The JTS – Ramah Connection

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FishbeinDear friends,

I hope all of you are having a great summer, filled with the many blessings, beauties, and relaxations of this season.  This past Shabbat I had the pleasure and honor of visiting CRB on behalf of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where I teach, and it was a truly extraordinary experience.  I was able to see the sparkling magic of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires first-hand, and it left me inspired and immensely hopeful about the Jewish future.  My Shabbat at camp began and ended with uplifting camp-wide gatherings in the beautiful Amphitheater overlooking serene Lake Ellis.  Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night was filled with creative and spiritual song; Maariv and Havdalah on Saturday night were infused with a love of Israel and the amazing sense of friendship and community that is palpable among the many hundreds of campers and staff.  What a blessing and inspiration!

Many of you already know about the special relationship that exists between JTS and Camp Ramah.  JTS originally founded the Ramah camping movement back in 1947, with the establishment of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and the rich array of Ramah camps are all guided by the educational and religious influence of JTS to this day.  During my Shabbat at camp, I had the pleasure of speaking with some of the many current, former, and future JTS students who fill the ranks of the tremendously talented staff at camp—those educators, rabbis, and inspired Jews who are creating warm and motivating experiences for our children and for the tzevet (staff) community.  I spoke with graduates and current members of our JTS undergraduate program (joint with Columbia University) and our Rabbinical School (where CRB’s own Rabbi Resnick and Rabbi Perten were ordained); with people interested in our new MA in Jewish Ethics in the JTS Graduate School, and much more. 

I myself teach and write about Jewish mysticism and spirituality, and on Friday night at camp I taught a shiur (class) on hasidic insights into the meaning and experience of Shabbat.  We explored the deep and moving teachings of Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav (1772-1810)—great grandson of the Ba‘al Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism), and an immensely influential mystical master.  Rebbe Nahman suggests that our minds and hearts are opened to the presence of God in a deeper way on Shabbat; the mystery of Divinity glows with a wondrous light on the seventh day, shining within the “extra soul” that we receive on Friday night.  Our innermost selves are likened to the hidden chambers of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem; we hold a piece of that lost space within our souls.  The hasidic masters teach that God now dwells in the Temple of the human heart; by gazing deep within, by opening ourselves to compassion and love, we may open our eyes to new religious awareness and understanding.

In a powerful twist, Rebbe Nahman asserts that the sacred time of Shabbat also exists in dynamic relationship with the ordinary time of the work week.  Shabbat is the soul to the body of the week, igniting the spark of spiritual discovery that can be fanned into the flames of spiritual passion.  On the other end of our emotional spectrum, Shabbat is also the anchor that brings us calm and peace amid the stormy waters of our ordinary lives.  But the work we do during the six days of melakhah (labor) is also very much for the sake of the Shabbat we look forward to.  As one later hasidic mystic taught, all through the six days of the week we strive to build ourselves and our communities into vessels ready to receive the influx of holiness and blessing on Shabbat.  How we act during the week will directly affect our ability to receive the spiritual life-force and tranquility of the Sabbath.  We must therefore train ourselves to conduct our business dealings and interpersonal relationships with integrity, generosity, and compassion; we must transform our everyday lives into opportunities for spiritual cultivation, ethical discipline, and religious growth.

It was particularly moving for me to teach the thought of Rebbe Nahman in the glorious natural atmosphere of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, for it was Rebbe Nahman who said that each blade of grass—each tree and flowering of the earth—sings with its own unique song.  Each of us, creatures of this majestic world, have a melody, a niggun, that we must discover and sing in the course of our lives.  It is hard to imagine a place more conducive to this quest, to feel the music and illumination of Shabbat, than the magical space of Camp Ramah.

We at JTS take great pleasure and pride in our special relationship with the Ramah community.  May we all go from strength to strength in building the Jewish future together.


Eitan Fishbane

Dr. Eitan Fishbane is Associate Professor of Jewish Thought at The Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan and the proud father of a Shorashim camper.  The author of The Sabbath Soul, among other books, he serves on the Rabbinical School Council of JTS. 

The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) is a preeminent institution of Jewish higher education that integrates rigorous academic scholarship and teaching with a commitment to strengthening Jewish tradition, Jewish lives, and Jewish communities.  JTS serves North American Jewry by educating intellectual and spiritual leaders for Conservative Judaism and the vital religious center, training rabbis, cantors, scholars, educators, communal professionals, and lay activists who are inspired by our vision of Torah and dedicated to assisting in its realization.