Seasons in the sun

Seasons in the sun

Teaneck’s Paul Resnick looks back on three decades at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires

Most careers have their own internal, specific, idiosyncratic rhythms, and they shape people’s lives.

Teachers start in the early fall, when the sun still is bright but the air starts changing. They watch their students grow for ten months — longer than a pregnancy! — and then tumble into the summer exhausted, ready to go limp and recharge for the next year.

Rabbis aim toward the High Holy Days; the rest of the year is intense too, with its own weekly rhythms, but the sleepless high theater comes in the fall.

Retailers know that their most profitable season is right now, with its make-or-break tensions.

So what about camp directors?

“You prepare for ten months for two months,” Rabbi Paul Resnick of Teaneck said. “As a cook, you take raw ingredients, you cook them, you eat them, and you move on.” That’s not the way a camp director lives.

The year can distill down to a few very specific moments.

“There is nothing more exciting for me than running onto the buses on the first day of camp and welcoming the campers,” Rabbi Resnick said.

Rabbi Paul Resnick
Rabbi Paul Resnick

Rabbi Resnick has been at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires in Wingdale, N.Y., for 29 years; for most of that time he’s been the camp’s director. He has just stepped down from that exhilarating but exhausting post to become the camp’s first senior engagement and planning director.

He loves Camp Ramah.

The memory of those buses is sweet. “You have worked for 10 months for that hour, to get those kids to camp,” he said. “I was the first face they saw in camp.

“Will I miss that? Yes. Will I miss some of the challenges, of being awakened at midnight because there is a sewage problem? No. But I will miss the buses.”

Now, for the first time, Rabbi Resnick will sleep in his own bed most of the summer; his engagement with the camp has not lessened but the terms of that engagement have eased. He looks back on his life at Ramah with joy.

Paul Resnick, who was born in 1959, grew up first in the Bronx, on Pelham Parkway, and then in Woodmere, N.Y., one of Long Island’s Five Towns. His family’s connection to the Conservative movement was deep. His grandfather was a founder of the Pelham Parkway Jewish Center. In Woodmere, the family joined Young Israel of Woodmere, which despite its name was officially Conservative. (Actually, Rabbi Resnick said, it was Conservadox, with mixed seating in the center and smaller men’s and women’s sections on either side.)

The shul’s rabbi, Saul Teplitz, was a huge force in his parents’ lives. Norma and Bernie Resnick went to shul every week, and “what the rabbi told them to do, they did,” their son said. At Rabbi Teplitz’s recommendation, Paul left public school for the Brandeis School, a day school in neighboring Lawrence, “which was affiliated with Schechter but more Labor Zionist.” Also on Rabbi Teplitz’s advice, Paul went to Camp Ramah.

Ramah is a camping movement, one of the few parts of the Conservative movement that is vibrant and flourishing. It now includes nine sleepaway and four day camps in North America, as well as camps in Israel. Some of the camps offer special activities, but most kids are urged to go to the one in their region. Then as now, the camp whose territory encompasses metropolitan New York, which of course includes northern New Jersey, Rockland and Westchester counties, Long Island and New York City, is Ramah Berkshires.

Rabbi Paul Resnick in the dining hall.

But Rabbi Teplitz encouraged Paul to go to Ramah Palmer, in suburban Boston; his brother-in-law, Rabbi Ray Arzt, was the director there. That camp closed after a year. (That seems to have been the only big Ramah scandal since the first camp opened in Wisconsin in 1947; Rabbi Resnick says, “I am 57 years old, and the only time in my life that I ever smoked a cigarette was in Palmer.”)

The next year, Paul went to Ramah Canada — Rabbi Teplitz’s son Danny was the head of photography there — but that was it for him as a camper. “Then I stopped going,” he said. And that, he thought, was that.

Paul was accepted at SUNY Binghamton. “By the middle of my senior year in high school, in 1977, I knew what I was going to do that summer,” he said. “And then Rabbi Burt Cohen, who was the national Ramah director and the interim director of the Berkshires, interviewed me, in his living room, in Hebrew.

“He hired me to be a junior counselor at a camp where I did not know anybody, not one soul, but I thought why not go for just one summer? Because who would want to go back to camp after that one summer and do it again?

“That just shows you how much an 18-year-old knows,” he said. “Man plans, God laughs. I have spent all but two of the last 40 summers at camp.”

Paul wanted to be a doctor, and he went to Binghamton secure in his identity as a pre-med. “And then two things happened to me,” he said. “Bio and chemistry were really challenging. And I took a class with Dr. Marcia Falk,” a Jewish Theological Seminary-educated poet and translator who writes liturgy. “I was a puny freshman, in a class of eight upper-classmen; I was able to be there because of my day school background.

