Remembering Sim Jacobs

Fred Levick5.4.21
A few weeks ago, I lost an old friend, and our camp community lost one of the legendary figures from the formative years of Ramah Darom, Sim Jacobs.

I call Sim a friend but I must admit I feel a sense of guilt about having drifted away from Sim since 2003, the last summer he was on the camp staff. The last time I saw him was quite a few years after that when he visited Darom one weekend to see his sons Marc and Bobby. The later years of his life were hard on Sim; he suffered from a variety of health ailments and he got in a hole and couldn’t find his way out. And while it was easier and more comfortable for me to keep at a distance, when I heard he had passed away I regretted that I had done nothing to try and help lift him up. That’s the terrible toll of depression; we often feel reluctant to get involved and then we feel like helpless bystanders when it ravages people we care about. There ought to be a better way.

But I don’t want to remember Sim in this way, because the Sim I remember was so much more than his difficult final years. Those who were in camp during the “Sim years” from 1998-2003 will know, but I want those who were not there to appreciate how much Sim meant to Ramah Darom and how much Ramah Darom meant to Sim.

One of the hallmarks of every Ramah and every great camp is to have a remarkable assemblage of adults who, besides filling important staff functions, serve as role models for the entire camp community. This was especially true of Ramah Darom during the early years. Apart from the year-round camp staff, this group included Laurel “Dafna” Robinson, Joel(z”l) and Amy Wasser, Cathy Berkowitz, Randy and Michelle Konigsburg, Dick and Randy(z”l) Friedman, Eli Havivi, Larry and Sandie Ivers, Iva Morris, Jill Tomar, Michelle Wolf, Lisa Wolfson, Amy Margolis, Risa Attermann, Saundi Shapiro, Shari Geller, Rona Axelrod, Beth Socol, Elissa Leavitt, Hinda and Jack Rosenbaum, Penny Goldstein, Dan Rosenberg, Sharona Rubinstein, Jeremy and Lisa Gaies, Sally Laliberte, Paul Wallach, Jimmy Krell, Sandy Herman, Susan Tecktiel, and a few others I’ll need to ask for forgiveness for leaving their names out. And at the center of this group were Sim and Orly Jacobs.

Sim was an iconic figure in our Ramah Darom summer community. He was Rosh Sport and then served as Rosh Chadar Ochel (Dining Hall), but he made his mark as the logistics marvel who mastered the challenge of getting close to 200 campers and their luggage to and from the airport twice each summer every year. If ever there were some difficult tasks to be done, one could always count on Sim to handle them.

He loved to play games. He loved being with people. He was a great scrabble player; he knew all the two-letter words. He was the only one I knew who could go toe to toe with the great Pearl Spielman, Effie’s mom of blessed memory, who was the most competitive scrabble player I’ve ever seen. He loved playing cards, although his game didn’t match his proficiency at Scrabble. Once, at our regular post-havdallah poker game in the mirpesset (porch) in the Mountainside Hotel (formerly known as the Retreat Center), I saw Sim lose a game with a hand of five kings. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He didn’t always have the greatest mazel.

You couldn’t help but notice Sim in camp; he was a burly 6’4” gentle giant with a bald head that made him look like a professional wrestler; he could look scary (and I have no doubt that the campers gave him respect) but his intimidating looks were belied by a sweet smile and a deep, infectious laugh that would begin in his belly and rock the ground beneath him. He was always in the thick of things, a large and huge-hearted presence who would go out of his way to make people feel welcome.

He and Orly shared what could only euphemistically be referred to as a ‘two-bedroom’ “Dog House” with Dafna Robinson, Rosh Omanut (Art). Sitting on the Golan Heights, across from the old Gan and Bunks 5-6, the “Dog House” was one of the oldest and most decrepit of camp buildings, and got its name because Dafna, Sim and Orly were among the first staff members (along with Jan Blumenfeld, the Camp Business Manager, who brought her pet Reggie), to have dogs in camp. Dafna’s first dog was Nyx, a border collie; Sim and Orly had Rocky, a boxer. When Rocky passed away, Sim and Orly got another boxer and brought him to camp. He named him Fred, after me, because Sim, ever the joker, wanted to be able to yell out to his dog, “Fred, stop taking a dump on the kikar.”

One Shabbat, Sim and Dafna had Shmirah duty and their responsibility was to see that the counselors were in their tzrifim (cabins) at night. They took their dogs with them as they went from cabin to cabin. While making their rounds, Rocky took off into the woods, and Nyx followed. Dafna yelled after Nyx who came back immediately, but Rocky did not. After about ten minutes of Sim yelling, Rocky returned, proudly smelling like the skunk who had just sprayed him. Sim had heard that tomato juice was effective in getting rid of skunk smell, so he went to the Chadar Ochel to find some, only to return with a big squeeze bottle of ketchup in lieu of juice. Rocky went in the bathtub for a ketchup shampoo and came out smelling like skunk, ketchup and shampoo, but mostly like skunk. That evening they might as well have renamed the Dog House the Skunk House. Later on, Sim found a computer to look up how to remove skunk odor from Rocky. Every website said, “Contrary to popular opinion, tomato juice doesn’t work.” Sim went back to work to concoct an antidote for skunk smell from baking soda, vinegar, and dish soap, but for the rest of the summer, Rocky smelled a bit like skunk.

