When Susan and I arrive at Ramah Darom each summer for our two-week stint on staff, we encounter a small ritual of welcome I have come to appreciate deeply. After we check-in with the camp office and find out where we’ll be staying, a staff member meets us at our room to unlock the door. There’s nothing unusual about that, of course . . . except for the fact that we don’t hold on to the key; in other words, the door remains open for the duration of our stay at camp.
This is true of every bunk and every staffer’s room — Ramah is an absolutely keyless community. At home it would be unthinkable to leave the house without locking the door and arming the alarm. At camp, however, I think nothing of leaving my wallet, smartphone and laptop unattended all day long, confident that, when I return at day’s end, they’ll be right where I left them. Do the campers and staff members possess more integrity than the general population? Very likely. Still, all it would take is one dishonest person and a few hours to dismantle the entire structure upon which this trust is built. Yet year after year, we arrive at camp, unlock our doors, and take it for granted that no one will violate our privacy or pilfer our belongings. Why do we readily trust people at camp when we take so many elaborate precautions in every other facet of our lives?
The answer is as simple as it is profound: the power of community to create its own expectations. Because a sense of security is deeply embedded within the cultural fabric of camp, the cardinal sin may not be theft per se, but a breaking of the social contract that allows us to relax our vigilance and trust our neighbors. Given the absence of that sentiment in virtually every other area of life, the Ramah community generates a set of ethical norms that people generally uphold, if only because it would be unthinkable not to.
Camp is an idyllic place; those who come here are part of a self-selected group living in some degree of isolation from the world outside. Yet I can’t help but think there’s a lesson to be learned. Perhaps any community could — if it really wanted to — create a set of expectations absolutely vital to the collective and individual identity of its membership. If we were to adopt Ramah’s approach to community-building, what would Shabbat look like at the Jacksonville Jewish Center? How would we approach synagogue philanthropy or the gift of our time and selves as shul volunteers? As a congregation what are the values so integral to our existence that the breach of them would be unthinkable?
When I leave camp I will return to the practice of locking my door, yet carry home with me a belief that we can leave our hearts open to the infinite potential we have as a community to ask more and expect more of ourselves and each other.