On the waterfront.

“We sat around a table, and they called her ‘Marcia.’ I could not call her ‘Marcia.’ It wasn’t kavod-dic.” It wasn’t respectful. “But that’s how I fell in love with Jewish texts. That was pure joy. So I was pushed away from medicine and pushed toward Jewish study.

“And then I became manager of the kosher kitchen, and I realized that I liked Jewish stuff. I liked going to daven. I liked doing Jewish things. I couldn’t imagine why other people didn’t feel that too, and I wanted to turn other people on to it.

“So I realized that for me, the path to that would be through rabbinical school. That would be my melacha.” His work. Not to get too fancy, but it was his calling.

“When I first started rabbinical school, I wanted to be like Rabbi Teplitz, who was my mentor,” Rabbi Resnick said. “I wanted to be a pulpit rabbi. But then, after some summers in Ramah, I thought that I could do this.

“I could wear a t-shirt and shorts to work for a third of the year. How cool is that? How exciting! And I could get to work with children as my primary focus, in an environment that is not the home environment, that is outdoors, in nature, working with things that are both fun and Jewish.”

So he spent every summer at camp except for the two that bracketed his year of study in Israel; the first he spent studying, but for the second “I wandered around Europe with friends doing $10 a day,” he said. He rose through the ranks, from counselor to rosh edah — division head. It was during one of those later summers that he met Martha Ezor, who was a counselor. The pair are about to celebrate their 30th anniversary; Martha Resnick is a longtime teacher at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford.

“When I was a senior at rabbinical school, Dr. Saul Shapiro,” the longtime chair of the camp’s board, “approached me and said that they wanted to hire me as assistant camp director,” Rabbi Resnick said. “That was very forward-thinking of them — no Ramah camp then had a fulltime assistant director. There hadn’t been a need. But he saw a transfer of leadership coming, and he wanted to make it as smooth, seamless, and productive as possible.”

Rabbi Paul Resnick stands with his wife, Martha.
Rabbi Paul Resnick stands with his wife, Martha.

It worked. After two years as assistant director and another year as associate director, Paul Resnick took over the directorship from the retiring Rabbi Jerry Abrams, who had founded the camp.

And no, you don’t have to be a rabbi to be a camp director at Ramah. “You do have to be a Jewish educator, fluent in Hebrew, personally observant within the tenets of Conservative halacha,” he said. “And you have to love working with children, and you have to love the flow of the year.

“The professionalism of being a camp director has been strengthened over the generations,” Rabbi Resnick said. When he started, it was not seen as much as a profession as a labor of love. Today it’s both.

There have been many changes in camping since he began to work at Ramah, Rabbi Resnick said.

Social media and a turn toward transparency have made it far easier to continue relationships through the year; the intense friendships forged during summers don’t have to be packed away in the camp trunk until next year.

“We do year-round engagement,” Rabbi Resnick said. “Apple picking before Sukkot. Ice skating at Chelsea Piers. We have Shabbatons for particular edot. We have a party at the seminary.” That’s on a Saturday night in the winter, when Shabbat ends early; often out-of-towners stay with friends who live in the city. It’s a new, vibrant camp tradition.

Other things have changed as well.

“We had a change in camp policy about electronics last year,” he said. “We shared the new policy again and again, so no one could say they didn’t know it, on social media, in snail mail — I’m a strong believer in snail mail, because I believe that it does have a different effect.

“Kids are not allowed to bring up any electronic devices that could access the web. They could bring mp3 players. We were very black and white and very strong about it, and parents loved having their kids in an environment where they were not so electronically connected. We made an offer to anyone who did not own such a device that if they could not afford one, we would buy one for them. They cost $49; we had a donor who covered it.

“And the flip side of that was staff members. They are allowed to bring their phones; a rosh edah gets a message out immediately by texting it.”

Also, “there are all sorts of educational activities that access the web, and that use is allowed as well,” in controlled settings.

The lesson is that “when it is used right, technology makes the machine of camp run better.” It just has to be thought through.

A camp director and the staff always have to be aware of state licensing requirements, he continued. “The New York State Board of Health is constantly changing, becoming more strict,” he said. “That whole regulatory kind of thinking means that we always have to be on top of the game in terms of how many waterfront people do we have, do we always have a first-aid administrator on every trip even if it’s just to go bowling, what’s the right staff-to-camper ratio on the trip to Boston. We were always aware of these things, but our awareness is always being heightened.”

Ramah is accredited by the American Camp Association, which means that “we have a full day of inspection every three years,” Rabbi Resnick said. “We have 20 binders, each with its own subject — transportation, security, in-house medical care, outside medical care, and so on. This has become more and more complex.

