Thinking on Our Feet: Lessons Learned from Launching a New Camp

Photo courtesy Camp Ramah in Northern California
Photo courtesy Camp Ramah in Northern California

By Rabbi Sarah Shulman with Sophia Landress, Deanna Neil and Marci Greenberg

When our staff and lay leaders set out to start a new Ramah summer camp along the shores of Monterey Bay, we knew that we would learn tremendous lessons along the way about Jewish camping and about our own ecosystem of campers, staff, and marine flora and fauna. As a process-oriented rabbi and educator, I welcomed this unfolding journey of learning and reflection for our inaugural summer at Camp Ramah in Northern California (Ramah Galim).

But what I could not have predicted beforehand was the profound nature of the lessons we would learn about resiliency and creativity in leadership. Our strong staff of 45 counselors and specialists worked long hours and grew tremendously over the summer. Staff members reported that they and their campers grew the most – internally, spiritually, and interpersonally – during the times of greatest challenge and the parade of “firsts.”

Photo courtesy Camp Ramah in Northern California
Photo courtesy Camp Ramah in Northern California

As staff members shared stories of lessons learned this summer, I found that their words and experiences manifested the vision of our camp’s Hebrew name, Ramah Galim (Ramah of the Waves), by having the potential for waves of impact and resonance well beyond their individual summer camp experience. Here are some highlights from their stories:

Spending this summer on staff at Ramah Galim tested my perception of achievement. At the beginning of camp, I approached my experience from my previous mindset: perfectionism. Each activity had to be flawless, each task completed with embellishments hours before the deadline. The perfectionism that worked for me in high school became a roadblock when the Jewish values activity I planned for my campers ended up being way too long for the allotted time. Yet seeing the smiles on my camper’s faces as they engaged with the product of last-minute changes countered the stress of making those in-the-moment adjustments.

My fellow staff members further inspired me to bring that think-on-your-feet attitude to my daily life when the day strayed from the schedule in my pocket. I learned to adjust plans as necessary in order to weave together a smooth camp experience for the hanichim (campers). Maintaining a calm and malleable attitude was essential for creating the most exciting, engaging day for the campers, for my colleagues, and for myself. I have grown to accept and embrace improvisation as an essential component of being a leader and making a difference in children’s lives. (Read more)

As we sat on the carpeted stage, I laid out the program to the attentive group of about 20 campers from ages 8-14: “You are going to create something from nothing.” Their eyes widened.

Throughout the process of building our performance, I reminded the campers, “At some point you will feel uncomfortable. That’s okay, that is part of the process.” Inevitably when making something, we reach a phase of discomfort – we think it’s terrible and want to throw it out, lack the clarity of seeing where it’s going, fear being in front of our friends, or feel exposed. But this is part of the deal of making something new, and if I could teach anything to the kids this summer, it’s that this phase is natural and important, and the sooner we get comfortable with being uncomfortable, the more things we can create in the world. (Read more)

I am struck by the similarities between camp and a living ecosystem, by how smoothly our ancient Jewish values flowed into modern environmental sensibilities to provide the nourishment for our daily adventures. Success in any ecosystem depends on a few key factors: a stable habitat, a diversity of constituents, and their healthy relationships…

I recall the many days we spotted “our” resident pod of bottlenose dolphins surfing and foraging in the breaks of our beach. Their teensy newborn dolphin first appeared when we did, way back in mid-June, and relied on a loving, involved community to grow and thrive, just as we do. Without the true give and take of mutualism, relationships get out of whack, eventually falling apart. This lesson was fun to teach, easy to see all around us, and readily internalized by the campers. We frequently assessed our actions in terms of, “Are we harming or helping? Is this relationship parasitic or mutualistic?” We took our cue from the many complicated, symbiotic relationships in Monterey Bay and within our weekly Torah portions, and strove for mutualism by being part of the solution, stepping in and helping, and connecting ourselves to each other through give and take. Through this web of mutual support and interconnectedness we were able to surf, learn, kayak, scuba dive, and observe the marine world together in ways we could not possibly have done as individuals; a true ecosystem in action! (Read more)

Lessons from the Summer, Lessons for Life

What Sophia, Deanna, and Marci learned this summer about improvisation, creativity, and interconnection speak well beyond their camp experiences. For as leaders of Jewish institutions, do we not encounter the need to improvise, to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and to find ways to work symbiotically with our colleagues? Launching a new camp was like creating a living, breathing Jewish laboratory for discovery; we created a safe but wild space for ourselves to grow. What has become clear to me in collecting origin stories like these is that even with all our preparation for the opening of Ramah Galim, it was the magic of creating a social-spiritual landscape for young people to “think on their feet” and to seize and shape meaningful moments together that made for lasting and enlightening experiences.

Rabbi Sarah Shulman is the founding director of Camp Ramah in Northern California.