On Sunday, I was honored to speak at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s event celebrating Rabbi David Soloff’s 44 years of distinguished service. As I stood in front of more than 500 attendees (which included the familiar faces of local camp professionals), I couldn’t help but reflect on how fortunate we are in the Jewish camp field to have many “Rabbi Soloffs”: dedicated leaders who have an outsize impact on Jewish camp and the entire Jewish community.
My piece below is adapted from my remarks. I share them with you in order to convey my appreciation for all the visionary camp leaders who help us learn and grow throughout our lives.
Over the 44 years in which I’ve been privileged to know, work with, and learn from Rabbi David Soloff, there is one question he has repeatedly asked me. It’s a seemingly simple question, but it is in fact deeply reflective of his inspiring, impressive, and influential work. Here is the question: what are you learning?
This is a very special moment in time on our Jewish calendar. This past week, we observed Yom HaShoah, and this evening we begin Yom HaAtzmaut. In the spirit of Rabbi Soloff, I ask: what can we learn from this juxtaposition?
We can hardly imagine what it must have been like for those fortunate enough to be in America during the 1940s while European Jewry was in flames. In the years during and following World War II, our predecessors were at once determined to secure a Jewish future and to fulfill the Zionist dream. As a profound response to these critical moments, they established Jewish summer camps. Massad in 1941. Yavneh in 1944. The first Ramah camp – Ramah Wisconsin – in 1947. Young Judaea’s Tel Yehudah in 1948. The first URJ camp OSRUI opened in 1951.
These new camps were the precursors of a major wave of camp construction and of the prioritization of Jewish camp as a most effective means of transmitting Jewish education, culture, and heritage at a most auspicious time in our shared history.
I share this perspective from my perch at Foundation for Jewish Camp to give context to Rabbi Soloff’s life’s work. You see, his contributions over 44 years extend far beyond the shores of Lake Buckatabon to impact the much larger, broader field across North America.
Rabbi Soloff modeled never standing still, constantly learning and growing. His ability to remain open and to always ask “what are we learning?” resulted in his early embrace of innovative initiatives, and encouraged others to follow his lead. I cite three examples from Chicagoland, which has been an incubator for so much progress and growth in our field. Rabbi Soloff internalized feedback from the original pilot Camper Satisfaction surveys and thoughtfully implemented changes – now we conduct these surveys annually with over 70 camps participating. He supported the initial trial here in the Midwest of first-time, need-blind camper incentives – now FJC’s One Happy Camper® program has awarded more than 90,000 first-time camper grants in 13 years. Long ago, he convened the Midwest camp directors together to share not as competitors but as valued colleagues – now a model we have replicated in other communities across North America.
In the last nine years during which I have had the honor of leading FJC, Rabbi Soloff has spoken with great joy about how the field has grown, been professionalized, and become a source of pride for our entire Jewish community. He has encouraged my own thinking on the importance of the counselor experience, year-round engagement, intentional Jewish day camps and family camps – all now prioritized strategically by our Foundation.
On a very personal level, like so many in this room, my own life trajectory changed profoundly because of my summers in those Northwoods. As I think back, there has been one consistent voice encouraging me, ever so gently, by asking that same reflective question. I still have a letter, sent by Rabbi Soloff in 1979, in which he wrote in part, “Now more than ever…you have to deepen your study of Jewish tradition.” I spent Shabbat at camp early in my corporate career in 1990 only to be asked, “are you making time for learning.” When I attended my Nivonim 25th reunion in 2002, he spoke to all of us about our continued Jewish education. And, during a car ride in Chicago after I had come to my role at FJC, he inquired again about the time I had set aside for studying.
I got the message and I am sure many of you did as well. For Rabbi Soloff, Camp Ramah’s mission extends far beyond the summer and far beyond our camper years. He views learning as year-round and lifelong.
This brings me back to considering this auspicious moment as we leave the somber reflections of Yom HaShoah and enter the joyful celebrations of Yom HaAtzmaut. Look at what has been achieved by our field in response to the existential mandate for Jewish survival and aspiration for self-determination. While the number of people who experienced these two seminal events first-hand declines every year, the dream of the modern State of Israel and of what can be achieved by learning and growing together on the kikar and migrash is still alive, well, and in fact growing in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
Rabbi, your legacy will be that enduring question, “what are we learning.”
For teaching all of us – me, Ramah Wisconsin, the Midwest camp community, and the broader field of Jewish Camp – how to learn, grow, and become better versions of ourselves personally, professionally, and communally, we express much appreciation and gratitude. Todah Rabah.