What the Doctor Ordered: Shabbat at Camp Ramah

One of my very favorite movies is Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride , based on the classic novel by William Goldman. The movie is wonderful for a whole host of reasons, but essentially, it is a whimsical riff on the idea of “true love.” Wesley and Buttercup, the hero and heroine, endure all kinds of outrageous misfortune, but ultimately, their destiny is to be together.mTrue love wins out.

After a particularly nasty encounter with some medieval torture machines, Wesley is brought to a pair of alleged miracle healers, played hysterically by Billy Crystal and Carol Kane. In the bargaining that goes on to determine whether the friends can afford the healing that Wesley desperately needs, Crystal asks them whether their friend is totally dead, or only partially or mostly dead. That, in turn, would determine what kind of miracle is in play- a total miracle, a partial miracle, etc.

Why, you might well ask, am I bringing up The Princess Bride? Actually, I think about it a lot these days.

In the context of my relatively recent appointment as President of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis, I am now one of the men and women with whom people feel comfortable (compelled?) to share their observations on the Conservative movement as a whole. We have a few well-documented problems and issues, as most of you reading this will know. So, rare is the day that goes by when I don’t receive at least one or two e-mails, and a few calls, telling me some usually (but not always) well-meaning person’s perception that the movement is- pick your adjective- ill, gravely ill, hospice-ready… you get the picture. Anything at all negative written about the movement in the press- and there’s more than a little- gets forwarded to me multiple times by someone who just wants to make sure that, in case I was having a decent moment, I was aware of what’s out there. Thank you, all! I assure you, I’m all over these pronouncements.

And, at least once or twice a day, I find myself thinking of Billy Crystal and Carol Kane and wondering exactly what kind of miracle we need… do we need a total miracle to resuscitate this movement that I so love, or just a partial one? Is it really that bad?

In the midst of this miracle imaging, my wife and I were invited to spend a Shabbat at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. Robin and I both worked there for many years, and all four of our children were both campers and, ultimately, staff members. One is on staff this summer. But beyond the family connection, and also the fact that I have quite a few campers and staff members from my own synagogue at Ramah, my visit was actually in the context of my RA presidency.

A Shabbat at Ramah presented me with a wonderful opportunity to engage the committed members of the Conservative congregations in this area, both young and old, in an environment ripe for learning. I had the chance to teach Torah at a variety of services on Shabbat morning. That was a treat that reminded me how much I miss being in camp! And, I also had the opportunity to address staff members at a Friday night Oneg Shabbat program, and one on Shabbat afternoon as well. We had open and honest talks about the issues within the movement- particularly those issues relating to campus life- and I took home with me a far greater appreciation of the nature and extent of the challenges confronting us than I came with.

But without a doubt, what impressed me the most about my Shabbat at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires was how vibrant and alive the spiritual community was. The energy was obvious and passionate, and it manifested itself most emphatically at Shabbat dinner- not a softball game, or a Frisbee game, but Shabbat dinner. When the time came for the singing of Z’mirot– the special Shabbat table songs that are an intrinsic part of a traditional Shabbat meal- the dining room erupted in an impassioned celebration of the sheer joy of being together, and spending Shabbat together.

I wished, at that moment, that I could gather all the talking heads who want to place my movement in hospice and show them that there is life and vitality in our movement, and not just in Ramah in the Berkshires and its sister camps. Yes, there are issues in the Schechter world, but many of our best, most knowledgeable and and most committed young people have been, and continue to be, Schechter alumni. Yes, there is a great and pressing need to upgrade our efforts on college campuses- and we are trying to address that in an urgent way. Yes, our demographics are difficult, and not promising… but it’s simply not true that our synagogues are all failing, and devoid of meaningful spiritual growth opportunities.I most certainly don’t feel that way in my own synagogue on Shabbat morning, and my community faces demographic change as serious as any other. There is life in our movement- lots of life. But there is work to be done… One truth does not preclude the other.

So, to Billy Crystal and Carol Kane, I would say this. We don’t need a total miracle, because the patient isn’t totally dead- not by a long shot. I’m not even sure that we need a partial miracle. What we need is energy, passion, commitment, a willingness to explore new avenues of engagement, and the money to make our best and most imaginative ideas come to life. That last one sometimes feels like it requires the biggest miracle of all.

But Shabbat at Camp Ramah provided me with a much-needed tonic. It reminded me why the great effort needed to re-energize the Conservative movement is, ultimately, so important. The future of our movement was all around me in that dining room on Friday night. They shouldn’t have to depend on a miracle.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.