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Friday, October 1, 1993

A Beautiful Sunset

                                                                                                          October, 1993


Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:


Well, I have once again taken to the highways with slide projector in hand, to
converse with kids about coming to camp, and persuade their parents to part
with their progeny by sending their sons and siblings and savings to us for
another summer ("A" for alliteration).  So, I'm out promoting camp, right?  So,
it's weekends around the region, long stretches on the road, usually a familiar
face or two at each destination, and a lot of time to think.


So, an amazing thing happened to me on this, my first trip.  I left camp about 4:00
in the afternoon last Thursday, heading west to St. Louis, on my way to K.C.
and Des Moines.  It was the beginning of a 1300 mile trek, probably the longest
weekend trip of the year.  So, I'm westbound on I-70, around Terra Haute at
5:30 P.M., and the sun is setting right into my eyeballs.  So, I pull down the
visor and focus on the few yards of highway I can see between it and the dash. 
It was a beautiful fall day and Indiana was breathtakingly technicolored.  So,
about a hour goes by when I decide to raise the visor and see if there is a
world out there beyond the highway immediately in front of my bumper.  That's
when it happened.


As I raised the visor, I was confronted, no, surprised by a most magnificent
sunset.  While hidden behind my visor it had spread its pinks and reds across
the entire horizon.  In and of itself, this sunset was remarkable, but my
immediate response to the surprise gift of seeing it is what lingers in my
mind.  I would have expected the first words to jump into my mind to be, "Holy
cow," or "Wow," but my mood had moved me to a different place.  My first
thoughts at that moment (I kid you not) were the words, "Ma'ariv Aravim,"
("...who makes the evening fall").  It's from the prayer we say each evening,
"Baruch Ata Adonai Ha Ma'ariv Aravim."  " Blessed are you Adonai, who makes the
evening fall."  That I should respond to the sudden beauty before me with a
prayer, in an almost automatic kind of way, was as eye-opening as the sight
itself.


So, I watched the reds become purples and the blues blacken.  I thought of
another line, this from the morning T'filla,"... Michadesh B'chol Yom Tamid
Ma'asey B'raysheet," "...Who renews daily the acts of creation."  These were
the words in my heart at that particular moment in time, expressing my feelings
of gratitude for the gift of that beauty. 

                          
So, for 45 minutes, while evening became night and headlights replaced the
sunset, I thought about these prayers and how naturally they came to me there
in the front seat of my Pontiac; and how real they felt.  I decided that my
liturgical response made me happy.  It was like the first time I responded to a
question in Hebrew, without having to think in English.  The Hebrew had become
a part of me; so had the prayer.


So, now it's on to various parts of our camp region, north, south, east, and
west.  With long stretches of highway before me, jazz and cups of coffee for
companions, and lots of time to think.


Ron

Wednesday, September 1, 1993

"So, How Was the Summer?"

                                                                                                    

                                                                                          September, 1993


Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:


I often wonder what people expect me to say when they ask, "So, how was the
summer?"  Do they really expect me to answer that?  The fact is, I can hardly
remember what the summer was like.  I know that camp was full, and that it
rained for the first five weeks of the summer.  That everyone at camp worked
incredibly hard and that spirit was high.  That the summer came and went in a
blur (as I get older, they seem to get blurrier and blurrier).  Kids went to
the emergency room, kids had fun, kids learned, kids made friends, some grew up
a lot, some a little, some fell in love, some didn't.  It was a summer of life,
intense life.


We were touched by two profound tragedies this summer.  Five of our staff
members left camp to attend a fraternity brother's funeral in St. Louis.  I
believe it must have been like an episode of "The Twilight Zone" for them to
leave camp, participate in such a difficult and emotionally draining
experience, and then to return to camp and assume the posture of counselor or
unit head.  I am often surprised at the strength and maturity of our staff.


Two days after OVFTY Institute ended, we received the news of Josh Lerner's
death.  As you may know, Josh was one of our kids; camper, Avodahnick, staff
member.  Even though we knew it was coming, it was crushing news.  The events
of the summer so paled in comparison to the magnitude of these tragedies, that
it is hard for me to recall much of what happened prior to going to Chicago for
Josh's funeral.  I will tell you this though, about thirty camp staff people
came to the funeral.  It was a completely gut-wrenching experience.  But
watching our staff comfort each other, and care for each other, filled me with
a sense of pride.  I was proud of them, and, to be honest, I was proud of the
work we are doing.  Their love for each other told the story of camp.  At the
most difficult of times, they were the best that a family can be; a Jewish
family, sometimes at each other's throats, but never-the-less there for each
other when the chips are down.  Through the tears, it was a beautiful thing to
see.


