. As soon as I finished reading the poem, the answer to the previous session’s question (how can I make myself physically and spiritually ready for tefillot each morning?) became clear. I wanted to try wearing a tallis.

Sometime in the coming year, I plan to make an excursion with my daughter to buy “real” tallitot for the two of us in honor of her upcoming Bat Mitzvah. But for the purposes of this summer, I felt a sense of urgency. I went on to Amazon (yes, you really can buy anything on Amazon!), and picked out a simple tallis. It was light-weight, with a pretty purple and gold trim, and most importantly, they assured me it would arrive by Shabbat.

Wearing a tallis during tefillot has changed the experience for me. I used to scan the room during tefillot and think that everyone else looked like they were doing “real” prayer. I often felt like I was just saying words, but not really praying. I felt like there was some intrinsic difference between everyone else’s prayers and mine. My brain was always filled with thoughts like, “I didn’t go to Day School, I don’t speak Hebrew, I don’t go to a Conservative Shul. Everyone else knows what they’re doing here, and I don’t.” Making the decision to purchase and wear a tallis, for me, was making the decision to take ownership of my own tefillot experience. While my background in tefillot might not be as robust as other members of the camp community, I can feel good about where I am on my journey. I can take any step I want to deepen my own spirituality and heighten my own prayer experience. This summer, the step I’ve taken is to start wearing a tallis.

Tefillot feel so different to me now. Every morning, I make an effort to arrive a few minutes early. I take a moment to breathe deeply. I kiss the tallis and recite the blessings. I swoop it up over my head, and feel the weight as it rests on my shoulders and envelops me. During those few moments I settle my own mind, and I set my own intentions for tefillot. I feel, for the first time, warmed up. I feel physically and spiritually ready for tefillot, and for the rest of the day.


A Tallis Poem

By Yehuda Amichai

Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:

taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,

spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered

or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead

like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute. And then winding it

around his head as in Hide-and-Seek, wrapping

his whole body in it, close and slow, snuggling into it like the cocoon

of a butterfly, then opening would-be wings to fly.

And why is the tallis striped and not checkered black and white

like a chessboard? Because squares are finite and hopeless.

Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go

like airport runways where angels land and take off

Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget.

When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,

he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again

over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,

still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.


Open Closed Open: Poems, trans. by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (New York: Harcourt, 2000), p. 44

Celebrating a Milestone



We are here at camp for our third summer. It’s been a wonderful first week and a half. S is delighted to be reunited with her camp friends. G has had a great time in the staff kids program (the Gan), rediscovering his favorite routines and activities at camp. I’m enjoying re

IMG_1445turning to the same role for a third time, and discovering that my work becomes more rewarding and enjoyable each summer.

This Sunday, I will say good-bye to my first group of campers, and begin preparing for the next group to arrive on Tuesday.

It’s all part of the routine of camp, except for one major difference. The next group of campers will include my son, G.

Every time I think about G leaving the safety and comfort of the Gan, and becoming a “real camper”, I get emotional.   I feel a deep urge to take a moment, and appreciate the significance of this moment.IMG_3740

I find myself thinking back to when G was first diagnosed with autism. He was two and a half. At that time, we had no idea what G’s life was going to be like. We thought of all the things that are part of a typically developing kid’s childhood– baseball games and play dates, sleepovers and swim classes, piano recitals and bike rides, and on and on and on. We thought of all these things, and we worried that all of them would be out of G’s reach. That because of his challenges, that he would live life on the sidelines.

IMG_1418Over the years, we began to see that our worries about life on the sidelines were unfounded. Slowly but surely, we became connected to wonderful people and amazing programs that suited G’s needs and interests. Challenger League has provided an opportunity to play baseball. iCanBike Camp has provided an opportunity to learn to ride a bike. The Academy of Physical and Social Development has provided an opportunity for G to practice the social skills he needs to interact successfully with his peers.

But of all the wonderful and amazing supports in our lives, the one that rises to the top is Camp Ramah.

Shortly after we signed S up for her first summer of camp, we learned about the Tikvah Family Shabbaton. This weekend for parents, siblings and children with a disability has been our lifeline for the last four years. Twice a year during the off-season, we come to Camp Ramah to reconnect with our Tikvah family. For 72 hours, we eat, pray and play together. We celebrate one another’s successes, and help each other through hard times. At Tikvah, both our children are known and loved for who they are.019-L2260635

Then summer rolls around. We come back to camp for the “on-season”. We get to see many of our friends from Tikvah (both kids and staff) at camp during the summer, and deepen those relationships during our time here. S has her buddies in her bunk, and those friendships become closer and more significant each year. For the last two summers, G has been part of the Gan. As far as I know, he is the first child with a disability who has been part of this program. From day one, he has been given the support he needs to succeed, all the while building his confidence and independence.

photoFor the past ten days, G has spent the majority of his waking hours with the Gan. However, he’s also spent a good chunk of time with me and my campers. Morning prayers, evening activity, and most of Shabbat, G has been with my group. I can’t express how deeply it’s touched my heart to see G welcomed into the group by the kids and the staff. When we walk into prayers in the morning, the kids scoot over to make room for G on the bench. At evening activity, a counselor notices G on the edge of the group, and gently guides him into the thick of the activity. Yesterday, I asked the boys in the group to give G a tour of their cabin. They walked him around the bunk, pointing out where they put their toothbrushes, where they hang their jackets, and what they do with their towels after they shower. I could see on G’s face the excitement he’s feeling about moving on to this next level of independence. More importantly, I could see on the boys’ faces that they felt proud and important to be called on as helpers.IMG_2600

I’ve spent the last few days on the phone with parents of my future campers who will be dropped off at camp for the first time on Tuesday. They’ve expressed to me how they are going to drop off quickly, and hope to get out of sight before they start crying over this exciting but heart-wrenching milestone of dropping their baby off at camp. For me, I think I’ll be able to hold it together for the day. But I know the tears will come when I return to my cabin at night- the cabin I’ve shared with G for the past two and a half summers. I’ll be by myself here for the first time. I know I will mourn the passing of time, and how quickly G’s childhood is flying by. However, I will also be celebrating this enormous moment in his life. G will be a real camper, in a real bunk. He’s going to have an experience that we never, ever thought would be possible back when he was first diagnosed with autism. He’s going to share this experience with friends we’ve made through Tikvah over the years, and he’s going to be supported by staff who’ve grown up in Ramah understanding the value of inclusion.

Of all the wonderful and amazing supports in our lives, the one that rises to the top is Camp Ramah. Thank you, Camp Ramah. We are so very, very grateful.


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