Camp Ramah

Original Article Published On The Covenant Foundation

In the late 1960’s, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, two teachers working in the field of special education, approached several Jewish summer camps with a novel idea: why not include children with disabilities at camp?

At the time, this was an unheard-of idea, and the Greenbergs encountered a lot of pushback and opposition.

“People worried it would cost too much, disrupt the order of camp, lower the level of Hebrew, and that the [neuro] typical children would leave,” they reflected, years later.

But Donny Adelman z”l, the camp director who was running a Camp Ramahprogram in Glen Spey, New York (the camp later moved to a New England site), responded enthusiastically. As Barbara Greenberg explained in The Jerusalem Post last year, Ramah recognized the Jewish moral imperative that this initiative signified.

It was that recognition, and a willingness to move the needle on Jewish camping, which ultimately led to the establishment of the first Ramah Tikvah program in 1970.

Identifying and recruiting campers that first summer wasn’t easy. Jewish communal professionals were not yet engaged in or thinking much about how to include Jewish children with disabilities in Jewish camping life, and it would be many years before inclusion became a buzzword. But that summer, Herb and Barbara managed to recruit eight campers, and the first Tikvah program was born.

It wasn’t smooth sailing at first. In fact, that inaugural summer, the Greenbergs spent a great deal of time serving as diplomats within the camp community, advocating for their ideal of inclusive camping, and reassuring people at camp who didn’t understand at first how a model like this could work.

But their dedication paid off. Over several years, Tikvah programs began to spring up in Ramah overnight camps across North America, and in dozens of other Jewish summer camps as well (Today, all Ramah overnight camps and day camps serve campers with disabilities, with offerings including camping and vocational training experiences, salaried employment for adults with disabilities, Israel programs, weekly video meetings, and occasional reunions and get-togethers for participants and alumni.)

This model of inclusion was so successful, in fact, that it has begun to serve as an “industry standard” for how Jewish communal spaces welcome children with disabilities into their programming.

While summer programs for campers with disabilities were much needed, there was more to be done. Families still felt there were not enough opportunities for their children to experience Jewish learning during the calendar year and for programming that included the whole family. In addition, accommodations for children with disabilities still weren’t quite meeting the standards necessary for true inclusion (which include, among other things, accommodating for sensory and behavioral needs during prayer services and community-wide events).

Families longed for a place where they could attend a Shabbat service with their child, knowing that a child’s different behavior (loud noises, or an outburst) wouldn’t be deemed a disruption. They desired an environment of acceptance as well as camaraderie with other families.

Rabbi Loren Sykes, a veteran Camp Ramah director and a 2006 Covenant Award recipient, was listening. In 2004, he launched Camp Yofi, a Jewish family camp experience for children with autism, their parents, and their siblings. (Camp Yofi received a Signature Grant from The Covenant Foundation in 2005.)

“We created Camp Yofi out of a desire to establish sacred space for and warmly welcome back Jewish families who were being excluded, actively and passively, from the Jewish community,” Rabbi Sykes shared.

Family camps for children with disabilities take place at Camp Ramah sites once or twice per year in California, the Poconos, and New England.

While inclusive camping clearly benefits people with disabilities and is praised by their parents, the impact on the rest of the camp community is also worth noting. For nearly 50 years, Ramah campers and staff members have been returning home to their synagogues and Jewish communities with a greater awareness of and comfort with people with disabilities. Each camper, staff member, mishlachat (Israeli delegation) member—the entire Ramah community—interacts with people with disabilities in a very natural way—through Shabbat programming, camp-wide field trips, meals in the chadar ochel, special events, free swim, barbecues, and special buddy and peer mentoring programs for campers and staff.

And this bears out in reflections from campers who experience the enrichment of Tikvah firsthand.

“Inclusion has taught me many lessons including patience, tolerance, and acceptance,” said Julia Wolf, a 21-year-old veteran Ramah camper. “These are qualities I take with me in my life, everyday.”

Campers at Ramah who are between the ages of 13-16 also have opportunities across the camp sites to be peer mentors, and often chose to work as inclusion or Tikvah counselors when they return as staff members at age 18. This helps assure a steady pipeline of sensitive, qualified staff.

The Jewish camping community has come a long way since the days of Herb and Barbara Greenberg’s foundational work. Today, many Jewish summer camps offer inclusive programs and the Jewish community as a whole has become far more attentive to the needs of people with disabilities.

But it’s the effect that Tikvah has had on families that is the most resonant of all.

“The Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in New England is Molly’s happy place,” said Hannah Jacobs, the parent of a long-time Tikvah camper.

“It’s more than just a second [summer] home for Molly,” Hannah continued. “It’s also the only place that allows her the freedom to be her true self.”