So, that's how the summer was.  And now we turn to 1994/5754.  I wish you all
the best for a Shannah Tova.  How has the year started?  The Bears are 0 and 2;
things can only get better.


Ron

Monday, February 1, 1993

Tempering Sadness

                                                                                              February, 1993


Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:


Sometimes, in the midst of saddness, comes a blessing.  Early this morning, I
was distracted from my grumbling at a particularly miserable shower of snow and
sleet and ice, by the loud chirping of a beautiful female cardinal, perched in
our front yard tree.  She just sat in all of that cold and wet and sang her
heart out.  I was startled by her beautiful song.


Last month in Israel, on a rainy and cold afternoon, 45 professional U.A.H.C.
Youth Directors and I sat silently in a meeting room at Jerusalem's Yad V'Shem
Holacaust Memorial mezmorized by the words of a Survivor.  I venture to say
that every one of us had done "Shoah" programs in our camps and regions; and
that we had all brought in Holacaust Survivors to speak to our kids, probably
more than once.  We all knew the stories, had seen the films, understood the
history, etc.  But that afternoon it was different.  The woman who sat before
us spoke the unspeakable in a clear and unavoidable voice.  We were changed by
what we heard, turned inside-out emotionally.  Her voice, her words, her horror
will be with me.  As her 90 minutes came to an end, I wondered how the group
would respond.  Most in the group were younger than me; enthusiastic, creative,
sometimes sarcastic people.  How should such a group respond to this difficult
experience?  Any response seemed inappropriate.  I was touched by the fact
that, without any discussion or message, without any concensesus, we responded
in unison with complete silence.  We rose and silently left the room.  We
walked through the gardens outside individually and in small groups, but all in
silence.  Later, on the bus we returned to ourselves, to our group.  Everything
was the same, but each of us was a little different.


Sometime after returning to the States I received the devestating news that one
of my comnfirmation class students had been killed in an automobile accident. 
She was 14 years old.  I went to her funeral.  The next week I spoke to the
class about the fragility of life and the ideas in the book, "When Bad Things
Happen To Good People." 


So, you see, there have been some black clouds in the past few weeks.  But
every once-in-a-while you hear a bird, out in the sleet, singing sweetly, and
it makes you smile.  Two weeks ago, I was invited down to Bloomington, Indiana
to speak at Erev Shabbat services at the Reform synagogue.  We have many staff
and former staff members studying at Indiana University (including one very
special red head who shares my name, my finances, and my love).  When Yael
Splansky and David Burkman found out that I was coming down,they arranged a
little staff get-together at Yael's place after Temple.  I was happy to see
that about 25 of our kids showed up for services.  Their spirit and enthusiasm
had an immediate affect on the small congregation.  During the slide show after
services there were howls of laughter and constant chatter as these counselors
saw themselves and their campers and other friends on the screen.  You could
hardly hear the soundtrack.  I'm sure that presentation didn't bring in one new
camper, but it certainly was fun.

                                 
Afterwords, we all met at Yael's house for coffe and cake.  That's when the
magic happened.  As I look back on the evening it seems to me that were three
distinct segments to this unplanned and informal event.  At first we all sat in
the living room and swapped favorite, funny camp stories.  We heard about being
busted by Shmira, we laughed at unusual-camper tales, camp jokes, Machon
meetings, and on and on.  Next, we shifted gears and moved into the camp Jewish
geography segment of the evening.  People asked me about their former Unit
Heads and other long lost staff.  Everyone wanted to know how Marc Lerner was
doing in his new job, where Shirley Idelson had gone, had I heard from Arie
Cohen, Susie Moskiowitz, Mark Glickman, Sandford Kopnick, etc.  With the
mention of each name came another camp story.  They were funny and warm and
family-like.


