Up court and personal

Up court and personal

Camp Ramah created lasting ties; tragedy tightened them

The president of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Dr. Hugh Pollack, and its director, Rabbi Paul Resnick, stand behind a group of camp alumni and supporters. Johanna Resnick Rosen/Candid Eye

Two realities intersected at a basketball game in Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers on Sunday, creating its own third reality.

Reality 1 – Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, the Conservative movement’s local summer camp, creates a feeling of intense loyalty to each other, as well as to Jewish life, in many of its alumni. Those bonds connect various former campers in different ways. One of those ways is basketball. Some Ramah alums meet in far western Manhattan every Sunday from October through April to play basketball through the Ramah Basketball Association.

Reality 2 – Eric Steinthal, who grew up in Haworth, where his parents, Marilyn and Bruce, still live, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm on March 17, 2012. He was a Ramah alum and a former RBA commissioner. He was 31 years old when he died.

Reality 3 – Many friends of Eric’s, even many who do not play basketball, came to the last game of the season, where his memory was honored in a multigenerational blur of sports, sweat, raw emotion, babies, competition, and love. It is not exactly as if it felt like Eric was there – but it didn’t exactly feel as if he was far away, either.

Rabbi Paul Resnick of Teaneck is Ramah Berkshire’s longtime director. (The Ramah system is large; it includes eight sleepaway camps, four day camps, including one in Nyack, and a camp and other programs in Israel. The Berkshires camp, which turns 50 this year, is one of the biggest in the system, drawing campers from most of New Jersey, New York City, and the city’s New York suburbs.)

Resnick oversees what in effect is a small city; there are approximately 550 campers and 250 to 270 staffers in camp at any one time during the summer; because some of the younger children do not stay for the full eight weeks, 700 of them pass through the camp in any season. Resnick’s job is year-round; when camp is not in session, the office is in Englewood.

“I thought it was a great moment,” he said of Sunday’s game. “There were multiple generations – Eric’s parents, people their son’s age, and the next generation, kids a few months old, future campers.”

He said that camp friendships frequently are intense. “Often, Ramah alumni say their closest, longest-lasting friendships are with each other.

“Part of that is Ramah, and part of it is because it’s a residential camp. When you are with someone else, and you have breakfast and do nikayon” – clean your bunk – “and argue, and go to the shower – and when you get out, they’re still there…. It’s an intense and intentional environment. You are bound to make meaningful relationships, and stay connected both in happy times and sad times.

“We often talk about the magic of camp, but I don’t think it’s magic at all,” Resnick continued. “It’s a lot of hard work by a lot of people, volunteers and paid staff, all year round. We create community. We do that with great intentionality. We provide positive, accessible Jewish role models to campers.

“It’s a cycle. It starts with campers, who become staff, and by now a third of our campers have parents who were in camp.”

Marilyn Steinthal said that aside from his family and his fiancée (as if the tragedy of his death needed any compounding, Eric Steinthal and Jodi Siskind had just sent out save-the-date notices for their wedding, which had been set for last August), Ramah “was the most important part of Eric’s life.

“He first went to camp as early as they would take him,” she said. “That was fourth grade. He went for a full summer then – we had signed him up for four weeks, but he really liked it, and stayed.”

Eric went to camp for eight years, and then returned briefly as a staffer. He and his group of close friends would go back to camp every Labor Day weekend. The intensity was unmistakable, and by all accounts Eric provided the gravitational center, the pull that kept them circling around each other.

“Eric was the glue for our group,” said one of those close friends, Jon Boguchwal, who lives in Hoboken. The two had been friends since 1990, when they were 10 years old and first met in camp, and became inseparable four years later, when their bunks merged. “Whenever we organized things for us to do post-camp, it was 10 guys, 10 opinions, but when he finally said what he was doing, he pulled everyone toward it.

“In the last year, since he died, we’ve stayed together.” He is still the glue. “When we get together, there is the feeling that he is missing; I’m sure that at different points people are thinking about it. But we know that it would be a tragedy if we stopped hanging out together.”

