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Every year in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, I challenge my students to think of things we do to prepare for the holiday.  The list starts with “we buy apples and honey,” and progresses to round challah and pomegranates.  We then discuss spiritual preparations which include looking back on the whole year and identifying areas in need of improvement and people we need to approach to seek forgiveness.  Only then do we think of more playful things like putting aside some bread to throw in to a river for tashlich, or assembling reading material for synagogue to get us through the hours and hours spent sitting.   

This year is different.  Rosh Hashanah services will not be the same as usual this year.  For some, it will mean watching a service over Zoom.  For others, it will mean attending a much shorter, socially distanced service.  For many, Rosh Hashanah will be spent at home.  Many synagogues have provided links for ordering mahzors, the special prayer books we use on the holiday—while all shuls have them, safety concerns mean they are not lending them out.   The assumption is that many will be praying alone at home, or tuning in over Zoom.  However, I have heard very few people addressing the most important mitzvah of the holiday—hearing the shofar.  Enter Chabad!

As we all know, Chabad and Chabad shluchim are everywhere in the world—from Anchorage to Bangkok to Brisbane.  Jews know they can just show up at a Chabad House and their needs for a Shabbat meal, a Passover Seder, a listening ear and so much more will be there. But what about shofar blowing?   What will Chabad rabbis do to meet the needs of those unable to go to shul?  I assume Chabad rabbis around the world will go to homes and apartment buildings and town squares and blow shofar from outside (this year, only on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah as the first day is Shabbat).  But that may require complex coordination and timing.  

Imagine my delight when I came across an email with the subject line “Learn to blow the shofar @home.”  Against a dark blue background is a blue man with an orange kipa—and an orange shofar with the words, “This year, blowing shofar is in your hands.”   And there is a link to register for a 3 session course—which I just took today!

I have been blowing shofar each day of Elul and am a more than passable amateur—for Elul mornings. But Rosh Hashanah is different.  The stakes are higher. Enter Rabbi Chanoch Kaplan and three videos—about 15 minutes each, on The ABCs of Shofar Blowing, Kosher Shofar Blowing and the Kabalah of Shofar.  Rabbi Kaplan acknowledges that many people will be at home this year and will need to take responsibility for blowing the shofar. He addresses how to select a shofar, where to get it, tricks on how to blow (right side, since that is where Satan resides; use two fingers to support lips), he explains and demonstrates the 3 sounds, addresses who can blow the blessing and shares mystical and spiritual elements.  The course is free but it is worth a donation for learning to fulfill such an important mitzvah for oneself and potentially for a family or a neighborhood.  Highly recommended!   

Go buy honey and get a pre-holiday haircut—but don’t forget about shofar blowing!

Register here!



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On extremely rare occasions, a video stops me in my tracks.  Admittedly, I have a greater chance of even looking at a YouTube video if it comes from a trusted Ramah colleague, and features a former Ramah Tikvah camper.   This video is a tribute to the power of camp, families and firefighters across the world.

In 1984, I spent my first summer as a counselor in the Tikvah Program, the disabilities inclusion program at Camp Ramah in New England.  Ramah has proudly been including people with disabilities in its camps since 1970.  That means that Tikvah just turned 50.  So did Aaron Hartman, a camper who I remember fondly from all of my years working with Tikvah.  Aaron was likeable, friendly, and he enjoyed every aspect of camp.   He also loved fire engines and fire fighters.  This love continues until this day. 

Loving brothers, Noah and Josh, family members, Camp Ramah friends, community members and so many others decided that the best gift to give a life-long lover of fire engines and fire fighters, would be a video about…fire engines and fire fighters.

This team didn’t mess around.  As brother Josh wrote on Facebook: “This video is a collaboration of 100s of firefighters in the US and around the world wishing Aaron the happiest of 50th birthdays. Noah and I are very thankful to all the family, friends and strangers alike that helped us get videos from all 50 states and beyond. Your kindness is so greatly appreciated. Happy Birthday, Aaron. We hope you enjoy and wish we could be there celebrating with you in person.”

This 32-minute video is extraordinary!  Not only will it teach you the 50 states in alphabetical order—and include a trip to Israel to such cities as Jerusalem, Bersheva, and Herziliya—it will show the amazing dedication of fire fighters and emergency personnel across the country and around the world.

I am lucky enough to continue to work with Tikvah—36 years after that first Tikvah summer.  We continue to see the impact of Tikvah campers and the Tikvah Program on the camp community, and on the larger world.  Members of the Israeli mishlachat (delegation) return to Israel more sensitive after a summer at a Ramah camp.  I am sure Aaron was a great emissary for disabilities and inclusion during his Tikvah Ramah trip to Israel many years ago.  Brother Noah reports, “Aaron is proud to share that he went to Israel with Ramah whenever it comes up!”

Campers and staff are more comfortable with people with disabilities—and this carries over later in life.  And many make career decisions based on their experience working or just being with Tikvah campers.  Amy Finkelstein, who helped with this project, first met Aaron at Camp Ramah in New England in the early 90s.   She reports, “I'm a very minor figure in Aaron's life, but he had a major impact on me as a camper.  I ended up working in the special needs program at Camp Barney Medintz in Georgia for many years after high school and into my 20's because of my exposure to Tikvah at Palmer.  My connection to Aaron started at Palmer. My first job out of college was as a service coordinator for adults with disabilities in the Atlanta Jewish community….”

