My community is bigger than your button

In this era of “my button is bigger than yours,” the words ‘destabilizing’  and ‘unsettling’ come to mind. I am transported back in time to 2009, just after I made Aliya, when I was hearing the rhetoric coming out of the Israeli Prime Minister’s office visa vis-a-vis a nuclear Iran. Call me naïve or unsophisticated, but I was scared then and that feeling is creeping back. The big question that comes to my mind is: how do we cope with these terrifying times?

Approximately 2,600 years ago the prophet Jeremiah, when delivering the Lord’s vision for the people of Israel, proclaimed, “They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought, and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:8)

We are not in a drought right now, but rather a full-blown flood of emotions, intensity and, trepidation. As a Jew/Israeli/American/citizen of the world, I am wondering if Jeremiah’s prophecy has been realized? Are we healthy and secure enough to face these growing existential threats to our world? In spite of it all, the revolutions and evolutions, the big talk, the seemingly out-of-control rhetoric of our leaders, will our leaves inevitably and interminably remain green and lush?

I do not proclaim to be capable of answering these questions on a global level, I’ll leave that to others. The topic is too general, too broad, too esoteric. What I do know is that when the world is spinning out of control we turn to our own communities for support. That is how it has always been and always will be.

Personally, when I think about community, I think about my community, Ramah, and I have to tell you – Ramah is a wonderful model for the world.

Ramah is a camping movement in North America with over 11,000 campers and staff who spend their summers at one of the ten overnight camps, five day camps (including one in Jerusalem), and three Israel programs. Ramah has been in existence every summer for over 70 years. Ramah, in Hebrew, means level or high region, like a hill or physical height, but that is not what Ramah means to me or to thousands of others like me.

In 1995, when my parents sent me to overnight camp at Ramah Poconos for the first time, they made an immense financial sacrifice. I was one of five kids and money was tight, but they put their money where their values were. When they dug deep into their savings account, I am certain that they had no idea how deeply they were planting my roots. They had no idea that they were setting me down in such a dense, fertile, green forest. With Judaism and Zionism as its soil, love as its water, and a strong, life-supporting sun, Ramah has helped hundreds of thousands of Jews, like me, to grow to heights that they could not have imagined.

Tree planting and maintenance is a dirty, long, arduous process, but you can’t argue with the results. Just ask the old man in Honi Hame’agel’s famous carob tree story.

To be a member of the Ramah kehilla (community in Hebrew) is a beautiful gift. We learn how to accept and love others for their weaknesses and not just their strengths. We learn that putting on t’fillin in the morning, keeping kosher, and celebrating Shabbat, are not a burden but a blessing. We learn how to ask for forgiveness and to forgive, to embrace our differences, to celebrate with immeasurable joy during the good times, and to comfort each other with endless sympathy during the hard times.

I was lucky enough to meet my wife while we both worked at Ramah Seminar. My high school students on Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY) helped celebrate our engagement by dancing and singing with such joy it was as if their relative was getting married. And when tragedy struck my sister’s family and I flew back home to Baltimore to be with them, I discovered that my blood relatives were not the only family waiting for me. I was enveloped in the loving, familiar embrace of Ramah friends from all over.

My story is not unique. It is an illustration. I can say, with absolute certainty and confidence, that Jeremiah’s prophecy continues to ring true at Ramah. One quick google search of the names ‘Hannah Weiss’ and ‘Ari Weiss’ will show you how a community supports one another in the face of tragedy. The recent fires that destroyed the dining hall of Ramah Rockies (thankfully without injury) and was stopped at the gates of Ramah California, have left our leaves greener than ever before, our roots more deeply planted in the ground. I can only hope and pray that others feel the same about their own kehilla as I do about mine.

I assume that there are thousands of kehillot (communities) out there like Ramah. You may find them in your schools, neighborhoods, or camps. In your synagogues, churches, mosques, and even book clubs. Community is what steadies, grounds and supports us. In these destabilizing times, we need to feel our roots in the soil. And the next time someone presses our leaders’ buttons, we can only hope and pray that they show restraint, find stability in their own families and communities, and like my friends and colleagues at Ramah, help make the world a better place.

About the Author
Jonathan is the director of Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY), a high school study abroad program in Israel. Jonathan grew up in Owings Mills, Maryland and made Aliya in 2009. He holds an MSW from Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research and worked as a foster care and high school social worker in Southwest and North Philadelphia before moving to Israel. Jonathan lives with his wife Roni, and son, Yuval, in Jerusalem.