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(You Gotta) Accentuate the Positive and Eliminate the negative...

Pay no attention to the number by the month.  Here's a good thought for the New Year.  Shannah Tovah. Ron                        ...

Tuesday, November 1, 1994

Camp Turns 40

                                                                                                             November 1994

Dear GUCI Staff:

I have always enjoyed looking ahead to the coming summer.  It’s exciting to begin hiring staff, planning programs, even planning the physical renovations and repairs needed for the impending arrival of the little (and not-so-little) nippers.  But, with an eye-and-a-half on the future, it seems that I always cast that additional half-an-eye on the past.  I started thinking about this on a recent trip I made to Toronto.  I traveled there with Jonah Stroh who is my son’s age and certainly of the current generation of camp staff.  On the long ride up north, we talked at great length about various programs and procedures at camp, and I benefited from hearing his perceptions.  This was all “Future” talk, and was the beginning of much that will become reality when June 1995 rolls around.  But that Saturday morning at Temple Har Zion, both before and after the regular religious school camp presentations, I was touched by some of camp’s recent history. 

Har Zion has had a long history in our camp, and many of its sons and daughters served on our staff during my early days as Director, during the mid-1970’s. (Danny and Beth Gottlieb and a few others got the ball rolling while I was still Unit Heading up in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin).  Camp still means a great deal to those former GUCI staff members.  I was touched because several went out of their way to show up that morning just to say hi, give me a hug, and show off the future generation of campers they had produced.  While looking toward the success of the camp’s future, its past reached out and gave my heart a little tug.

Forty summers have now passed since the Union of American Hebrew Congregations founded its camping program.  In 1954 Union Institute, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin held its first summer program.  Three years later Union Camp Institute opened its gates in Zionsville, Indiana.  Is it possible that the men and women who pioneered this camping movement had any idea of the impact it would have on future generations of Reform Jews?  I certainly had no idea of what would lie ahead for me when I arrived on the scene at Union Institute with a duffel bag in one hand and a baseball mitt in the other during the summer of 1958.  How could I have foreseen that thirty-seven years later I would be writing to you about the history and the future of our camps?  Everyone should have the good fortune to be able to do this kind of time warp again (take a step to the left and then a step to the ri-yi-yi-yi-yi-ight).

So, on the ride back from Toronto, I couldn’t help thinking about all the thousands of hearts our camps have touched during these forty summers.  How many first loves, how many deeply Jewish identifying moments, how many invaluable conversations between campers, staff, rabbis, and educators, and how many lives enhanced by what we do and who we are.  And more important, how many are yet to come to camp in the next forty years, and how important the experience will be for them as well.

Last weekend, the Great Lakes Region honored Gerry Kaye for his twenty-five years as Director of Olin-Sang-Ruby.  It is a warm Mazal Tov that goes out to Gerry from each of us who has shared in the history of our camps; we, who have touched others and been touched ourselves.  Here’s to the future, L’Chayim!


P. S. GADOL: Our annual fund-raiser is underway, this year raising money for the renovations to our tennis and basketball courts.  Whatever contribution you can make will be greatly appreciated.  Thank you.

Thursday, September 1, 1994

G.U.C.I. Is Home


                                                                                           September 1994

Dear GUCI Staff:

I write you this letter as the holiest time of our year approaches (the second holiest time being mid-June thru mid-August).  The ten days starting with Rosh Ha Shanah and culminating with the beautiful Ni’ilah service on Yom Kippur afternoon are deemed to be a time for intense reflection, self-evaluation, and dedication to improving our lives and relationships in the new year.  This time period is traditionally called the Days of Awe, and is to be taken seriously.

This year, my own personal days of awe have been extended, stretched to the limit.  They began last December when I was called to New York to discuss my leaving Goldman Union Camp and becoming the new Associate Director of the UAHC Youth Division.  I hadn’t been thinking about leaving camp.  Never-the-less this opportunity plunked itself down in my lap and began several months of reflection and introspection.  The idea of directing the entire country’s Reform youth program was very appealing.  The timing was right.  I accepted the job and set about preparing myself emotionally to say good-bye to my twenty years as Director of our camp and OVFTY.  The summer came and went with all of its intensity and diversity.  My friends and colleagues, campers and staff embarrassed me with their thanks and good wishes, even gifts and contributions in my honor.  Yet, I must admit that there was something unreal about what was happening, something not quite right.  I really busied myself with the work of camp to insulate myself from the hard reality of the finality of the summer.