We are so pleased that Aaron and so many Tikvah campers and alum have been such amazing ambassadors over the years.  Aaron is blessed to be part of a most loving family.   And the local, national and international firefighting community clearly understood just how much a few minutes of their time would mean to Aaron.

Please enjoy the video and share widely!  And if you’d like to learn even more about Aaron, listen to Aaron and his dad being interviewed in 2014 for NPR’s StoryCorps, shared on William Syndrome Association Facebook page




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Sitting shiva in the age of Covid-19 has left many mourners feeling cut off and feeling alone in their time of need—the exact opposite of what shiva is supposed to provide.  The unfortunate reality is that—with few exceptions (socially distanced outdoor minyans and comforting, for example), mourners have been left to mourn without the benefit of in-person loving and supportive communities.  

For many, Zoom has offered some comfort. Some Zoom shivas offer a chance for people to “drop by” during specified hours, to offer comfort to mourners; other zoom shivas provide some structure, akin to a memorial service.

When a beloved, long-time member of the Camp Ramah in New England Tikvah community experienced the loss of her father recently, I wasn’t sure how the community would be able to respond and offer support.  What I saw was a truly beautiful outpouring of love and comfort. 

Tiki’s father, David, died two weeks ago.  While he did not die from Covid, he was in the hospital for quite a while.  Due to health and safety concerns, his family was not able to visit.  This made the past few months leading up to his death especially sad.

Tiki and her family really could use support and comfort during these difficult times.  But just how could the camp community offer that support?  Tikvah director Bonnie Schwartz worked with Tiki’s family to plan a meaningful, structured Zoom shiva.

The Tikvah community has known Tiki for so many years.   Tiki knows everybody and everybody knows Tiki. Tiki forms strong relationships with people and makes a strong effort to keep those relationships alive on Facebook and in person.  As Tiki shared during the Zoom shiva, she even had her bat mitzvah at camp!  She recounted how her father somehow managed to locate a kosher bakery between New York and camp and ordered more than 200 kosher rugelach!

After Bonnie welcome and thanked everyone for coming, she explained the format of the evening.  Tiki, her mom and sister had provided several family photos, which would be shared on the screen.  Tiki and her family would explain where the photos were taken—camp, family vacation, etc.—and the visitors could ask questions as they strived to learn more about her late father.

Bonnie then asked some questions which had been discussed with the family before the Zoom shiva—father’s favorite food, color, sports team, movie, music (Naomi Shemer!  He was born in Israel!).  They learned how Tiki’s parents met, how he loved reading books about Israel and Judaism, how he loved the Israeli salads his wife made. 

What amazed me and warmed my heart is not only that 38 people logged in—and some screens had 2 or 3 people; but that so many of Tiki’s peers from Tikvah—most without parents—just showed up!  Several participants were nonverbal or minimally verbal.  Tiki felt their love and support—even without words.   In addition to friends from the camping and vocational training program were peer buddies, counselors, staff members and administrators- dating back to Tiki’s earliest years in camp. 

I think the biggest lesson learned from the Zoom shiva is the importance of showing up.   It is so clear that people with various disabilities are very capable of showing love and empathy.  Another lesson is that structuring the shiva helped a lot. 

 

Bonnie received many texts and emails afterwards from folks who reported that it was beautiful and that they felt inspired and touched— that it really showcased the power of our community and camp.

And Tiki herself shared with me today: “It made me feel better.  My friends are supportive and they love me.”  It was a true pleasure to see Tiki with her camp friends and with new friends—from Australia—on a different Zoom one day later—enjoying an International Dance Party.  

May Tiki and her family continue to experience the love and support of her Camp Ramah community during this difficult time.

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It is 8 pm Thursday in Boston, New York and Florida.  It is 7 pm in Chicago and Minneapolis.  It is 5 pm in Los Angeles.  And it is….10 am in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, Australia!  Welcome to the first Flying Foxes and Tikvah Ramah Dance Party—with tunes, lighting, and special surprises like the Flying TIkvah Game Show!  How fun to bring participants from two large disabilities programs—for a night/afternoon/morning of fun.  96 people had a blast—and we are already planning our next activity.

I was contacted a few years ago by Flying Foxes CEO Dean Cohen. We met in New York—and in Melbourne—to learn about the Tikvah Programs at Camp Ramah, and about the Flying Foxes socialization and camp programs for people with disabilities across Australia.  I have subsequently had numerous in person and Zoom meetings with such amazing members of the team as Tayla, Ricki, Bianca and other.  Now it was time to try out their “crazy” idea—an international dance party!    It worked!

Some Tikvah participants on the east coast were winding down, while some in Australia woke up the next morning and already had their porridge!  DJ Ben played tunes and our worlds were expanded.  Zach from Ramah New England gave a great overview of American overnight 4 and 8 week camping—since the Australians only go to camp for a few days at a time. 

The fun trivia game tested knowledge of each other’s faraway countries. No, Australians don’t have kangaroos as pets.  Yes, Donald Trump is US president.  No, New Zealand and Australia are not attached.  Vegemite?!  Not so well known in America.   And preferences for dogs vs. cats do not break down by country!    

Check out the happy faces of 96 participants, staff members, Tikvah directors, and lead staff of Flying Foxes. It may be 16,662 km and 10,353 miles from Melbourne to New York, and Melbourne may be 14 hours ahead of New York time—but for one wonderful hour, our worlds were one!  



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