I mentioned that Sim could appear intimidating. The Dog House was set back from the narrow road that passed by Bunks 11-12 and ended at Bunks 9-10, and people often turned vehicles around by pulling onto the dirt area in front of the Dog House. One evening Sim was very tired and went to bed early, when a counselor got his car stuck in the mud in front of the Dog House while trying to execute a three-point turn. Other counselors came to assist and the more they pushed, the closer the car came to sliding into the porch of the cabin. So Dafna reluctantly woke Sim, who was none too happy. He got dressed, stormed out of the cabin to the stuck car, ordered the driver to get out of the car, dislodged the car from the mud, drove it back onto the road and stormed right back into the cabin to go to bed.

From the back porch of the Dog House, Dafna, Sim and Orly could see the stream in Makom Kochavim. Sometimes there would be campers playing in the water where they were not allowed. Sim would yell in his booming voice, “This is G-d! Get out of the stream!” Startled and scared, the kids would immediately jump out of the water, looking around but never figuring out the source of the voice.

Then there was the Shabbat the teen-aged son of one of our nurses told his Mom in passing that he didn’t like camp and was going home. Thinking little of it she went on with her Mah Jong game and several hours later noticed he wasn’t around. Rabbi Sykes quickly invoked the “missing camper protocol,” and the team, of which Sim was a key member, sprung into action. Sim got in his truck with Larry Ivers and rode slowly down Persimmon Road towards Clayton. When they reached the end of Persimmon Road, seven miles from camp, they turned right on US76 and there was the camper walking by the side of the road. Sim pulled alongside him and rolled down the window. “Where are you going?” Sim asked. “I’m going home to Florida,” the camper replied. “You’re going in the wrong direction!” Sim barked. “GET IN THE CAR!” And he did without a word.

There was another time, during the first Passover retreat held at Darom in 2002, when we ran out of matzah, and Sim and I went to town on Easter Sunday to try and find some. We got in one of the brand-new buses the camp had just purchased, stopped first at Walmart and found a couple of boxes, threw them in the back of the bus and then proceeded to Ingles, which had promised to set some boxes aside for us when we called on Good Friday. We pulled up to Ingles and, it being Easter Sunday, the parking lot was completely empty. Sim and I went into the store where there was only a single employee staffing the entire store. We explained that we were there to pick up the matzah that the manager promised he would hold for us. “Matzah?” she said. “What’s that?”

“It’s like a cracker,” I said.

“Who makes it? Keebler?” she asked.

Realizing the difficulty of trying to explain “matzah” to her, we said “We’ll just look around; the manager said he would hold it. Maybe we can find it.” Then we proceeded to walk around. After searching all over the store, including in the back storage areas, for about ten minutes we returned to the front to report that we couldn’t find anything, and left. We did not give a thought to how it must have appeared to the employee, by herself in the big store, to see two large men with New York accents, casing Ingles looking for a mysterious cracker-like substance called matzah.

No sooner than we had boarded the bus and turned on the engine, a flashing blue light appeared behind us and a megaphoned voice said, “Get out of the bus!” It was a Clayton City Police patrol car. I got out of the bus.

“What were you doing in there?” the officer demanded.

“We were looking for matzah,” I said.

“Matzah? What’s that?” the officer asked.

Before I could utter the words “it’s like a cracker” again, Sim, who was sitting in the front seat of the bus listening in, shouted out “show him the box! Show him the box!”

I opened the back door to the bus and pulled out one of the boxes we had purchased from Walmart.

“Ooooh, matzah,” the policeman said. “Have you tried Bi-Lo?” And with that he let us go.

That was scary Sim, but those who knew Sim adored him for his kindness and gentleness, his jolly nature and his warm heart. During his camp years, Sim worked during the year as the Director of Operations for the David Posnack Jewish Day School in Fort Lauderdale. Sim loved Jewish community, he loved Jewish children, he loved being a part of Ramah Darom and he loved helping people. He was his happiest at camp, he was at his best when people needed him, and when he served as Rosh Chadar Ochel at camp he found a niche where he could be at his best.

He was famous for his peanut sauce, a secret guarded formula that was the basis of a classic Shabbat meal of peanut noodles, grilled chicken and Caesar salad that was a treasured favorite in the dining room. Geoff Menkowitz told me that when he visited the Jacobs family at their home in Plantation, Sim made homemade falafel for him and was very serious about his schug. That was Sim in a nutshell, ever seeking to be the consummate host, to make people around him welcome. In his unique way, he typified what the Ramah Darom community is all about.

There’s an old Bob Dylan song, “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” in which he falls asleep and dreams about the “first few friends” he had. “I wish, I wish, I wish in vain,” he sings, “that we could sit simply in that room once again. Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat; I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.”  Those who have experienced Ramah Darom in the summer will understand the tremendous bonds that develop from spending time together in the vibrant and intense cycle of daily life in the camp community. What I would give to spend an evening in camp kibbitzing with friends, laughing about the zaniness of camp, and reveling in each other’s company. What I would give to hear Sim’s laughter again. Camp. Laughter. Joy. That’s how I will think of Sim.

I will miss Sim Jacobs. His memory will forever be intertwined with my most sacred memories of Ramah Darom. May it be for a blessing.

Note: Special thanks to Dafna Robinson for sharing her memories and her love for Sim with me.

Simeon Jacobs passed away April 14, 2021. A loving father and grandfather, Sim leaves behind Bobby (Alana) and Marc (Rivkah Kranz), their mother Orly Jacobs and a cherished granddaughter, Mara.