A Camp Director’s Ode to his Camp’s “Field of Dreams”

By Rabbi Ami Hersh

Thirty years ago, the movie Field of Dreams came to theaters. Based on W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel, Shoeless Joe, the movie tells the story of Ray Kinsella’s strange and mystical journey, which begins with a Voice coming from a corn field, simply telling Ray (played by Kevin Costner) “If you build it, he will come.”

A strange text indeed. As Ray’s wife Annie (played by Amy Madigan) immediately asks, “If you build what, who will come?” Kinsella, somehow believing the “what” to be a baseball field and the “who” to be Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ray proceeds to raze several acres of his family’s corn fields to build an old-timey ballpark, complete with flood lights. He then proceeds to track down a reclusive former 1960s activist, an aged doctor in Chisholm, Minnesota, and a young minor league-baseball-playing hitchhiker. (No further spoilers will follow.)

Throughout these journeys, Ray’s neighbors and in-laws believe him to be crazy – indeed, he very well may be. But ultimately, he succeeds in recovering nostalgia for so many (and for himself). As Terrence Mann memorably tells us, in the kind but authoritative voice of James Earl Jones:

[T]hey’ll walk out to the bleachers, and sit in shirt-sleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. …

America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.

This field, this game — it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again….

At camp, we have our own Field of Dreams. We call it the migrash, and it’s where our campers arrive each morning to Hebrew songs and raucous dancing and where we gather to dance and sing Hatikvah every Friday afternoon before dismissal for Shabbat.

Heschel famously wrote of Shabbat as a palace in time — “a day on which hours are significant in themselves; their significance and beauty do not depend on any work, profit, or progress we may achieve.” Indeed, “[t]o observe the Sabbath is to celebrate the coronation of a day in the spiritual wonderland of time, the air of which we inhale when we ‘call it a delight.’”

At camp, we are blessed to exist in a palace of both time and space. Camp is both a time and a place apart. Not much more than half an hour from Manhattan (perhaps longer by bus…), it is holy ground, away from ordinary lives of our campers and staff of all ages. Away from school, home, work, “ordinary life.” Some things change, some stay the same. But every day, both literally and figuratively, we dip ourselves in magic waters, marking our time by peulah (activity), yom (day), shavua (week), and kayitz (summer).

When I come to camp in the weeks before shavua hachana (staff week), I see a green migrash, full of life, beauty, and potential energy. Perhaps the only sight more beautiful is the sight of a brown, dried out, dusty field, the result of being having been trampled and danced on, having served as host to countless games of soccer, frisbee, and wiffle Ball, maccabiah, Yom Yisrael, and any number of special “Yoms” (days with special programming) planned by our incredible madrichim (counselors).

In one of the most stirring scenes in Field of Dreams, Dr. Archibald Graham (played by the incomparable Burt Lancaster) tells us, “If I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.” We’re now at the end of the summer camp season. We’re exhausted, but also energized. After a few short months, our field dreams has been turned to dust by the repeated march of over a thousand pairs of feet, large and small. I remind myself every day – if we’d only gotten to dance on our migrash – on our own field of dreams – for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.

Those minutes on the migrash are the product of countless hours of hard work. Day after day, year after year, we continue to build and rebuild camp – its facility, its programs, its staff, and all that goes into making camp the life-changing experience that it is. If we continue to build it, they will continue to come. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a catch.

Rabbi Ami Hersh is the Director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack. His most impactful viewing of “Field of Dreams” took place 20 years ago as a first-year madrich at the same camp, while sharing a room with nine other young (and messy) camp counselors, all of whom remain friends to this day.