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Howard in the News

Ramah program bolsters life skills and Jewish identity
August 23, 2013 by Lois Goldrich

David Weisberg of Oradell has had a particularly valuable – and enjoyable — 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, “has given David a place to be with his contemporaries, providing wonderful opportunities for socialization.”

The Weisberg family — clockwise from lower right, David, Larry, Melanie, and Andrew.
“It was his first summer there,” 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 “more religious” 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.

“He used to leave messages like ‘Go Rutgers’ or ‘Go Giants,” his mother said. “It was funny and wonderful.”

She said that at Ramah, where David attended the vocational education program, “David was less of a camper and more of a worker.”

Demonstrating his embrace of the Hebrew terminology used at the camp, on his second day there David told his mother he worked at the “hadar,” or dining room.

“He was throwing Hebrew words in and teaching me a whole new language,” she said.

He also likes celebrating Shabbat.

“He wants to continue that at home,” Weisberg said. “It’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.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity.”

While David was happily absorbing the Jewish atmosphere of the camp, he also was learning valuable job skills.

“Because of his vision, it was initially difficult to figure out where he fit,” his mother said; the camp tries to place vocational education students in positions that will match their needs and abilities, she added. “They found him a place in the dining hall setting tables and cleaning up. That’s his job every day with two other young adults. He’s supervised by one of the counselors, who makes it fun for them.” He also already has signed up to return next year.

“The supervisors are incredibly well trained and they want to be there and working with this population. They don’t look at it as a job but as a mitzvah.”

She said the program director, Howard Blas, “leaves no stone unturned” in working with participants.

According to the National Ramah Commission, the New England camp is the site of Ramah’s longest-running Tikvah program. The program — the word “tikvah” means “hope” — provides vocational educational initiatives “that 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.”

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 — with disabilities including autism spectrum disorders, learning and processing disabilities, Down syndrome, and vision and hearing loss — 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 “widened 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.”

It used to be that campers were accepted only through age 18, Blas said.

“Families were saying, ‘What happens when our kids age out?’” he added; the Tochnit HaAvodah, or work program, now employs these campers throughout the camp.

In addition to this year’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 there, Blas 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 “a lot of families are telling us that it gets harder as the kids get older. We focus on the job training piece [so that it’s] not just two months in camp.”

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.

“There are thousands of jobs like this in the country,” he said.

Blas described the camp as “a very rich Jewish environment” 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.

“They see their abilities,” he said.

He also noted that participants tend to stay for a long time.

“We have people in their late 20s because you see that they continue to grow and to develop,” he said; the program has about 100 graduates.

“There is a real concern about employment,” he continued. “We all know how important it is to have a job — 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.”
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