Ori Foger, who grew up in Englewood, where his parents still live, took over as co-commissioner of the RBA. (It is a mark of Steinthal’s commitment to the game that he did not have a co-commissioner and served for five years; generally, it is a two-year term.)

“This was the league’s 17th season,” Foger said. For 13 or so of those years, the league was only for Berkshires players; more recently, it was opened to include alumni of other Ramah camps, as well. “It’s unique for a sleepaway camp to have such involvement from adults,” he said. “You go to camp when you’re a teenager.” But players stay in the RBA “from the time you’ve graduated college until your knees give out,” as Boguchwal put it.

Foger is two years younger than Steinthal and his group, so they had not been friends at camp. He came to know Steinthal through basketball.

“Eric was not necessarily the best player,” he said. “There were always two or three guys who were much better than everyone else. But they don’t necessarily win, whether it’s because they are selfish, or because they just don’t get the other guys on the team playing hard. But Eric was great.

“He led the team in scoring, and he won every year. I think he had a streak of three seasons where he didn’t lose a game. So he might not have been the best basketball player to come out of Ramah Berkshires, but he knew not just how to put the ball in the bucket, but also how to win.”

Steinthal, Foger said, echoing a common theme, was both a true leader and an unusual one; a “reluctant leader,” he said. “He was very soft-spoken, whether in a social or a professional setting. There is always going to be an alpha male around, the person who wants to choose the restaurant, be the point guard. Eric wasn’t that. He wasn’t loud or boisterous, but for whatever reason, whenever he said something, people listened.

“You trusted that if you were with Eric, you were going to win. Things were going to work out.

“Some people do things for glory. That wasn’t Eric. He played basketball because he loved playing basketball.”

Adin Meir, who grew up in Teaneck, where his parents still live, and now lives in Hoboken, was part of Steinthal’s group. He was at the game on Sunday, but he no longer plays basketball.

His group, with Steinthal still even now at its core, is tight, he said, and he explained how the bond was forged. “You live for two months a year with people in very tight quarters,” he said. “You have a very intense experience together. I think that’s what started it.

“Now we’ve been out of camp much longer than we’ve been in camp. But it’s more the way you relate to a sibling. There’s a level of comfort.” They know each other’s backstories, he said; there is no need to explain.

And then there’s the Jewish part of camp. “It’s very much part of how we relate to each other,” he said. There is a range of observance, from entirely uncommitted to shomer Shabbat and fully engaged, but the Jewish part is always there, even if it’s in the background.

Meir and his wife, Jordana Klein, met at camp, and they became engaged at one of the epic Labor Day weekends. “There are probably 15 marriages that came out of that one weekend,” he said. “And when we have children, they are definitely going to Ramah.”

Serena David, also from Teaneck, is yet another member of the group. “Some of the most important relationships of my life are from camp,” she said. “I think I always knew that camp was a special place, and the bonds that we formed there are something we carry with us for our entire lives, but I probably didn’t even realize how important they were until I had that group to lean on when we all were dealing with Eric’s death.

“It was also a big part of my Jewish upbringing,” David said. “I was lucky to get to grow up in Teaneck, with a committed Jewish family – they still live in Teaneck – and to go to day school, but camp also was a big part of that.

“It’s awful that it takes a tragedy to make you realize these things. None of us were prepared to lose Eric. Having each other didn’t make the shock and the horror any better, but the support we all had from each other made it tolerable.

“We all understood each other. I have a very good close group of friends from college, but as much as they were there for me as friends – they were sympathetic, but not empathetic, because they couldn’t be. They just couldn’t understand.

“I think that our bonds have strengthened over the last 13 months. I feel really blessed to have camp – and these people – in my life.”

A fund has been set up in Eric Steinthal’s memory. To donate, go to www.ramahberkshires.org, and click on the donate online button on the right.

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