Mountains of Possibility: A Shavuot Story

(This is a transcript (more or less) of the story I shared at the Riverdale Y pre-Shavuot Story Slam)

My first summer at Ramah Darom was the camp’s inaugural summer – 1997. An eager junior counselor excited to join the venture of a new summer camp, I arrived at the hotel DoubleTree for staff week because much of the camp was an active construction site. During our preparation and training, we heard about mud roads, scaffolding on some of the primary buildings, and unfinished cabins that needed their ceiling fans and dryers. When we arrived to camp, the campgrounds were replete with natural beauty and the facilities – filling with campers and staff – were full of promise and possibility.

During that first summer at camp, I got to know the omanut lady – the camp art director or artist-in-residence. One of my campers was her nephew and, during a subsequent summer when I was a rosh edah – division head – another one of her nephews was in my edah. I must have made a lasting impression on them because, at the conclusion of that summer as rosh, Dafna (omanut lady) gave me a yad  – a Torah pointer. To this day, the yad is one of my favorite pieces of Judaica. Constructed entirely from wood – coccobollo and olive wood to be specific – the yad was delivered in a box with a maple lid and Australian mahogany in the base. The note with the yad said it requires no further care other than for me to read from and study Torah for many years to come with it.

Inscribed on the box is a verse from Pirkei Avot that for many years now has been one of my favorite teachings and comes to mind when I think about my Jewish vision. “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” (Ben Bag Bag) “Hafoch ba ve-hafoch ba…” The notion of returning and constantly engaging in something with meaning and purpose was a big part of why I attended Ramah for many summers beyond that as a camper and into my young adult years to most recently as a parent and rabbi/educator. The verse and the yad together are what I love about Jewish living, and I derive great benefit from Torah study – reading and writing when I give myself the chance.

Albeit a gift from someone else, the yad represents the gifts that I strive to give to others through Torah study. More than pointing at words on a page (or scroll), I enjoy the nuance and additional meaning that exists in the space between the words – the ambiguity even – of some texts. The yad symbolizes my quest for meaning and has instilled in me the value of learning a text again and again – Hafoch ba ve-hafoch ba…”

Some summers after those initial ones at Ramah Darom, I returned with my family for a Family Camp. Within minutes of getting out of the car, I watched my son (probably two or three years old at the time) begin to gently kick rocks in the parking lot seeing what would happen. Maybe he thought he was testing gravity and we thought he was testing our patience, yet I reflect on the time that he experimented in a new space – just as we tried to do – wondering what he was doing there, who he might see and, of course what he would bring home with him. He may not have recognized at his young age the magic of camp. I knew then and appreciate even more today, the mountains of possibility when we immerse ourselves in a community dedicated to Jewish learning, Jewish living, and Jewish experimentation.

With the recent celebration of Shavuot, I looked back on these camp experiences and felt like I’ve been here before; that somehow I am, as I was then, working remotely toward something waiting for it to happen. I am on the outside looking in, like so many of us, beginning to see summer stare us in the face and wondering what will happen. Just as I trained and planned for camp at the Double Tree hotel during the summer of 1997, I am again living in one reality preparing (hoping maybe) for another. However this summer will be different, I believe that we’ll have opportunities to kick rocks and explore new spaces. With my yad as my inspiration to keep studying and Shavuot as a reminder of the mountain of possibilities when we “turn it and turn it” in study, I anticipate a summer that may not be worth repeating but will instill in all of us something new that we can take with us as we move forward out of this pandemic.

About the Author
Rabbi Rafi Cohen is a graduate of JTS Rabbinical School and the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. He has previously served as Director of Jewish Student Life at CCNY Hillel and has taught in Jewish Day Schools as well as the congregations he served as assistant and senior rabbi. An alumnus of the Legacy Heritage Rabbinic Fellowship and ADL Glass Leadership Institute, Rafi brings his Mussar and engagement practices to his professional role at Masorti Olami.
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