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From Camp To Kazakhstan to Central Park: The Strong Bond of Jewish Camping
June 7, 2010 by Howard Blas



As you can imagine, the days leading up to 9 weeks of camp (staff week plus eight weeks) are exciting and action packed. I am entering my 10th year as the director of the 40 year old Tikvah Program, which offers overnight camping opportunities for nearly 50 children and young adults with a wide range of special needs. Our winter office is based in Boston and the camp itself is in Palmer, Massachusetts; and I have the distinction of being the only year round staff member who doesn't work out of the camp office. For me, there is no period of “packing up the office and moving to Palmer.” So, when the office is in transition, my computer is still on and with me. And I receive many calls from Tikvah (and even non-Tikvah) families—seeking information from an actual person about bus departures, luggage tags, etc. But, for the most part, I am sitting at home, working hard to put the finishing touches on the Tikvah Program and the Inclusion Programs for Kayitz, 2010. It is crunch time!

This week alone, I met with our rosh edah, sent out Tikvah bunking, interviewed an out of state Tikvah family (at an NYC kosher bagel and pizza store!), spoke with counselors, a newspaper reporter and a funder, did tons of paper work, and wrote and answered hundreds of emails. You know it is countdown time when emails sent to my camp colleagues—the director, assistant director, programming director, bsiness manager and development director are routinely answered—even when sent at 11 pm!

Yet, sometimes the best way to prepare for camp is to take a break from camp!

Today, it is a hot, sunny day in Manhattan. After a few hours of doing camp work and staring out at the beautiful weather, I decided to get away from camp by getting on my bike and heading over to Central Park. The park is closed to car traffic starting at 10 am. So, at 11:30 or so, I put on my biking clothes, grabbed my helmut, pumped up my tires and hit the park. The “loop” is six miles, and the runner and biker lanes were packed with others who had the same idea. The park was packed with school kids having picnics, color wars and attending the marionette show. And there were readers, tennis players and sunbathers galore.

I was at peace, almost in a dream state, as I neared Tavern on the Green on the West Side, in the 60s. All of a sudden, I thought I saw a t-shirt, identical to one I have and actually wear quite often—a gray staff t-shirt with RAMAH in big orange letters on the front, and “Tzevet (Staff) 2008” on the back. But I was relaxed and pedaling 22 miles an hour. Couldn’t be. Why would a pedicab (bike cab) driver in Central Park in New York City be wearing a shirt from my camp?! My curiosity got the better of me. I slowed and stopped in front of the “cab” and asked the driver where he got the shirt. Well, “Ilya, the pedicab driver, was “Ilya the kitchen worker” two years ago at Camp Ramah in New England! “Where are you from?” I asked. “Kazakhstan,” he replied. He still eyed me a bit suspiciously. I asked, “Oh, you worked with Meital and Randy?” He smiled. I invited him to come visit. I reached in to my pouch and forked over the one piece of identification I had on me—my Camp Ramah in New England-Tikvah Director business card. “Call me if I can be of help,” I said. His smile got bigger. I got back on my bike and went back to dreaming—this time of bike rides, in just a few weeks, with my many camp friends—including my kitchen staff friends--to Quabbin Reservoir.