The Noah Syndrome
Ellen Bob is an alumna of the Wexner Heritage Program from San Francisco. She co-owned bob and bob fine jewish gifts and books in Northern California for 26 years. Ellen is working for Camp Ramah in California to create a camp in the Northern half of the state. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the things I love about the stories of Genesis is that we often learn proper behavior from the mistakes of our ancestors. And Noah, whose story we read this week, makes a doozy.
He handles himself admirably for most of the story. He does what God tells him. He risks the ridicule of his neighbors, undertakes the difficult work of building an ark according to the divine blueprint and succeeds in collecting the right number of each animal, accurately determining which is clean and which is unclean. He keeps peace on the ark and cleverly uses birds to decide when it’s safe to disembark.
When he got off the ark, it must have been an incredible high. He completed his mission to save the animal kingdom. God made a covenant with him never to destroy the world again. Now what? After the glorious success of saving the world, it was back to planting, weeding, and reaping. A bit of a letdown, most likely. And like many people who find themselves at loose ends after a major success, Noah got drunk and humiliated himself.
My mother and I have been selling books and Judaica since before I was married. When our family business became another statistic of the recession in January, I had to focus on what I wanted to do for my second act.
Paying attention to Noah’s story, I knew that getting drunk wasn’t a useful strategy. So I went out for a lot of cups of coffee, hearing what people were thinking about, what they were working on, and what they hoped their legacy would be. I learned that the skills I had developed through both my business and my non-profit board work could lead me in a lot of directions. And I was reminded that people, if they’re lucky, have enough time to create more than one institution, to have an impact on more than one significant project. The trick is to find what makes our hearts sing.
What has my heart singing these days is bringing a Camp Ramah to Northern California. There’s currently a Camp Ramah six hours away in Ojai. Camp Tawonga and Camp Newman are both outstanding regional camps which offer a different approach to Jewish camping. All three have waiting lists for at least some age groups every summer. Advice about how to get your kid into camp is traded in Day School parking lots.
Camp is a place where Judaism can be lived 24/7 surrounded by natural beauty. Lifetime friendships are formed, bonds to the Jewish people and Jewish practice are forged, Hebrew becomes a living language and the connections between ritual and social justice are concretized.
In addition to the extraordinary opportunities for our youth, a local Camp Ramah will offer family camps, adult education and spirituality retreats, and the only kosher site in our region for such programs. The presence of a Camp Ramah within easy driving distance could inspire new projects.
I have been delighted by the response of the community since I took this position in mid-July. Everyone, including staunch supporters of the existing camps, understands that the more access we can create to transformative Jewish experiences, the more lives we have a chance to transform.
Many of us who were in the early waves of Wexner have had a part in creating new institutions. How many day schools, JCCs, summer camps, foundations, and innovative initiatives have the fingerprints of Wexnerites on their blueprints? These are now thriving organizations which have been passed on to new leaders who are nurturing them to the next stage of maturity. If we see our personal missions narrowly connected to these individual institutions, it’s easy to feel let down when the phone stops ringing with requests for advice.
But if we see ourselves as part of a bigger project, of the project of the Jewish people, it’s not hard to find something to move onto. We bring sharper tools with us to the next challenge as we learn so much along the way. And we learn how to collaborate more with each successive project because our commonalities emerge in brighter relief as our experience broadens.
Instead of feeling the great letdown that Noah must have felt when he went back to tending crops after saving the world, let us set ourselves yet another round of audacious goals.
At least it will keep us out of the bars.