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Original Post Published On Foundation for the Jewish Camp

While doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, and so many others were working from home and not always feeling very “essential” during the pandemic, Austin, Tiffany, and other people with disabilities were teaching what it means to be and feel truly essential.

When the pandemic hit and it became clear that camp would not take place this summer in the same way it had in previous summers, Ramah campers across North America were deeply disappointed. In the months leading up to summer, campers with and without disabilities enjoyed dozens of quality programs offered by each individual camp and by National Ramah. Even with the availability of these programs, current members of our vocational training programs and alumni—many who found themselves out of work or no longer at in-person internships—expressed concerns that without a summer at camp, they would lose the opportunity to work on important vocational and social skills. We quickly mobilized to create TikvahNet, a series of 75-minute Zoom meetings facilitated by Ramah Tikvah staff, focusing on both job skills and socialization.

We recently kicked off our third 8-week series of TikvahNet programming. To date, over 80 current or former Tikvah voc ed program members have participated. For each session, the program coordinator and four staff members prepare PowerPoint slides, enabling participants with a wide range of intellectual and developmental disabilities and verbal abilities to fully participate in the program. Slides were shared with participants and families prior to each session so they could prepare in advance. We have learned about money management, workplace behavior, the elections and our right to vote, proper precautions to take during the pandemic, resumes, and self-advocacy. We have also cooked, danced, enjoyed a virtual tour of Israel and a Chanukah party, and made cards of appreciation to frontline workers. The level of dedication of the staff members truly led to the success of the program. They developed, individualized, and expanded the concept of TikvahNet so that it will continue even beyond the pandemic.

One of the great benefits of TikvahNet has been watching participants from Toronto socializing with old and new friends from Chicago, Seattle, Washington, Miami, and Los Angeles—across three time zones! Participants enjoy sharing stories of one very special thing they have in common—camp! They compare notes on similarities and differences between camps–special Shabbat foods, whether they have a pool or a lake, and where they pray on Shabbat. They look forward to ending each session with the Ramah-wide nighttime song, Rad Hayom.

Perhaps most inspiring has been listening to Austin and Tiffany tell the group about their jobs. Austin spoke about his job at a hospital in St. Louis, where he delivers food trays to patients in their rooms. “I am an essential worker!” he tells the group. Tiffany of Los Angeles adds, “I’m an essential worker, too! I work in a grocery store.” Austin and Tiffany are performing essential work and more importantly, are feeling like the essential workers that they are.

We hope to continue helping people with disabilities feel more essential and ultimately find meaningful employment. In the current phase of TikvahNet, we are inviting businesses who employ people with disabilities to describe what it takes to be hired by their companies. We have already heard from Blue Star Recyclers (computer and electronic recycling), and will soon hear from Luv Michael, a granola company. Two current TikahNet participants and their parents will soon join to share the story of Shred Support, the DC-area shredding company they started during the pandemic. These two young men with Down Syndrome, Uriel and Jacob, are doing essential work and teaching the community what it feels like to be essential.

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Original Article Published on The eJP

[This is the second article in a 4-part series sponsored by The Covenant Foundation and written by Covenant Foundation Award recipients and grantees.]

In my work with young adults with disabilities and their families, I constantly hear the expression “falling off the cliff” to describe the lack of adequate job opportunities for people with disabilities once they complete high school.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities – both during the pandemic and in general – is higher than for the general population. As of March 2019, 1 in 5 workers with disabilities had been dismissed from employment, compared with 1 in 7 in the general population, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the United Nations, in developing countries, 80% to 90% of persons with disabilities of working age are unemployed, whereas in industrialized countries the figure is between 50% and 70%. Further, in most developed countries the official unemployment rate for persons with disabilities of working age is at least twice that for those who have no disability.

Addressing this problem will take years of legislation, education and awareness – a real sea change. But there is a trend that gives me hope: community support of small businesses that are owned and operated by people with disabilities. During this month of Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion, the Jewish community can and should make a stronger commitment to supporting disability owned and run and disability-friendly businesses.

There are many Jewish individuals with disabilities around the country who are starting and running such businesses. Jacob Werbin and Uriel Levitt, two Washington, DC-area young men with Down Syndrome recently started Shred Support, a shredding business in Silver Spring, MD. Alexa Chalup runs Truly Scrumptious by Alexa, custom chocolate covered cookies, right out of her home on Long Island, NY. The Sunflower Bakery and Bake Shop of Rockville, MD provides skilled job training and employment opportunities in the baking and hospitality industries.

In my work, I have traveled the country and searched the Internet for similar businesses and have already identified more than 200. They include hydroponic farming, car washes, bakeries, computer recycling, cybersecurity, mammogram reading, dog treat companies and more. You can find many of these types of business listed here.