My days of awe came to a crashing conclusion this week, a few days before the “real” ones are supposed to begin.  Juca and I traveled to New York.  While we were there and upon our return it was becoming clear that all was wrong where it should have been right.  All of the emotions came to the surface, pushing away the clouds that began covering my eyes last winter and dimmed my vision throughout the summer.  Last Friday night it all became clear to me.  This is my home, this is where I belong, and this is where I do my best work.  I am a Camp Director and a Rabbi.  GUCI is my home, it is my congregation.  It has a deep hold on my heart.

At 10:00 PM last Friday night; I officially notified my supervisor that I was turning down the offer for the new position.  I will remain the Director of our camp and OVFTY.  A great weight was lifted.  I learned so very much this year about myself and what’s really important.  My inability to see the light in a timelier manner has caused some grief to some people.  For that I am truly sorry.  It was never my intent.  But now that I have come to this understanding, I rejoice with my family as these extended days of awe conclude, and we anticipate the beginning of the next ten Days of Awe on Monday evening.

I’m sure I’ll write more about his as the year proceeds.  For now, I wish you and your families a Shanah Tovah, all the best in 5755.  And, I’m happy to say that I’ll see you at camp next summer.


Friday, April 1, 1994


                                                                                                  April 1994

Dear GUCI Staff:

When I was a kid I used to say, “Don’t bother me with questions about God.  It doesn’t matter to me.  I’m a Jew.  I do Jewish things and have Jewish feelings, and that’s enough.”  But as I’ve grown older it has become not enough.  Let me phrase it differently.  I have come to the realization that the first sentence of my above quote is unrealistic, immature, and not even very Jewish.  It is unrealistic because as human beings with intellect, we naturally need to wonder about the forces in our lives, to question from where we have come, and to try to make sense of the meaning of life (more personally, the meaning of our own lives).  It is immature because it eliminates the challenge of confronting the unknown.  It stops short any search through unsettling, insecure, and even uncomfortable territory.  And finally, as Jews we are commanded, in the first of the Big Ten (I’m sure even Bobby Knight would acknowledge that there is an even bigger ten than the one here in the Midwest) that Adonai is God, the one, and that there are no other gods but Adonai.  That there is Adonai is clear in the Ten Commandments and all other Jewish writings.  And so, Jews must confront the idea of Adonai.  But the texts fail to make clear for us what exactly Adonai is.

I think that within the non-definition of Adonai lies both the beauty and the frustration of our Jewish heritage (read religion).  Judaism’s wisdom understands that belief in God is a personal process.  To define God for us waters down the quest and leaves each of us to either accept or deny someone else’s god concept.  We Jews are compelled to wrestle, as did each of ancestors from Jacob to Spinoza, with our own personal definition of God when we read the sentence, “I am Adonai,” and our relationship to God as reflected in the ending of that sentence, “Your God.”  But therein also lays the great frustration, not being told what God is.  We all know how comforting it is for members of other religions who are taught from childhood what God is, and what happens in heaven etc.  Comforting, IF YOU CAN BUY IT!   I’m glad that Judaism understands human skepticism and encourages this personal quest for understanding and belief.  But it does leave us without much comfort.

I have been accused several times of being a rabbi (I admit it) and therefore knowing the answers (I think not).  Many people think that rabbis necessarily believe in God and have arrived at conclusions.  I can attest to the fact that that is not always the case.  Rabbis, sometimes more than other people, are simply travelers along the path of understanding and believing.  The path is a bumpy one, and not all steps move us forward.  But to consider, and ponder, and think about God, we must.  The commandment is for all Jews, it even includes Rabbis.

With all the above said, I must tell you that I believe in God yet have no clear definition of the word.  Rather than being able to define or describe my personal concept of God, I feel that life has brought me closer to an approach to God.  What I mean is that I have had many, many experiences that leave no doubt in my mind and heart that there is God.  But as the philosophers maintained, to define God is to limit God.  Language itself is too narrow a tool.  How can one describe a feeling, an inspiration, even a mood?  But I do feel that I have encountered God and been touched by the divine presence.  I distinctly remember at the time of the births of both my sons, soon after the death of my grandfather, feeling the divine order of things, wondering at the miracle of life, not just birth, but life itself.  And I do recall the feeling of being blessed with the opportunity to witness and to hold and feel new life, while appreciating and loving the life that ended at that same time.  Perhaps it was the order of it all that made me think of Adonai.  Or, perhaps it was the potential of the new life, the good that just might emerge from those babies as they made their way in the world that touched me in a religious way.