“This makes us a better camp.”

The outside world has changed since Rabbi Resnick first took over Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. “The market has become much more challenging,” he said. “There are more specialty Jewish camps, largely inspired by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and there also are many great non-Jewish options that did not exist a generation ago.”

It’s also becoming harder to convince some kids to come to camp. “Often 15-year-olds have to build their resumes. We have spoken to people in corporate America, who often say that summers in camp provide much better learning experiences, and we say that we give life-skills experiences that will be good, no matter what you do in life.” Still, kids and their parents often think that an internship or an exotic trip or volunteer work — all of them genuinely valuable experiences — will do more for their children than camp on a college application.

Camp offers an immersive Jewish atmosphere. it’s also fun, as these photos show.
Camp offers an immersive Jewish atmosphere. it’s also fun, as these photos show.

“Part of our mission is to grow Jewish leadership, and so our two oldest edot” — teenagers entering their sophomore or junior years of high school — “do some of their own planning and organizing,” Rabbi Resnick said. “What better way could there be to give them responsibility, while being supervised by counselors they respect? It’s the training, the production, gaining knowledge, and then producing the activity. It’s not just on paper.”

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires had 735 campers and 77 staff members last year. About 80 percent of the campers are affiliated with Conservative shuls, Rabbi Resnick said; with rare exceptions, the rest are modern Orthodox. The youngest campers — going into third grade — are there for only a week. “There were 65 of them,” Rabbi Resnick said. “It’s a tender age to send your child to camp. I don’t overly encourage it, but other camps do it, and the kids love it.”

The last year for campers — the summer before senior year in high school —is Ramah Seminar in Israel.

Another big change, and definitely for the better, is “that dealing with psychologically challenging issues has become a higher priority,” he said. “We always had kids with all sorts of issues. Now we know how to deal with them better.

“We started the Breirah program for kids on the spectrum, or who have other social challenges. We fully integrate them into the bunks. That’s the only way to do it.” Each bunk would have two or three counselors; if there is a Breirah camper, or there are two of them, there always is a third counselor dedicated to them. “We are now able to take 20 kids who otherwise would not have been able to go to camp,” Rabbi Resnick said.

“We don’t market or advertise for this program. It’s all word of mouth. When we started it we probably were the first camp to take this integrated approach. We are dealing with kids who are in the gray zone. Often, if you would walk into a bunk and know that there is a Breirah kid, you wouldn’t know which one. Some of these kids would have gone to camp before, but they wouldn’t have been successful.”

Some of the counselors who devote their summers to working with these more challenging campers end up as social workers or special-needs educators, Rabbi Resnick added.

There also now is an alumni organization, Reshet Ramah, which connects — networks, as its Hebrew name implies — former campers from the entire Ramah world.

Another area in which camping has changed is the question of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer campers. “The LGBTQ community is very near and dear to my heart,” Rabbi Resnick said. “I learned in the last few years that not everyone feels comfortable in camp — that’s both campers and staff members. That really hurt me. I always prided myself that being warm and welcoming is at the core of what we are. Just like under the chuppah you talk about creating a warm and welcoming home — that’s what the bunk is supposed to be.

“When I learned that this is not true for everybody, I said, ‘This is wrong.’

“So we started conversations with some parents and some staff members, and this year, we started to do training. We worked with Keshet,” a Boston-based Jewish LGBTQ support and advocacy group, “and then we met with our year-round staff, and then senior leadership, and then the entire staff, during staff week.

“I talked to an alum who is 40 years old, and knew that he was gay since he was 14,” Rabbi Resnick said. “He told me that he didn’t know if he should apply to camp for a staff job when he was 18, and someone said, ‘Of course you should. Of course Rabbi Resnick will hire you.’ And of course I did. It was not an issue for me.”

Rabbi Resnick, in the center, is surrounded by his family; from left, son-in-law Elan Sherman and his new bride, Rena; Martha; Dori; and Alana Pellerito and her fiance, Joey.
Rabbi Resnick, in the center, is surrounded by his family; from left, son-in-law Elan Sherman and his
new bride, Rena; Martha; Dori; and
Alana Pellerito and her fiance, Joey.

Then, being gay was pretty much a don’t-ask-don’t-tell matter. “Lately, it has become much more public, much more open,” Rabbi Resnick said. “Counselors who are gay sometimes will talk to their campers about it. Camp is a much more welcoming community now.

“And we are much more careful in our use of language. I tell people not to say ‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ It is very binary. Instead, use the word ‘chevra.’ And unlike ladies and gentleman, it’s Hebrew!”

