During a recent purge of papers transferred from my childhood home in Omaha, Nebraska, to my bedroom floor in Chicago, I came across a poignant eighth grade essay titled "My Favorite Place."
As a 13-year-old in the late '80s, my favorite spot in all the world was the kikar , the huge grassy plaza at the physical center of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. On the kikar , as my essay describes, my friends and I would Israeli dance, relax after a canoe trip, snap pre-Shabbat photos, and bask in our togetherness for eight glorious weeks. Bonding with my Jewish friends at camp was the best, irreplaceable feeling-one that I counted down to from the moment I arrived back in my Omaha routine.
My first summer at Ramah was shaped by many people, including my counselor, Diane Kushnir (now Halivni). Oh, how Diane seemed so much older than me-a college sophomore! Those handful of years between us shrank in perceived magnitude as we became full-fledged adults, reconnecting in Chicago in the 2000s. Diane and I became peers, colleagues, and friends-that Ramah bond unbroken.
My sister, Holly, was another influence on my Ramah experience. She and her husband are raising their beautiful family in Omaha, and anyone who has met me for five seconds knows that their kids-my niece, Julia, and nephew, Levi-mean the world to me. My heart hurts from missing them in between visits and swells with pride as they grow into kind, compassionate, ambitious young people.
And so, one can imagine my intense kvelling as I watched Julia via livestream perform in her first Ramah play, the Hebrew version of Wizard of Oz- the very same show in which I was a munchkin during my first Ramah summer 28 years prior.
Julia, like her mom and aunt, has found her happy place and incomparable friendships at Ramah. "Ramah relationships are way different than any other relationship," Julia says. "When you are together nonstop for eight weeks, you can imagine that you share a close bond. Some of my tightest friendships are so many miles away from me, in Deerfield, Illinois."
One of those besties from Deerfield? Diane's daughter Eliana.
Eliana echoes Julia's assessment of camp relationships, adding "We also share similar values, and it creates for long-lasting friendships."
Julia, Eliana, and their other friends text and FaceTime almost every day. They post photos on Instagram and receive immediate likes and comments on GIFs and memes, a far cry from my generation anxiously awaiting handwritten letters packed with juicy updates. Although advances in technology "maybe also helped us oldies stay in touch once email and Facebook and group chats began," Diane admits.
Despite constant communication, the kids find no replacement for in-person visits-which is a total win for this doting auntie. Carpooling with parents or flying solo across the Midwest for b'nai mitzvahs has been common for their chevre (close-knit group) this year. "Whenever I think of Chicago," my niece says, "I think of friends and family, and that makes me think of camp, which makes me even happier."
My sister advocates for her children, whose Hebrew school classmates can be counted on two hands, to embrace the same opportunity she had to expand her Jewish network. "Camp has made the love of Judaism very strong for Julia," she says. Diane and her husband, Shai, a Ramah Berkshires alum, ensure their kids "appreciate being the next generation." While there may be the occasional eye roll from their teenagers, Diane believes "they like that we have deep roots in Ramah, and it helps them see the big picture about the benefits of living in community, and with others who share their Jewish identity."
Such cultivation of Ramah spirit is not lost on these young adults. "I love telling my mom and aunt about my camp experiences," says Julia, "and they share stories from their Ramah careers that are similar and that I'll always remember."
Both Julia and Eliana note how cool it is to find their family members' names on cabin plaques-such as the 1989 plaque featuring my name together with Diane's. "I realize how many generations have been living in these same cabins," Julia says. "I'm the next generation in my family and hopefully someday my children will get to see my name on these walls."
Caren Friedman is a communications consultant and freelance writer living in Chicago.