Finally, late in the evening, after some staff had left, someone asked me about
my recent trip to Israel.  We began a lenghty discussion of Israel and her
current problems along with other Jewish issues.  We spoke of the problems of
secular vs. orthodoxy in Israel, of tradition vs. modernity in Reform
synagogues, of the status of Reform Judaism in Israel and the success of our
own U.A.H.C. Youth Division there, of the problems faced by female rabbis.  I
couldn't have planned a better Shiur if I had wanted to.  The discussion was
lively, the kids were interested, and I left feeling uplifted.  I walked into
Yael's place at 10:00 p.m. that night and left at 1:30 a.m. wondering where the
three and a half hours had flown to.  Those kids gave me a boost just when I
neded it the most.


This morning, when that cardinal caught my attention, I thought of that evening
with my staff.  Sometimes in the midst of saddness comes a blessing.


Ron

Wednesday, January 20, 1993

My Israel

                                                                                                       January 1993

Dear GUCI Staff:


Twenty-four years ago this month I began a short, but illustrious career as a schoolteacher in an inner city Chicago school.  I had just graduated from the University of Illinois and faced the jungles of either Vietnam or Chicago.  I taught (refereed, de-armed, self-protected etc.) and learned to love some of the poorest Black and Hispanic and Greek kids on Chicago’s West Side.  Emmet School, once almost completely Jewish, now a crockpot of minorities, was a typical three-story, red brick, Chicago elementary school, K through 8.  I taught everything from Kindergarten to Library to Gym to eighth grade and used every camp technique I could possibly conjure up.  It was an experience!  In any event, I left in June for camp (the Oconomowoc, Wisconsin variety) and this is where my story really begins.

That summer of 1969 I was both a Unit Head and Waterfront Director; we often had to double up on jobs in those days as we were always short staffed.  I didn’t care about doing two jobs.  If there had been 30 hours in a day, I would have worked 25 of them for camp and been happy as a pig in ----.  This was the summer before Jerry Kaye, the present Director of Olin-Sang-Ruby, came on to the picture.  Rabbi Allan Smith was the acting Director.  That was the summer that I decided to become a camp director, and based on that thought Smitty convinced me to go and study in Israel at Machon Hayim Greenberg at the end of camp.  Incorrectly thinking that my teaching contract would not be renewed, I went.  Three days after saying “Yes” I was on a Greyhound bus bound for NYC and a date with El Al.  What freedom! 

That year in Israel was the start of many things for me.  I learned a lot of Hebrew, began a love/not-love relationship with the land of our ancestors, and met a Brazilian girl named Juelci Zeltzer – the infamous Juca.  We were young, Israel was young, and it was a hell of a year.  I also had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  I spent an afternoon with David Ben Gurion, on his kibbutz, Sde Boker.  We drank coffee together (he drank tea) and talked about Israel and Aliyah.  I never understood why he smiled so when I told him I was from Chicago, some warm memory came to his mind, I guess. 

 I returned in June, an engaged man, about to become the Assistant Director of Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, on my way to family and career.

Three years later, Juca and I spent another year in Israel, this time as a rabbinic student studying at the Hebrew Union College.  We once again returned in June, went straight to camp for the summer, and anticipated another monumental adventure; Juca was six months pregnant.  Jeremy made his debut in Cincinnati the following October, during the Yom Kippur war. 

Since those days I’ve been to Israel two more times.  In December 1979 I led a group of 36 college kids on a one-month trip of touring and kibbutz living.  Jim Bennett and Joel Block were first year HUC students that year and we spent much time together.  My last time in Israel was in 1987, for just a week to interview Israelis for our camps’ staffs.  Sandford was a first year rabbinic student then and hosted me around the city of Jerusalem.

In all these years, Jerusalem has had its own particular kind of tug at my heart.  So many important events in my life and so many important people in my life are intimately connected with the times I spent there.  Why am I telling you all this?  Well tomorrow I embark on a ten day UAHC staff trip to Israel, and I am filled with feelings of nostalgia, excitement, and anticipation.  I feel like I am going home, but to a strange place, if you can understand that.  My first time there I turned 24, this time I’ll celebrate number 47.  Then I was a kid, now I’m not.  But still, I feel a rush, a sense of butterflies, an anticipation of the familiar and unknown all rolled up in one.  It’s about the way I feel each year in the beginning of June, as I approach another camp season.  I’m going back to the future to touch base with my identity.  It is sure to be an exhausting and emotional trip.  I’ll be traveling with Josh Bennett, Jim’s younger brother.  That somehow seems most appropriate to me.

I wish you all the best for a wonderful 1993.  I’ll let you know how the hummus is on Rehov Ben Yehudah.

Ron