Businesses like Shred Support, Truly Scrumptous By Alexa and Sunflower Bakery all provide unprecedented opportunities for the Jewish community to be supportive while attaining what Maimonides would consider to be the highest level of tzedakah (which I prefer to translate as “righteous action” and not “charity”). The Rambam writes, “the highest form of tzedakah is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished … by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.”

Many Jewish organizations have already begun to undertake this righteous action. Synagogues and Jewish schools in the DC-area regularly order from Sunflower Bakery. Camp Ramah Darom recently ordered “early registration gifts” from John’s Crazy Socks – a sock company owned by a father and his son with Down Syndrome. When FAISR (Friends of Access Israel) organized a Kilimanjaro climb which included four people with paraplegia, it made perfect sense to order sweatshirts from Spectrum Designs in Port Washington, NY, a custom apparel and promotional items business, which, along with their Spectrum Bakes and Spectrum Suds (laundry business) has a social mission – to help individuals with autism obtain employment.

When a person with or without a disability works, there are obvious financial rewards. But there are also social, physical and mental health benefits. Employment provides a sense of accomplishment, pride and self-confidence. When a Jewish organization supports businesses which value people with disabilities, we are acknowledging that we are all created B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s Image.

During JDAIM, ask yourself two questions: Could I order those t-shirts, cookies or gift boxes from a business run by people with disabilities? And might my place of employment benefit from the often unique skills of a person with disabilities? If the answer is yes to either question and you take action, you are supporting a disability-run business while also attaining the highest level of tzedakah.

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Original Article Published On The Respectability.org

It has been said that “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” The COVID pandemic has certainly posed tremendous vocational challenges for people with disabilities, who, despite already experiencing an employment rate less than half of people without disabilities, experienced 40% greater job loss with minimal recovery. It has also provided unprecedented opportunities—to develop skills, to continue working from home and in person (for those who currently have jobs) and to think creatively about new opportunities.

Many people with disabilities and organizations working with them have responded swiftly and creatively. Participants and families in our National Ramah Tikvah Network vocational training programs, located in our 10 Ramah camps in the US and Canada, expressed concerns about social isolation and job skills. In response, we swiftly created TikvahNET, a vocational training and socialization program.

We recently completed our second 8-week program and will soon begin our third. We offer facilitated socialization time and work in small breakout rooms, using PowerPoint slides and discussions, to address such topics as physical and mental wellness, money and budgeting, laundry and booking skills, resumes and interviews and social media skills and etiquette. In our third cycle, we will bring employers with impressive records of hiring people with disabilities to share what they are looking for in potential employees, and we will use our breakout room time to work on those skills.

Alumni of our programs—some in their 40s and 50s—have shared their journeys from camp and high school graduation to the present, focusing on their employment, social lives and level of inclusion and participation in the Jewish community. There have been heartwarming moments. Austin, who works in a hospital in St. Louis, and Tiffany, who works in a grocery store in Los Angeles, spoke of being essential workers. They and other Tikvah alum feel valued when thanked for performing these essential duties.

Other members of the Tikvah community have productively used their time at home during the pandemic to focus on start-up businesses. Uriel and Jacob, two young Washington, DC-area men with Down Syndrome, have created Shred Support, a shredding business. Alexa, a Long Island, NY-based young woman, also with Down Syndrome, has created Truly Scrumptious by Alexa, selling custom chocolate-covered cookies. Yum!

Beyond our program, Chapel Haven Schleifer Center, a residential school and independent living program in New Haven, CT, runs a program called CareerAbility, founded to meet the need for meaningful employment among its participants. During this time, CareerAbility focused all of their energy on keeping job seekers and working adults engaged in the workforce. They immediately launched virtual offerings while simultaneously providing safe community-based work experiences for adults to perform their career explorations, internships, and jobs. This resulted in clients engaged in 67 community-based job skill development experiences.

It is hard to conceptualize what this will mean post Covid-19. But these tough times demand out-of-the-box thinking, creativity, flexibility and taking calculated risks. There may be an ongoing need for more cleaning and sanitizing at businesses or hospitals. If people remain reluctant to travel to stores, it could be useful to start a delivery or courier business modeled after Good Foot Delivery in Toronto, Canada, which provides personalized point-to-point delivery on foot and public transit, creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

As we emerge from the pandemic, what is clear is that we NEED a range of employment options for people with disabilities including small businesses and big companies, on-site and remote options, flexible and varying hours each week–5 hours, 15 hours, 40 hours or more. And these jobs need to exist across a wide range of industries. I have been working to map the landscape of creative places of employment for people with disabilities. I have discovered magicians, IKEA furniture assemblers, bike mechanics, car restorers, high-end cabinet makers, vertical farmers, coders, cybersecurity specialists, mammogram readers and more.

Our tradition tells us that we may sow in tears and reap in joy. Let us not waste the crisis of this pandemic, but reap creative gains in the post-pandemic employment for people with disabilities!

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