A Ramah Love Story Across the Camps and Generations
Written by Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Director of the Ramah Camping Movement
The marriage of Harry Chiel and Zoe Tabachnick this past Sunday, January 18, is not simply a Ramah marriage story. Indeed, while Harry and Zoe met and fell in love at camp like hundreds of other couples over the last 68 years, theirs is also a wonderful story of the interweaving of two strong Ramah families representing multiple Ramah camps and Ramah Israel programs: from LA to Boston, from Pittsburgh to Canada, and from Nyack to Jerusalem.
When I first met Rabbi Samuel Chiel, z”l, one of the great 20th-century leaders of Conservative Judaism, I told him about my career thoughts and the possibility that I would become a rabbi and a Ramah director. He was thrilled for me. He and his wife Janet had sent their own boys to Ramah New England and he had encouraged many other families to do the same. His youngest son Jonathan, one of my closest friends in college, had become a senior leader at Palmer, running the waterfront and mentoring many staff members.
And while they didn’t meet at Ramah, but rather at Brown University, Jonathan fell in love with Judy Jacoby. She was also a life-long Ramahnik, from California. Her parents, Lela and Norman Jacoby, have been among the top lay leaders and supporters of Ramah Ojai as the camp has grown and thrived.
So of course, Jon and Judy’s kids would be Ramah campers, right? But which Ramah: Ojai or Palmer? The debate raged for years within the Chiel household. Judy won, and their three daughters, Rachel, Jamie and Laura, mostly spent their summers in Ojai.
Then came Harry. As the fourth child and the only boy, Harry didn’t quite make it through the traditional ladder of Ramah experiences. According to David Offit, a Ramah Palmer alumnus and Harry’s friend since kindergarten, “After one short and unsuccessful attempt in Ojai, Harry at first loved Palmer and everyone loved him. But let’s just say that when we were in Magshimim, the camping trip didn’t go so well, and Harry left camp, a bit homesick, never to return.”
Could it be that Harry–the grandchild of the esteemed Chiels and Jacobys, the son of two great Ramah leaders, and the brother of three wonderfully adjusted Ramahniks–would not continue in the Ramah tradition?
It certainly seemed that way, well into his teen years. However, in 2008 Harry found himself applying to be a CIT at age 16 at the Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, NY.
Zoe, a life-long Ramahnik at Canada, found herself applying as well. After completing a semester on TRY in 2007 and having returned to Ramah Canada for her last summer as an Alonim camper, Zoe decided to spend the summer of 2008 at Nyack. According to her TRY roommate and proud Nyack and Palmer alumna Eva Jablow, “Zoe immediately adjusted to Nyack and made a million friends in the first week. That’s just Zoe.” Nyack Director Amy Skopp Cooper adds, “Harry and Zoe became integral members of our community that summer–dancing on our migrash, engaging in Jewish study, developing enduring friendships with fellow staff members, and proving to be exceptional Ramah madrichim.”
Zoe’s childhood friend from Ramah Canada, Darrien Sherman, says, “Zoe was an all-star camper and she was tremendously loved by her fellow edah members and tzevet. We were sad to let her go to Nyack, but it was a blessing, because she met Harry there!”
Indeed she did! The relationship began, of all places, in the chadar ochel “pit.” According to Amy Skopp Cooper: “Harry was using his mathematical skills to calculate exactly how much bread, soy butter, and jelly were needed at each table. Zoe, working with him, was making sure that everyone’s needs were being taken care of. The pit, you must understand, is smaller than a tiny office cubicle–an easy place to work side by side and to fall in love!”
After their engagement last May, as rumors began to fly with differing narratives about how they met, Harry definitively stated: “We did, indeed meet at Camp Ramah in Nyack! I was sitting on the steps of Hope Cottage with Jordan Soffer when I met Zoe. But I am definitely interested in hearing these revised narratives, and possibly adopting them if they are compelling enough!”
After camp, Zoe and Harry maintained a long-distance relationship, first from Pittsburgh to Newton, then from Israel to St. Louis, and throughout their college years at Harvard (Harry) and Wash U (Zoe). Each summer, Harry and Zoe reunited at Ramah Nyack, the only place they shared together. Harry was an incredible counselor and role model for entering second graders; Zoe went on to become a rosh edah for two summers even after Harry was unable to return to camp.
This past May, Harry invited Zoe to join him on Cape Cod, where he proposed. He brought along a box full of relationship memorabilia, and she immediately accepted!
And now two great Ramah families come together in another wonderful Ramah marriage. I was privileged to attend the wedding in Pittsburgh together with Ramah friends and family from almost every Ramah camp and Israel program.
For so many couples, Ramah was the place where romance blossomed. And for those who don’t find their “bashert” during their camp years, Ramah will soon be launching RamahDate, an online dating site run by JDate in which Ramah alumni can continue to meet Ramahniks well after their camp years. Ironically, the first reporter to publish a story on RamahDate was none other than Zoe’s mom, Toby Tabachnick. After hearing me mention RamahDate when I was at Ramah Canada this summer, Alonim camper and TRY alumnus RJ Tabachnick, Zoe’s brother, told his mom, who immediately scooped the Jewish world with this news-breaking story about our new dating website!
Harry and Zoe will begin their married life together in New York City, where Harry works at a hedge fund, and Zoe is pursuing her PhD in School Psychology at Columbia. They will most certainly continue to cherish all their Ramah relationships, joining the Reshet Ramah and camp-specific alumni communities from Canada, Palmer, Nyack, and TRY.