Reporter's Notebook

A Capitol Hill reunion with a camper who became a congressman

Florida Democrat Ted Deutch shows off his workplace to Ramah campers, staff and alumni from all over the US

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Congressman Ted Deutch at the Crypt of the Capitol, during the annual tour he gives to Camp Ramah alumni during the AIPAC Policy Conference, this year on March 1, 2020 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Congressman Ted Deutch at the Crypt of the Capitol, during the annual tour he gives to Camp Ramah alumni during the AIPAC Policy Conference, this year on March 1, 2020 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

WASHINGTON — It was 10 p.m., and all was silent at the entrance to the Capitol, the white, neoclassical home of the United States Congress.

There were, however, some 60 of us milling around the entrance, members of the Conservative Movement’s Ramah summer camp network and visiting the nation’s capital to attend AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying organization.

We were at the Capitol for a private tour, at the invitation of Congressman Ted Deutch, a Democrat and Ramah alumnus who has been doing this for several years running during the three days of the annual AIPAC Policy Conference.

“Pair off, and then we’ll count off in Hebrew, first k’edah, and then k’machane,” said Deutch, speaking in Camp Ramah terminology, just before the crypt of the Capitol building. “I would’ve made a great rosh edah,” he joked, referring to a more senior staff position at camp.

Democratic representative Ted Deutch of Florida (Courtesy Ted Deutch)

Deutch, who has been in office for 10 years for the state of Florida, is an alumnus of Ramah in the Poconos, in the western hills of Pennsylvania. He grew up in the working class town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

He attended the camp throughout his childhood and then worked on staff. His own three children attended Ramah Darom, in Clayton, Georgia.

The camp, he said, was one of the most formative experiences in his life.

The tour is one of the ways he gives back to the camping organization.

His current connections to the summer camp go beyond his own history. Two of Deutch’s four staffers are Ramah alumni themselves, one from Darom, the other from Ramah in the Berkshires, an upstate New York property. A security guard at the Capitol, another Ramah alumnus, made sure to be on duty during our tour as well.

Deutch pointed out some other Ramah notables in the crowd, including former Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, whose daughters attend Ramah in New England.

“It’s not too late to think about elected office, Ambassador,” said Deutch, and noted that Jewish singer Rick Recht, another Ramah parent, was on the tour.

Singer Rick Recht (left), his son (far right) and Congressman Ted Deutch (center) (Courtesy Reshet Ramah)

There was one unexpected guest, Israeli comedian Guri Alfi, who is on his own tour doing research about the Jewish community in the US, and was interviewing some of the participants with his accompanying camera crew.

But the star of the evening was Deutch, who was in his element, in the building that he loves, which represents the core of his work.

We first gathered on the ground floor at the Crypt, just below the Rotunda, which was intended to be the burial place of George Washington, who ended up being buried at Mount Vernon. A compass star, inlaid in the floor and now worn smooth and slightly sunken, marks the point at which Washington, D.C. is divided into its four quadrants and is the basis for how addresses in Washington, D.C., are designated (NE, NW, SE, or SW).

“To be here is to be reminded of the opportunity we have to do, to hold a small moment in history,” said Deutch, adding that he often comes to the Capitol to visit, late at night. “I think about how fortunate I am to do this, in this place, at this time.”

We climbed up toward the Rotunda, staring up at the majestic ceiling painted by Greek-Italian-American artist Constantino Brumidi and the lower section, decorated with an elaborate frieze of American history, starting with Christopher Columbus all the way to the Wright Brothers’s flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Congressman Ted Deutch (center) speaks to Camp Ramah alumni, staff and parents at a private tour of the Capitol during AIPAC (Courtesy Reshet Ramah)

“This is an historic and awesome place, at any time of day or night,” he said, while standing in the cast iron domed rotunda, where statues of American luminaries line the walls, punctuating eight massive oil painting that depict early moments in American history.

Once we were all seated in the House of Representatives Chamber, Deutch gave a guide to the circular room, where congresspeople vote on bills. There are no assigned seats, but he pointed out the section where the Republicans sit, the area where the Democrats hold court, as well as the Blue Dogs (Conservative Democrats), the black caucus, the Hispanic caucus and in a back corner, the Pennsylvania delegation.

There are two cloakrooms where staffers sit, although Deutch wistfully spoke about having one cloakroom for even-numbered districts and the other for odd-numbered districts, so that people would be forced to get to know other types.

“It’s a lot harder to be really critical of someone if you know them,” he said.

Marble-etched visages of historic lawmakers and legal luminaries circle the upper portion of the room, and include Moses at the center, as well as Maimonides. Of the 23 relief portraits, only Moses is sculpted with a full frontal view, sitting directly across from the dais where the Speaker of the House sits.

“Any speaker has to look straight at Moses,” said Deutch.

Deutch represents Florida’s 22nd district, and is the Chairman of the House Ethics Committee and a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he serves as the Chairman of the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism Subcommittee.

Guri Alfi (left) with National Ramah Director Mitch Cohen in the Rotunda of the Capitol on March 1, 2020 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Anti-Semitism has also been an ongoing theme for him, and he spoke about his March 2019 speech to his Congressional colleagues about anti-Semitism, after Minnesota Democratic Ilhan Omar used anti-Semitic speech in a tweet.

Deutch was upset that the House didn’t condemn her comments, and wanted his colleagues to understand what upset him.

He credits his ability to stand and speak up to his years at camp.

“My many summers at camp were the most formative years of my life, and gave me the background to be able to stand here and explain to my colleagues how painful it is when a member of Congress invokes lies,” he said. “It was a powerful moment for me.”

He also credited his stance on anti-Semitism to educational experiences he had at camp, and what he learned about the fight to free Soviet Jews.

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., speaks as the House Judiciary Committee hears investigative findings in the impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump, Dec. 9, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

He recalled one day-long activity at camp — “I don’t know if they did it at other camps” — known as Escape from Soviet Union. The day began with each camper being given the name of a refusenik, and then had to apply for a visa to leave. The counselors were the KGB agents, and if they caught campers, the campers were sent to Siberia.

“Only at Camp Ramah is this a fun way to spend your day,” said Deutch.

But it spurred a sense of activism in him, leading him to student activism as a student at University of Michigan.

“When I was in college, there was a big effort in the 1980s to free Soviet Jews,” he said. “There were a lot of people traveling to the Soviet Union, smuggling in siddurim and refilling and kiddush cups and Shabbat candles. A lot of people braving that trip to help sustain Soviet Jewry.”

Many years later, he had the opportunity to speak at a Kabbalat Shabbat service in a Moscow synagogue. He also met Natan Sharansky, the former refusnik who has had his own experiences as an Israeli politician.

“I told him what we did when I was a kid in camp, while he was suffering,” said Deutch. “What Ramah gave me helped raise a sense of passion and understanding of who we are as a community of people.”

With that, we all rose, and linking hands, sang “Rad Hayom,” to the tune of Taps, the song that ends every day at every Ramah camp.

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