There was power in those moments for me, as there have been at other times, in Israel, here at camp, at home.  I think of God when I see a child smile, or am moved by a piece of music, or think of love, kindness, and goodness.  I feel that when we do good things for each other, when we make each other’s lives richer or easier, when we exchange ideas and create, we are doing godlike things.  I understand that humans have the absolute choice to be the opposite of godlike as well.  But our heritage demands that we choose good over evil and therefore strive to be “Kadosh.”  The things we teach here at camp, the lessons we learn from our parents and rabbis, they are not just words, but are words to live by.  So perhaps God is that ideal for which we strive to uplift our lives.  Remember the words of the song, “Like God we think, like God we feel, like God we love.”

What then, you might ask, is prayer all about?  One cannot pray to an ideal, or a potential, or an uplifting sort of force, can one?  For me (remember, these ideas are personal) prayer is time set aside.  It is designated time to consider these lofty matters, to reflect, to appreciate, to connect.  Judaism is a discipline that requires us to set time aside for these important activities.  Prayer helps me connect with myself, my people, my world, and therefore, God.  Sometimes I wish God were an old man on a throne so that I could argue with him, be angry with him, reject him.  But that would be too easy.  It would remove the responsibility of being godlike from us, and that cannot be.  So, I will continue to wrestle with these ideas, and, in doing so, feel very Jewish.

I hope you disagree with many of the things I have written here.  To do so is to engage the ideas, to confront what is in your own mind and heart, to join the search.  I also hope that you will keep in mind that I am just like you, somewhere wandering along the path of life and understanding, trying to make heads or tails of it all (and of course, just in case there is someone listening, praying for the Bears to make the playoffs).


Tuesday, March 1, 1994


                                                                                                                     March 1994

Dear GUCI Staff:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my Uncle Roy Levy.  He wasn’t really my uncle; I just called him that.  He was my father’s best friend.  Roy and Arnie (my dad) grew up together in Chicago and remained the closest of friends for over fifty years.  The two of them were like night and day, personality-wise, but so enjoyed each other’s sense of humor and companionship.  They were inseparable, and I might add, lucky to have each other. 

The Talmud teaches us that a good friend is a treasure more valuable than gold.  As time marches on, I have come to understand that thought more and more.  It is so easy to make friends and have friends when you are in school or in camp, when you’re a kid.  But it is much harder when life separates you from people, by filling your time with career and family.  The funny thing is that, as with most things, we don’t appreciate what’s happening to us and around us until we miss it.  How many of us take our friendships for granted, almost as if they were guaranteed to us?  Then life takes us away from each other and we realize a loss.

As art imitates life, I think about many of the famous pairs of friends I’ve come to know through my television set and movie screen.  Norton and Kramdon, Stan and Ollie, Lucy and Ethel, Butch and Sundance, Dobie and Maynard, Thelma and Louise, Letterman and Schaefer, even Rocky and Bullwinkle live on through the years because of their special relationships.  Sure these characters entertain us as we laugh or cry at their particular trials and tribulations.  We relate to the stories they tell us in their weekly episodes, their humor and pathos.  But these couples really live on in our hearts because above all else they remain friends.  Their friendship is always stronger than the plot.  When all is said and done, and the credits roll, we know that the friendships live on.

I know that we are, for the most part, friendly people and, as such, cultivate many relationships.  But, how many really close friendships are we allotted in our lifetime?  Not too many.  I’m not talking about the “Hi, how are you, what’s new?” kind of friend.  I mean the person who really knows you, who you can count on, talk to about the real thinks, get mad at.  The person whose advice you listen to, whose opinion really counts.  How many of those never-ending, no-masks-needed-to-hide-behind friendships do we get in a lifetime?  We are lucky to have any, and indeed fortunate to have two or three.

So what’s this all about, this GUCI staff letter?  It’s about appreciating and going out of the way to continue cultivating that special friendship.  It’s about making that phone call or writing that letter, it’s about keeping the “Kesher,” the connection, it’s about being there for each other.  My dad and “uncle” were each, in their own way, a blessing to the other.  Hey, the greatest compliment anyone can give you is calling you their friend.  You can’t take that to the bank, but its value is beyond counting.  Be good to each other.


Tuesday, February 1, 1994

Camp Directors' Debate

                                                                                                            February, 1994

Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:

About a year ago all of the directors of our U.A.H.C. camps, along with the
leadership staff of our Youth Division engaged in a great debate over the
ethics of supplying our staffs with condoms at camp.  This debate took place at
one of our regular camp director meetings at which we usually discuss more
mundane things like budgets and insurance.  But this was a great "Sicha," in
which I was (also, as usual) on the minority side.  We were deciding camp
policy, so it was an important discussion.  The majority opinion held that
freely supplying condoms at camp, even through the privacy of the Mirpa'ah,
could be perceived in many ways as our encouraging, or at least condoning,
premarital sexual intercourse.  Of course, as a movement, and even as
individuals, that is not our message.  The minority view argued that we should
be realistic and realize that, regardless of message, many of our staff members
are sexually active, that these activities happen at camp, and so we should be
doing all that we can to ensure safe sex is being practiced.  That was my
opinion (along with a few others).  The final policy decision was that condoms
were not to be distributed by the camps.

