Ramah program bolsters life skills and Jewish identity
August 23, 2013 by Lois Goldrich
David Weisberg of Oradell has had a particularly valuable â€“ and enjoyable â€” summer.
David, who is 21, has Cohen syndrome, a developmental delay involving both low muscle tone and vision impairment. He spent two months at Camp Ramah in New England, and is ending the summer not only with enhanced life skills and job training, but also with an increased appreciation for his Jewish heritage.
Even more, said his mother, Melanie Weisberg, the camp, in Palmer, Massachusetts, â€œhas given David a place to be with his contemporaries, providing wonderful opportunities for socialization.â€
The Weisberg family â€” clockwise from lower right, David, Larry, Melanie, and Andrew.
â€œIt was his first summer there,â€ Melanie Weisberg said. After attending a self-contained
program at River Dell High School in Oradell, her son joined the Springboard program in Paramus, which teaches life skills and trains attendees for jobs. He also interned for two years at Goodwill Industries.
In September he will start a post-21
program at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly that is similar to Springboard.
David also has had some Jewish education; he went to Hebrew school at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, where he celebrated becoming bar mitzvah, and was a camper at the special needs New Jersey Y camp, Round Lake, for five years.
Still, his mother and father, Larry Weisberg, were a bit surprised at the eagerness with which he embraced the â€œmore religiousâ€ atmosphere of Ramah.
He was so enthused, in fact, that he left a message on the cell phone of his twin brother Andrew, a senior at Rutgers, in which he sang the entire Shema.
â€œHe used to leave messages like â€˜Go Rutgersâ€™ or â€˜Go Giants,â€ his mother said. â€œIt was funny and wonderful.â€
She said that at Ramah, where David attended the vocational education program, â€œDavid was less of a camper and more of a worker.â€
Demonstrating his embrace of the Hebrew terminology used at the camp, on his second day there David told his mother he worked at the â€œhadar,â€ or dining room.
â€œHe was throwing Hebrew words in and teaching me a whole new language,â€ she said.
He also likes celebrating Shabbat.
â€œHe wants to continue that at home,â€ Weisberg said. â€œItâ€™s great. He also wants to go to Israel. Birthright is not an option, since he would need supervision. But they do run a program through Ramah and the vocational education program.
â€œItâ€™s a wonderful opportunity.â€
While David was happily absorbing the Jewish atmosphere of the camp, he also was learning valuable job skills.
â€œBecause of his vision, it was initially difficult to figure out where he fit,â€ his mother said; the camp tries to place vocational education students in positions that will match their needs and abilities, she added. â€œThey found him a place in the dining hall setting tables and cleaning up. Thatâ€™s his job every day with two other young adults. Heâ€™s supervised by one of the counselors, who makes it fun for them.â€ He also already has signed up to return next year.
â€œThe supervisors are incredibly well trained and they want to be there and working with this population. They donâ€™t look at it as a job but as a mitzvah.â€
She said the program director, Howard Blas
, â€œleaves no stone unturnedâ€ in working with participants.
According to the National Ramah Commission, the New England camp is the site of Ramahâ€™s longest-running
Tikvah program. The program â€” the word â€œtikvahâ€ means â€œhopeâ€ â€” provides vocational educational initiatives â€œthat maintain crucial connections to the Jewish community for young people with disabilities and helps prepare them for employment and independent living when the summer ends.â€
This summer, more than 50 persons in their late teens and early 20s participated in vocational education programs at four Ramah camps across North America. The participants â€” with disabilities including autism spectrum disorders, learning and processing disabilities, Down syndrome, and vision and hearing loss â€” worked both at the camps and in adjacent communities.
The initiative received a boost this year from the Ruderman Family Foundation, which awarded a $50,000 grant to the National Ramah Commission to support the development of the vocational education programs.Blas
, a social worker and special education teacher who has headed the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in New England for the past 12 years, also serves as a consultant to the National Ramah network of special needs programs, and he also writes for the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. In 2013 he received an award from the Covenant Foundation for Excellence in Jewish Education for having â€œwidened the portal for youth with developmental disabilities and their families to enter and thrive in a Jewish educational environment and set them on a course for life.â€
It used to be that campers were accepted only through age 18, Blas
â€œFamilies were saying, â€˜What happens when our kids age out?â€™â€ he added; the Tochnit HaAvodah, or work program, now employs these campers throughout the camp.
In addition to this yearâ€™s cohort of 15 vocational education participants, an additional five people with special needs were hired to serve as staff members. Some worked in the package room, sorting and delivering mail, others worked at the Tikvah Guest House, a six-unit
motel operated exclusively by young people with disabilities, and still another worked in the day camp with staff children.
While David was a first-timer
pointed out most campers in the vocational education program come from the camping programs, where 13- to 18-year-olds enjoy all regular camp activities but are also offered peer-buddies, mentoring, and some job training. Many then progress to the vocational education program.
He said the camp is focusing heavily on the vocational educational program because â€œa lot of families are telling us that it gets harder as the kids get older. We focus on the job training piece [so that itâ€™s] not just two months in camp.â€
He said that many of the people who have gone through his program have found work in food services, for example, working in school dining rooms.
â€œThere are thousands of jobs like this in the country,â€ he said.Blas
described the camp as â€œa very rich Jewish environmentâ€ and said Tikvah campers have the same experience as other campers. In addition, he said, other campers come to see people with disabilities in a different way.
â€œThey see their abilities,â€ he said.
He also noted that participants tend to stay for a long time.
â€œWe have people in their late 20s because you see that they continue to grow and to develop,â€ he said; the program has about 100 graduates.
â€œThere is a real concern about employment,â€ he continued. â€œWe all know how important it is to have a job â€” a reason to get up in the morning. You feel good about yourself. When you begin to give these young adults job training, you set them on a great course for life.â€