I am a former Ramah camper and staff member stricken with grief at the sudden death of my lifelong friend and fellow Ramah camper and staff member, Eric Steinthal, z”l. In the wake of his death, I feel compelled to tell the story of how Camp Ramah in the Berkshires has transformed and shaped my life, and the lives of our group of friends.
I first met Eric as a 10-year-old at Ramah in the Berkshires. We were in the same bunk – A-16 – and have been close friends ever since. Over the next few years, our group of camp friends grew to 10. We didn’t just hang out together in camp; sleepovers and shuttling between each other’s houses were the norm all year. Our backgrounds were varied, and represented all facets of Conservative Judaism, from kids like me who attended day schools and were immersed in Jewish learning and culture, to kids who did not observe kashrut or Shabbat. Yet when we gathered in Ramah every summer we were all equal. We all observed Shabbat. We all kept kosher. We all went to tefillot every day, and wore a tallit and tefillin every morning. We all said the motzi before we ate, and we benched after every meal. And Shabbat… Shabbat in camp is magical. The day-to-day routine is replaced by something more spiritual, more kadosh, more holy. Even as young kids we understood that Shabbat is very different from any other day of the week, and it was camp that taught us that lesson.
For us, camp did not end with the summer. Kids who did not eat kosher at home told their parents that they wanted to start keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, and even leave public school for Jewish day school, as Eric did.
Our group grew tighter as the years passed, and many of us attended Solomon Schechter high schools, deepening our bonds. As we entered college, many of us continued to work in camp, but eventually we had to enter the real world and get jobs. But we still held onto our friendships, which culminated every year with the Ramah Berkshires Labor Day alumni weekend reunion. This was the most important weekend of the year. I refused to schedule my wedding over Labor Day because I did not want to miss it! Many of us met our wives and significant others during that weekend, and indeed it is where I met my wife, Jordana, almost six years ago.
My Ramah friendships shaped and defined my life. It is easy to take for granted that nine other people will be there for you whenever you need them, but I can never take that for granted again.
Our friend, Eric Jay Steinthal, who died suddenly on Saturday, March 17, was the center of our circle. It was Eric and his fiancée Jodi Siskind who hosted all of our poker games and get-togethers. Their apartment was our home base. Eric embodied the concept of menschlichkeit, and his quiet and unassuming demeanor and self-confidence made him extremely popular throughout the Ramah community. He was even the commissioner of the Ramah Alumni Basketball Association, and a member of the Berkshires Alumni Hanhallah – its board.
After hearing the terrible news, four of Eric’s friends, all from Ramah, rushed to the hospital to try to give his family support and comfort. The next day, more than 15 of us gathered at my parents’ house. We spent the day and night telling funny stories, trying to get through the nightmare. Eric’s funeral was the hardest day of my life. It was filled with memories, love, and most of all, Camp Ramah. Eric’s life revolved around camp, and to a certain respect the camp alumni community revolved around Eric.
We are all trying to make sense of a tragedy that no parents, no siblings, no partners, and no friends should ever have to endure. But we have comfort. We have our bonds, forged together at Camp Ramah. They can never be broken. I cannot imagine having to endure this terrible pain without them. Even in the face of overwhelming tragedy, we find support, love, and hope that will enable us to continue without our friend. For all of us, that is what Camp Ramah stands for.
May Eric’s memory be for a blessing.