It was the summer of 1975 when, at the age of 19, Chuck Diamond found himself for the first time headed north to Utterson, a small town in the scenic Muskoka district in central Ontario.
Diamond, then a Carnegie Mellon University student, had only once before been away from his hometown of Pittsburgh — a short stint working at a Zionist camp in upstate New York — but nonetheless decided to take the plunge and fill out an employment application, entirely in Hebrew, for a staff position at Camp Ramah in Canada, a camp for children of the Conservative movement.
Several weeks later, the telephone rang while Diamond sat watching the Steelers play in their first Super Bowl.
“I picked up the phone, and Rabbi Michael Brown [doing the hiring for Ramah] begins talking to me in Hebrew,” Diamond recalled. “I told him I’d have to call him back.”
Such was the humble genesis of what would become a lifelong commitment for Diamond and one that would shape not only the course of his own life, but also inspire thousands of Jewish youth.
Diamond, rabbi at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, headed back up to Utterson earlier this week for his 40th consecutive summer at Camp Ramah.
The summer of 1975 was one of self-discovery for Diamond. It was then that he discovered he had a gift for connecting with children and also realized a self-confidence previously untapped.
“I only knew one other person at camp that summer,” Diamond remembered, “Harvey Levin, and I hung around him during staff week. The two of us went around with some young ladies all week, and I thought I was kind of a third wheel.”
By the end of the week, Diamond recognized it was he who was attracting the young women.
“So, it was goodbye Harvey, and hello Camp Ramah,” he quipped.
Though Diamond couldn’t swim, and was not a great shortstop, he took his responsibilities as a counselor seriously, eager to teach his campers the consequences of disobedience, according to Zoel Silverman of Fox Chapel, who was Diamond’s camper in 1975 and 1976.
“We used to go bunk-hopping at night when we weren’t supposed to,” Silverman recalled. “When we got back to the cabin, [Diamond] would be hiding in someone’s bed. It would scare the crap out of us.”
Silverman and his wife, Bonnie, who was also a camper in Diamond’s unit, have sent their three children to Camp Ramah, and they, in turn, have benefited from the rabbi’s presence at camp.
“He’s the rabbi from their hometown, and they always got a little extra special attention from him,” Silverman said.
Extra attention for the Pittsburgh kids has been a longstanding practice of the rabbi.
In fact, for years, it has been Diamond’s tradition to invite all his Pittsburgh compatriots to his cabin each Shabbat afternoon for schmoozing and snacks.
“I was his camper over 30 years ago,” said Lisa Altman Young of Squirrel Hill. “He has always shown the Pittsburgh kids special attention. In fact, we were known as ‘Chuck’s kids.’”
It was Diamond — who was Young’s USY adviser at Beth Shalom when she was a teenager — who persuaded her to attend Camp Ramah, which turned out to be “a pivotal experience” in her life, she said.
“I’m still friends with my friends from camp,” said Young. “Ramah is a lifelong community, not just a summer camp.”
Wanting her children to experience that same feeling of Jewish connection, Young sent them to Camp Ramah as well, and they in turn have been positively influenced by Diamond, she said.
“He is the epitome of experiential Jewish education,” said Young. “He just engages children and teenagers and gets them excited about doing Jewish things.”
Diamond provides a comforting sense of continuity to camp, according to Ron Polster, director of Camp Ramah in Canada. Like Silverman and Young, the parents of many other current campers spent their own summers as campers with Diamond.
“He knows the campers’ parents, and sometimes he knows their grandparents,” Polster said. “They come in when we have Be a Ramahnik for a Day — a day for prospective campers — and Rabbi Chuck is a recognizable face.”
“He’s been an inspirational teacher to campers and staff for years, and a nurturing adviser to staff,” Polster added.
It was Diamond’s experiences working at Ramah that influenced him to apply to the Jewish Theological Seminary and to become a rabbi. And it was at Camp Ramah, he said, where he learned to be quick on his feet and how to combine “the formal with the informal.”
While his role at the camp has changed over the years — from counselor to unit head to educator — and his stay at the camp has shortened from a full summer to a two-week stretch, there is something about the community built on the shores of serene Skeleton Lake that keeps calling him back.
“What makes Ramah so special is not only the people,” Diamond said, “but the culture and the fact that you’re being immersed in a Jewish environment, where everyone has your back, and everyone is cheering for each other.”
Ramah, he said, “is sort of like an ideal.”
“We create these mystical places in our minds, where we had experiences that are so wonderful,” he continued. “For many of us, Ramah is that mystical place. I’m fortunate not to just be there in my mind, but for two weeks a year, I get to return there.”
People often ask how long he plans to continue to spend part of each summer up at camp, Diamond noted.
“I tell them, ‘As long as I’m relevant to the kids, and as long as I feel I have something to offer,’” he said.
“I like hanging out with the kids, and they like hanging out with me,” he continued. “It’s wonderful to be in a community of young people, and to be an elder in that community.”
As Diamond embarks on his 40th summer at Ramah, relevancy is not an issue, said Young.
“He brings a spirit to Ramah that I’m not sure all those kids get with their congregational rabbis,” she said. “He sort of humanizes the rabbinical presence. But to me, he’s just that goofy 25-year-old guy who went to rabbinical school.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)