At Ramah Darom there is a Wall of Honor, with the inscription “as my forefathers planted for me, so too I plant for my children.” The wall acknowledges men who played a substantial role in creating Ramah Darom, but the truth is that each of us who passes through Ramah Darom on our life’s journey has the opportunity to make a significant impact in shaping and sustaining Ramah Darom for future generations and to leave a lasting legacy.
The Wall is a symbol of the passion and commitment that is at the heart of what makes Ramah Darom special. As Jews and as Daromniks we know the central and sustaining power of our stories, and the blessing of institutional memory. The Wall is a reminder to forever remember and honor those we have met along the way, and those who have traveled in our footsteps before us; those who have perceptibly contributed to the richness of our holy place and community in ways that will live on for those yet to experience it.
One such person, Paul Rovin, passed away on Friday, February 17th from pancreatic cancer at the age of 68 in New York. There are no current campers who will know his name, and a scant few current staff members who do. Paul was a member of the art staff at Camp Ramah Darom from 2003 to 2012, and taught art classes during Passover Retreats in 2012, 2015 and 2016. Those who do remember Paul will know that he has left his own lasting legacy. His special presence continues to inhabit Ramah Darom.
Paul found his way to Ramah Darom by chance, when Dr. Leonard Schutz and his wife, Susan, from Spartanburg, South Carolina, invited Paul and his wife Laurie, and their children Hannah and Daniel, to join them for the 2003 Passover Retreat.
Dafna Robinson, the gifted artist who created Darom’s extraordinary art program and directed it for 20 years, was teaching art classes during the Passover retreat, and had been searching for an artist to teach woodworking at Camp when she met Paul at the retreat. Paul was a cabinet maker and former set designer and builder for Broadway theatre productions.
She asked him if he would be interested in teaching at Camp. Paul said, “I’ve never taught before, and I don’t know anything about teaching.” Dafna replied, “Don’t worry. The most important thing you need to know is to make sure no one cuts off a hand.”
Paul returned to Ramah Darom a few months later in June, 2003 for the first of his ten summers. It was at Camp Ramah Darom that Paul revealed himself to be a terrific teacher. He was not only a natural teacher, but he was also a creative genius. Together with Dafna and the cadre of talented and serious artists and teachers that she attracted to camp (including Dan Rosenberg, Penny Goldstein, Johanna Norry, Sharon Binder and Loren Stein), he helped the nascent Camp Ramah Darom quickly develop an identity and a deserved reputation for having the finest art program of any Jewish camp in the country.
Each year, usually in February, Dafna, Paul, and Dan would begin planning special art projects for the summer after getting direction from the Camp Director about the Camp’s needs. They would discuss projects and look at Jewish texts and sources for inspiration. Often, Paul and Dafna would pull out their sketchbooks, and sit on the porch of the Dog House (Dafna’s camp residence), drawing out design ideas that the campers would help build, assemble and decorate. One only needs to walk the campus to see many of the extraordinary and enduring works of art that were the fruits of this creative collaboration.
In 2003, Paul’s first summer, Rabbi Sykes wanted a Torah reading table for the Mirpesset Tefillah. To brainstorm, the team read about the construction of Solomon’s Temple, in 1 Kings 6. “For the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready at the quarry; and there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.” Accordingly, Paul designed a table to be built in “silence.”
First, as was his custom (no doubt developed during his days as a Broadway set designer/builder), he built a miniature scale model. He designed a table whose individual pieces could be crafted by campers in the wood shop. When they were done, they carried the pieces to the Mirpesset Tefillah, where they fit them together and assembled the table in silence, with “neither hammer….nor any tool of iron heard”; no nails, nor metal fasteners of any kind were used.
That was the first of the many beautiful and functional art projects created during Paul’s ten-year tenure. He taught the campers how to use the tools in the wood shop and guided them in building several Torah tables, hagbah chairs, Torah Arks, the Gesher Bridge (on the side of the Margam), Gan Randy (in memory of Randy Sturman, z”l), and three works that stick out in my mind, not only because of their magnificence, but also because each reveals a little bit about Paul. These are the eagle-winged Aron Chodesh in the Margam (overlooking the lake), the calendar bench (near the pizza oven patio), and the prayer book and ritual objects storage shed that sits beside the Bet Am. Inside this ordinary looking Dutch Barn is a beautiful replica of a 19th-century Polish Synagogue.
If you are standing close to the stunning eagle-winged Aron (note: it was so remarkable that a photo of it was selected to be in an annual United Synagogue calendar), you will see that it is adorned on the sides with the names of the campers who built it and the art staff members who taught the year it was built. Paul, the humble teacher, who instilled a sense of confidence, pride and accomplishment among his students, would insist that they be acknowledged and remembered for their work in perpetuity, by signing each piece they created. He reveled in the achievements of others, as if they were his own children.
Paul also had a playful and fanciful side; he liked to stretch boundaries and think differently. The summer Ramah Darom’s Camp Director asked for some benches where campers could sit outside the Chadar Ohel, Paul sat together with Dafna and Dan and said, “I’m tired of building things that are square. Let’s do something round.” He had a design idea for a rocket-ship looking structure, and he, Dafna and Dan transformed it into a circular bench, that was an elaborate functional calendar for determining the Jewish date, including the phases of the moon.
Then there was the Paul who had the faith to keep believing he could overcome challenges and figure out ways to make things work. Camp needed storage for prayer books, chumashim and ritual objects used at the Bet Am. That year, Dafna had been inspired by a book about Polish synagogues and imagined converting the inside of a storage shed into a mini-replica of one of those synagogues to store the books and objects. But there was an obstacle in the way; Dafna was scheduled to leave Camp for ten days to travel to Prague and she did not believe there would be enough time to complete the project during the summer. As she was about to leave, Paul looked at her and said, “I think I can figure it out,” and when Dafna returned from Prague, he had indeed figured it out and prepared everything needed to proceed and finish this spectacular work of art.
Paul, like many creative people, had demons; he had far more than his fair share of them. He struggled mightily with addiction and anger management issues; yet, like the inveterate New York Mets fan he was, he never stopped believing he could overcome them. As things unraveled for him, he moved to Los Angeles and checked into Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish addiction treatment center. At Beit T’Shuvah, he beat his addiction and conquered his anger issues. In the last years of his life, he moved back to New York and started working with his son Daniel at Toppy’s Garage, their woodworking business.
At a memorial service held in Greenville on February 26th, his son Daniel said, “The story isn’t the moments of anger, but the many things my Dad created, the perseverance he showed, the children he raised, the faith he kept, the many people whose lives he touched, and the lessons that he taught us – the good and the bad. So what is his legacy? His legacy is his creation, not his moments of weakness. There’s not a day that goes by that I will not continue to honor that legacy taking what he taught me and trying to make the world a more beautiful place despite all the adversity.”
His best friend in Greenville said this about Paul: “You couldn’t help but love Paul Rovin, you just couldn’t, because he really truly cared about other people. He knew we lived in a world that needed fixing, and wherever he saw a crack, he was usually there to help repair it; that was part of his soul, as a craftsman, as a woodworker, as just a good person. He was there to help, whether you wanted it or not.”
Those who came to know Paul know these words to be true; you had to love him, even if some of his demons did not make it easy. Paul, the creator, the doer, the man of deep faith, helped make Ramah Darom a more beautiful place.
For ten summers and three Passovers, Paul was a special presence at Ramah Darom, and the beautiful works of art that he helped create will ensure that he will forever have a presence in our holy space and community.
May his memory be a blessing.