The camp has not yet had a transgender child, but he’s sure that challenge is coming, Rabbi Resnick said.

There are three challenges that he sees Camp Ramah — and all Jewish camps, and probably all camps — will have to face, he said.

The first is this challenge — making LGBT kids comfortable. Camp, after all, is a place where no one can hide, except inside yourself. Everyone is made in God’s image, Rabbi Resnick said; everyone should be able to feel comfortable with that image, no matter what it is.

The second is financial. “Camp now costs $9,000,” he said. Many of the campers go to day school, so that’s on top of tuition. “Although we have a robust financial aid program, and gave out $300,000 last year, it’s a challenge. We partner with congregational rabbis; we don’t look at financial aid as just an obligation of the camp, but also for the congregation.

“There are rabbis who give a certain amount of money to every kid each year, and others who try to find kids who really would benefit and really need it.

“We always can make it happen.”

Except in the rare but egregious cases when it’s clear that a family can afford camp but has chosen not to pay for it, “once a family applies for financial aid, it’s never because of financial aid that a kid can’t come to camp. We are very accommodating. We want the kid in camp.”

The third challenge, he continued, “is never to be satisfied with the status quo. No matter how good a job we are doing — and we do a really good job — we should never rest on our laurels, on the shem tov” — the good name — “of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. We must constantly look at the mission statement, and figure out the best way to deliver that mission. If we ever sway from that mission, we will get into trouble.”

The camp’s mission is “to give the best of the tradition and values of Conservative Judaism — love of mitzvot, Hebrew language, and the land and people of Israel — commitment to inclusion and tikkun olam, and the joy of learning and prayer.

“Everything in camp can be elevated,” he said. “Everything can be framed Jewishly, whether it’s a softball game or a music lesson or a discussion about God. When you walk into camp, you are in an intense Jewish atmosphere.”

And then, of course, “I also want the kids to have fun. To learn to play softball better, and to swim better.” To put on musicals in Hebrew; to sing in the zimriyah and dance in the rikkudiah; to wear white to welcome Shabbat as the sun dips over the lake.

Although this will be Paul and Martha Resnick’s first full summer in Teaneck, they have lived there since 1984, when they moved from Riverdale “to be part of a community that was intensely Jewish, had a great shul” — that’s Congregation Beth Sholom — “and a great chevra of people. We have never regretted it.

“What really drew us to Teaneck was the chance to be in a shul where there were committed, intensely knowledgeable, warm Conservative Jews, and to be in a community where there are wonderful Orthodox Jews, and we don’t look at each other as if we were different from each other.”

The Resnicks have three children — Rena, 28, who just got married; Joey, 25, and Dori, 22. All the Resnick children went to Ramah; “they all paved their own paths there,” Paul said.

Now, Rabbi Resnick will use his great knowledge of the camp, its campers, alumni, parents, and friends to raise the funds and even more importantly develop the relationships that it will need if it is to continue to flourish. The new director, Rabbi Ethan Linden, will begin his first summer as director this year, with the full support of Rabbi Resnick, the board, and the larger community.

“Camp is writing a new chapter, and I am writing a new chapter,” he said. “There is real excitement in camp about there being someone new. Thirty years is a long run with one leader.”

He can’t come up with just a few defining images of the camp, he said; 30 years afforded him a huge number of them. But, when pressed, he said, “This happened a few years ago. There was a second-year mishlachat member” — that’s an Israeli educator, at camp to act as much as a general role model as a teacher of anything in particular. “He was totally chiloni.” Absolutely secular. “He had never put on tefillin before his first year. He’d never had a bar mitzvah. But he came back a second year, and was helping a first-year mishlachat member put on tefillin as if he had been putting on tefillin forever.

“He wasn’t at all frum at home after that first summer, but he went back home knowing what tefillin was, and he was able to share that knowledge he gained by living in an intense Jewish environment. And he wanted to come back.”

Then, his last story. “Someone asked me before camp last year, ‘So, rabbi, do you have a bucket list for your last summer?’ And I said ‘I am not dying.’” But still he thought about it, and “on my bucket list was walking in the morning with different people. I mentioned it to Rosh Gesher” — the head of the oldest division — “and three or four mornings a week I walked with groups of two or three campers. We took a 45-minute loop around camp. And I said to myself, ‘Who would have thought that waking up early to walk with Rabbi Resnick would be something anyone would want to do?’”

But they did. Campers had to sign up in advance, and then, from 7:30 to 8:15 or so, the campers and the camp director would walk and talk, and ask and answer honest questions. “And the sun was just rising, and the mist was just burning away, and I felt that I was high.”

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