I have no real argument with the policy.  It is what most felt is appropriate. 
I'm beginning to think that (as hard as this may be to admit) they were right
and I (heaven forbid) was wrong.  For me the issue is less one of image and
perception as it is one of doing what is right.  If we are perceived as being
too liberal (I sometimes am), that's OK.  We should be able to take the heat,
if we believe our actions are moral and "good for our kids."  In this
particular case, though, I am beginning to think that the, "They're going to do
it anyway" argument is secondary and not primary.  I am enclosing an editorial
by Paul Greenberg.  He has opened my eyes to the other side of the issue.  The
primary stance by parents, clergy, movements, etc. must be one that encourages
abstinence instead of reliance on a condom for protection from AIDS.  Please
read this important editorial.  Let me know what you think.  I need to hear
from you on this.

As Greenberg points out, many parents have said to their kids, "Don't drink!
But if you do, call us and we will pick you up."  Have you heard a statement
like that from your folks?  We don't want our kids to drink, but realize that
sometime they may, and the ultimate concern must be for our children's safety
and well-being.  Doesn't this apply to sexual activity as well?  As parents,
shouldn't we be telling our children the truth?  That the ONLY way to be really
safe is to refrain.  That even safe sex isn't completely safe.  That there is
value in the old morality of being with one partner in whom you have complete
confidence and trust.  That your life may be threatened by casual sex. 

Does the camp director have the same responsibility as the parent?  It is clear
to me that the camp director has even greater responsibilities than the
parents.  Why?  Because as leaders of religious institutes, we try to uphold
the highest of principles.  We are bound by the ethical, and can only assume
that our staffs' parents hold just as high an ethical stance.  In this condom
controversy our actions speak much louder than our words.  Yet, like that kid
who is not allowed to drink, but has the safety net of calling home for a ride
if he/she does, our kids should have access to condoms.  Neat dilemma, eh?

For those of us who grew up in the 60's, this sexual dilemma is ironic.  The
ultimate morality isn't changed, but the reasons for it have.  One could
maintain that sexual morality is always going to be high on the ethics hit
parade because it involves such universal values as love, commitment,
responsibility, etc.  But now, the stakes have been raised to the limit.  When
I was a kid, what scared the hell out of us was the realization that premarital
sex meant the possibility of creating a life; now it presents the possibility
of losing one.


Thursday, January 20, 1994

Be Good to Your Parents

                                                                                                                     January, 1994

Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:

The thought has often crossed my mind that these staff letters offer me an
opportunity that most adults never have, the chance to communicate with a
sizable group of young people.  Not that I am feeling old, even though tomorrow
is my birthday.  No, I don't feel old at all (well, not too old anyway), but in
these the last hours of my forty-seven-ness, I can safely announce that I am no
longer a "kid."  And yet, I am my mother's child and will always be so.  And I
am, more than ever, influenced by my father's words, which I hear in my mind
every day though they have not entered my ears for several years.

As I think back on my childhood I realize how little I was aware of the trials
and tribulations I presented to my parents.  Nor did I understand how invested
parents are in their children's lives.  I imagine this may be a new thought for
you as well.  Now that I am a parent (and have been for twenty years) I finally
understand it.  We parents can't help but take pride in our children's
accomplishments.  We also cannot help worrying to the "nth" degree about our
kids' problems.  Maybe part of the reason for this is the wonder of life. 
Given all of the great things a person may accomplish in his or her life, there
is nothing as awesome as giving life, as raising a child, as being a part of
the miracle.  And it is not just the miracle of birth; it's the miracle of life
and growing and thinking and loving.  All of it.

What I don't think I understood as a child is how scary it is as well.  Every
day we parents read and hear about the tragedies of life and think about all of
the ways things can go wrong.  As we grow older we understand too well how
frail and fragile we all are.  It scares us for our kids.

