“You’ve always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.” – Glinda the Good Witch
Imagine if you will, that my youngest daughter, Hannah, is a little like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. She leaves Kansas, (or Alpharetta, GA) for a mythical wonderland of Oz (or Camp Ramah Darom). Hannah sings and dances with her friends and follows the advice of the good witch. She meets the Scarecrow (knowledge), the Tin Man (heart) and the Lion (courage). Fortunately for her, her cabin doesn’t land on a bad witch and she doesn’t have to deal with any creepy flying monkeys (mostly just a few bugs).
I am Hannah’s Mom and this is a story about her experience at Camp this summer. Her path along the yellow brick road, like Dorothy and her friends, enabled her to become more knowledgeable, adventurous and confident.
A bit about the lead character in our story, Hannah.
Like most 9-year-olds, Hannah was excited and nervous about spending a month in a bunk this summer. She has an outgoing personality and can also be very sensitive. She is an enthusiastic young lady, fiercely loyal, passionate and determined to figure out this big amazing world. Well, most of the time. Hannah is dyslexic and can be very self-conscious about reading and writing in front of other kids her age.
Enough character development, back to our story…
Dorothy arrives in Oz, an enchanted place with a magical Good Witch (or in our case wizard, Camp Director, Geoff Menkowitz). Geoff creates a space at Camp that is safe, cheerful and truly unique. Our Ramah Darom wizard oversees so many magical things. He knows the wittiest Camp stories, the silliest Camp legends, the coolest Camp trails, all the crazy Camp dances, and is the caretaker of the sacred Camp clock. To most, the Camp clock looks like an ordinary wall clock. But at Camp Ramah Darom, it’s symbolic of the beginning and end of Camp. At the beginning of each session, we turn the clock back one hour to camp-time. Yep, Camp has its own time zone.
The next character that Dorothy meets in Oz is the Scarecrow, who wishes he had a brain. Hannah, of course, has a brain full of incredible knowledge, creative thoughts and magnificent stories. Sometimes, however, she needs to be reminded of these gifts. At Ramah Darom the staff is trained to help campers build confidence and skills. There are many amazing specialists and educators on staff, one of them being the Rosh Yehadut, Devorah Lowenstein.
Devorah is a kind, patient, imaginative and talented teacher, and leader. One of the ways her guidance was seen this summer involved the Torah reading program. At Ramah Darom, any camper or counselor (who desires) to learn to read Torah is given the opportunity. In some aidot (age groups), groupings of young boys and girls learn to read Torah together and share the honor. When Hannah expressed a desire to read Torah, Devorah took her on as a student and taught her with grace and enthusiasm. The morning Hannah read from the Torah she was bursting with pride, and so was I. I couldn’t believe what she had learned in such a short amount of time. Here was our daughter, in front of about 100 kids, counselors and adults, reading in Hebrew. Hannah told us the story of the Parsha, the funny trope sounds, and how it “really wasn’t that hard” to learn. She also mentioned how she can’t wait to read again next summer. I am so grateful to Devorah for inspiring Hannah to fulfill the mitzvah of reading Torah and helping further solidify her Jewish identity.
Dorothy moves further down the yellow brick road and meets the Tin Man, who thinks he needs a heart. Hannah has a huge heart, one that cares passionately and deeply. She loves the world and all it contains, but not necessarily when it comes to the outdoors, (and Camp is a lot of outdoors). In comes our friendly Assistant Director, Rachel Dobbs Schwartz from stage right.
Rachel loves Camp with a wholehearted enthusiasm that is contagious. It is so obvious, it explodes out of her when she talks about the camping trips, climbing wall, art program, sports offered, swimming and boating, hiking, etc. Talking to Rachel about Camp is like talking to a kid about candy. Her eyes light up, her face glows with excitement and she can barely get her words out fast enough. As a member of Rachel’s staff, I can honestly say it’s so rewarding to work for someone who loves their job as much as Rachel and it’s contagious.
The specialists at Camp, who work for, and with Rachel, inspire kids to learn and grow, to seek and find and to flourish and blossom. And they do! Hannah, who loves indoor activities like ballet, tap and jazz and prefers to pick her produce from the grocery store, is now a gardener, a camper, an outdoor volleyball player and a milker of goats. She found her love of nature at Camp and a newfound love of camping. (She’s currently trying to convince my husband to try tent camping for the first time. Hey, miracles do happen!)
The last character we meet along the yellow brick road is the Lion. The Lion is afraid. He’s nervous. He’s anxious. He lacks courage and confidence. Hannah’s educational path has been difficult and as a result, she lacks courage and confidence. She can fake it with the best of them, but at her core she has a lot of anxiety. In comes our supporting lead character, Dr. Audra Kaplan, Director of Camp Care and Tikvah Support Program. Audra and her team have helped to create a truly inclusive Camp community where all campers are set up for success. Camper care at Ramah Darom isn’t one phone call or one conversation. It’s flexible, adaptable and consistent and happens with parents, campers, counselors, yoetzim (parent liaisons) and Camp leadership. Thanks to all the amazing staff at Ramah Darom, Hannah found confidence and courage this summer.
Hannah may not have worn ruby red slippers or a blue checkered dress, but like Dorothy, this summer’s Camp experience was truly transformative. She was away from home, she overcame obstacles, she met some life-changing people along the way and she learned that somewhere over the rainbow, dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
And, she is already signed up for next summer.
Carla Birnbaum lives in Johns Creek, GA with her husband, Scott and daughters, Isabella (11) and Hannah (9) and dog, Ginger. She just finished her 5th summer at Camp Ramah Darom, where she works as Rosh Gan and helps with staff training and development. She was originally hired in 1997 for Drama staff, where she was given the opportunity to cast all 75 Nitzanim campers in various roles in the Wizard of Oz, the aidah play that summer. The memories of that experience (and the songs) have stayed with her throughout her life and she was glad to be able to sing them again this summer with the Kochavim 1st session campers, who performed the Wizard of Oz for camp.