Tradition Welcomes Change in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin



By Ilene Weismehl

For as long as I can remember, it was a given that my brother and I would go to Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, commonly known as OSRUI (pronounced Os-roo-ee), and even more commonly known as Oconomowoc (the camp’s Wisconsin town name).  Although none of the above-mentioned names hint at the Debbie Friedman prayers or Hebrew immersion programs or after-meal songs, I always had a notion of what the names might hold (courtesy of my parents’ stories of their own time at Union Institute in the fifties) and I couldn’t wait to claim it.

Forty years later, many of my camp memories have grown as faded as the photo below. But the memory of Shabbat at camp remains vivid! On Shabbat, all camp activities ended early so we had time to shower off the weekday grime of lake and sweat and craft projects. We donned our nice Shabbat clothes and shoes. Then, clean and shiny, and a bit shy for our newly-scrubbed appearance, the girls and boys would meet just outside the dining hall for Kabbalat Shabbat

OSRUI Bunk PhotoEverything became different and new for Kabbalat Shabbat, our receiving of Sabbath. With our combed, damp hair we had no choice but to seeeach other, ourselves, and the world differently. We sang L’chah Dodi with a melody à la the Mamas and the Papas. We sang, clapped, and jumped to express our heartfelt welcome as we anticipated a day of rest, albeit a rest from the none-too-stressful weekdays of camp life.

Each Friday, we were called upon by Jewish tradition and ritual to change our routine, to interrupt the status quo, and to transform ourselves and our expectations of the coming day. It threw our routine off kilter and sometimes made us uneasy. But from that initial discomfort we found rest and joy and a new understanding of the everyday.

I have enjoyed many other beautiful Shabbatot since that time, and have connected to Shabbat in many different ways. But when I reflect on my welcoming and receiving of Shabbat at Oconomowoc, I recall an innocent, exuberant, spiritual, and fun act of change and continuity.

In spite of warm memories of camp, it is only in recent years that I have found myself working in the Jewish community: first at Brown RISD Hillel and now at JOIN for Justice (which has partnered with URJ’s Just Congregations over the years). At JOIN for Justice I see inspiring young leaders and community organizers engaging regularly with the tension between continuity and disruption, seeking out change in spite of — or, sometimes, because of — the discomfort it might cause, and working to make our world a better place for everyone. And they do all of this in the framework of Jewish continuity and tradition.

The framework of Kabbalat Shabbat represents more than just a traditional template; it offers a prompt to transform ourselves and the world around us. While it took time for me to recognize my path from OSRUI to my work in the Jewish community, that path now seems quite obvious.  That path is paved with memories of a time when the tension between continuity and change emerged with a simple change of clothing.

Ilene Weismehl is Development Manager at JOIN for Justice. She was a camper at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute from 1974-1979.

We are grateful to Women of Reform Judaism who have supported NFTY for 75 years and continue their generosity as Inaugural Donors to the Campaign for Youth Engagement.

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