By: Michael Raileanu
Ask anyone who has attended Camp Ramah, or almost any other Jewish summer camp for that matter, what their favorite time of the week is and one answer is bound to bubble up to the top: Havdala. With this ceremony we bring an end to a peaceful, thoughtful, and fun Shabbat (Sabbath) and begin a new week; a week of fun, excitement, educational experiences, and stories to be told later on. The music of Havdala is sweet and simple. This moment can pass very quickly, yet it remains with the campers for years to come.
Such was my experience for the first 30+ years of my Jewish camping life. Indeed, I was quite satisfied with that status quo. However, upon arriving at Camp Ramah in California five years ago I found a new and very different experience. I was invited to join the camp’s Tikvah community—the Amitzim campers and the Ezra staff (vocational education participants)—of children, teens, and young adults with disabilities. What I found there has developed into my very favorite hour of the week, not to be missed.
Following Saturday night dinner, a treat in itself, as it is the only meal that ends with ice cream, the Amitzim-ers, the Ezra staff and their counselors gather in the ga-ga court. Everyone sits on the floor and the magic begins. With the call of “Can I get a drumroll, please?” the Yasher Koach (Congratulations!) Awards begin. Each and every youngster is recognized every week for one thing or another that they have done or accomplished in the previous week. Sometimes they are recognized for significant milestones, overcoming fear of heights on the ropes course, or something small but important, using good manners at the dinner table or participating in Israeli dance. Each of the campers is called up one by one, cheered on by the entire Tikvah community and hugged with great gusto and affection by whomever announced their name. The awardees are thrilled. They cheer for their comrades, share in their victories and bask with great glee in their own accomplishments. The simple joy in the ga-ga pit is palpable and infectious. The youngsters are thrilled, thrilled for themselves and for those around them.
When visitors come to camp I strongly suggest that they join us in our celebration and invariably they thank me for the invitation. They are immediately swept up in the noise, the cheering, the sense of accomplishment, and in the pride of achievement glowing on the faces of everyone, camper and staff, around the circle.
Every week I promise myself that I am going to take that joy, that pride in oneself, with me into the new week. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t. Often, I find myself focusing on the failures or the disappointments without more than a moment’s notice to the accomplishments, no matter what either of them may be. But I think that the Tikvah kids would say that it is okay, I am trying, I am learning. That is the ultimate lesson learned from these young people: the perspective. These young people most assuredly have disappointments in their weeks, maybe more than most, but they take the time, every week, at least every week at camp, to recognize their own and one another’s accomplishments and to move beyond their mistakes, in doing so they genuinely prepare themselves (and the people around them) to have a true shavua tov, a good week.
Michael Raileanu is a lifelong Jewish educator, having received his first classroom assignment at the age of 15. He is currently a third-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion. Learn more about Ramah California’s Tikvah programs and connect with the Ezra vocational education programs on Facebook.