Parents of older kids walk a particularly difficult tightrope.  It is hard to
keep your balance between giving the freedom your child thinks he/she should
have, and exercising the authority that comes with the responsibility of being
a parent.  When to step in, and when not to, is often a tough call.  And kids
really cannot appreciate their parents' dilemma.  My dad used to say that when
he was eighteen years old he thought his father was the dumbest person in the
world.  But he also said that when he turned twenty-two he was amazed at how
much his father had learned in just four years.  As difficult as it is to grow
up, to be a teenager, to be someone's child; it is at least as difficult to be
a child's parent. 

Most parents come to understand that there are few right and
wrong answers to the questions that life throws us; but you do the best you
can, you love your kids, try to be a good person and teach them to be good too.

Pete Seeger once said that being a parent is the only job where one doesn't get
paid in dollars; rather, parents collect their salaries in the smiles they see
on their children's faces.  We can all be better sons and daughters.  Perhaps
we should give our parents a raise.  Add a hug to their paycheck.


Saturday, January 1, 1994

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf

                                                                                        January, 1994

Dear GUCI Staff:

Rarely does it happen that someone, in a few words, spoken privately, creates a moment that the listener remembers for a lifetime.  Perhaps you remember an encouragement you received from a mentor or role model; a sentence or two that remains in the mind and the heart.

These encounters may happen in the strangest of places, always best when unexpected.  Those of you who have been reading these ramblings for a long while may remember my relating just such an encounter between myself and my beloved, 95 year-old professor of American Jewish History, Dr. Jacob Marcus.  We exchanged memorable words to each other as we stood urinating next to each other in the downstairs Men’s room of the Plum Street Temple (this story is soon to reprinted in a future edition of the scholarly journal, “Historic Jewish Excretions”), a few moments before Sandford Kopnick became a “Rabbi in Israel” (the Israel job must have been filled as Sandford instead became a Rabbi in Chicago).  My point is simply, that one never knows when someone might hear something that will knock her/his socks off.

Last month, I had occasion to return to my home synagogue, B’nai Jehoshua-Beth Elohim, to celebrate its 100th anniversary.  Only five of its sons and daughters had entered the rabbinate, and were all invited back to participate in this historic Shabbat Service.  Also in attendance were, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (my ultimate boss), Rabbi Mark Shapiro, the spiritual leader of the congregation for the last 31 years, and Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, one of the former rabbis of the old B’nai Jehoshua (the temple of my youth).

Rabbi Arnold Wolf is an impish, genius of a man; a rabbi’s rabbi who had a profound impact on my life as I was growing up.  I came under his spell after he had left my congregation (he served there as rabbi during the time I celebrated my 6th through 10th birthdays).  It was later, throughout the summers of my camper and staff years at Union Institute camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, that I really got to know Rabbi Wolf.  You see, Arnie Wolf was no ordinary rabbi, he was a rebel.  He was a radical.  He challenged my every belief.  He made me think and question.  He was my teacher and the expander of my horizons.  And, so many times he made me laugh.  I hadn’t seen Rabbi Wolf in 20 years.  We met again that night when I returned to “BJBE” where I could still hear the voices of my father and grandfathers, my aunts and uncles and cousins; the tumult of my confirmation class and youth group.

Prior to the arrival of the 600 or so congregants who would gather for the Shabbat service, the special guests were invited to a small Shabbat dinner.  Before the meal I re-introduced myself to Rabbi Wolf.  When he heard my name he looked at me as if he couldn’t believe his eyes (I guess I’d grown up a bit).  His first words knocked off my right sock.  As if he had kept track of me all of these years, he said, “You created the perfect career for yourself.”  His eyes were bright.  He was proud of me, one of his long, lost, camp kids.  I smiled, but didn’t exactly understand what he meant and was about to ask, when he hit me with the second punch of this verbal one-two combination.  This one left me completely sockless.

Rabbi Wolf told me that even though his congregation was in Chicago, and that most of his kids attended Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, several of his temple children had come down to Zionsville.  He went on to say that each of those GUCI campers had returned telling tales of love and enthusiasm, for friends and Judaism.  He poked his finger at my tie (I was nicely dressed), leaned a little forward and proclaimed, “Ronnie, you’re really doing it!”
I said, “Rabbi, you taught me well in the early days of Union camping.”  But he wouldn’t hear of it.  His next words are the ones I will always hold dear.He said, “It was easy back then in the early 60’s.  Everyone was into it.  But you are really making it happen for our kids now- and it’s not happening in many places.”

He was almost immediately swept away by other guest who wanted to talk, reminisce, and laugh with this beloved rabbi.  I couldn’t get his compliment out of my head.  That Rabbi Wolf would even remember me, let alone appreciate my work, our work.  I must admit that, personally, the rest of the evening paled in the shadow of that moment.  I had made my rabbi proud; and he had made my decade.