Camp Ramah

Original Article published on The Camp Ramah Northern California

Tikvah changed my life. In 1984, I was hired to work in the kitchen at Camp Ramah in New England. A day before my arrival, I was asked if I would fill a last minute opening in the Tikvah Program. “What is Tikvah?” I asked. My experience that summer led to my pursuing a career in disabilities inclusion. I spent a total of 21 years working with Tikvah at Ramah New England and have been working as the director of our National Ramah Tikvah Network for five years. In that capacity, I work with the Tikvah directors of all Ramah camps, sharing best practices, discussing vocational training, staff recruitment, Israel trips and more. Three years ago, I was privileged to have my Ramah affiliations include Ramah Galim.

When I speak about Tikvah nationally and internationally, I point out that there was a lot of pushback in the late 1960s when Herb and Barbara Greenberg proposed the idea for Tikvah. Tikvah opened in 1970 in Glen Spey, New York and soon after moved to Ramah New England. Camp by camp, Tikvah was incorporated in to each camp. We recently celebrated 50 years of Tikvah in Israel during our recent Tikvah Ramah Bike Ride and Hike.

At Ramah Galim, Tikvah was fully a part of camp from the outset. Rabbi Sarah Shulman and the board of directors felt strongly that Ramah Galim should not open its doors without Tikvah. How far we have come in four years!

In 2015, my colleague Elana Naftalin Kelman, the longtime Tikvah director at Ramah California in Ojai, directed a one week Tikvah Program. I was privileged to join the Galim family the following year when Tikvah expanded to a two-week program. With the support and visionary leadership of Rabbi Sarah, we started a two week Ezra vocational training program that summer—with two participants. We soon expanded the Ezra Program to two sessions (one or two session option), and our numbers increased in both Amitzim and Ezra.

Amitzim campers are full members of the camp community. We participate in all camp-wide activities, live in the bayit and eat meals with the camp community in the chadar ochel, participate in Shabbat davening and daily mincha moments—and boogie board, kayak, ride horses, climb the climbing wall, farm and more with our peers from other edot.

Members of the Ezra Program set up the dining room, sort and deliver mail and packages, sort and deliver nishnoosh (snack), work with farm animals at the horse barn, and will soon launch an as of now “secret” in camp business (shhhhh!).

We are pleased that to report that Tikvah has 13 members this session—7 in Amitzim and 6 in Ezra. The participants are excited for their first Shabbat with members of the larger camp community, and they are preparing for their masa (camping trip) next week.

I have been privileged to direct Tikvah year round and in person for the past three years. My in-person work with Tikvah is drawing to a close. In my National Ramah role, I will continue visiting Tikvah programs across North America. I will also be visiting innovative vocational training programs across the country. I will continue to be in close contact with Tikvah and with the Ramah Galim community. We are so proud of the inclusive community Ramah Galim continues to be!

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Original Article Published on The Washington Jewish Week

“Having kids with disabilities is just as normal as having sports at Camp Ramah. It’s what we do,” said Howard Blas, director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah.

That is great news for 18-year old Uriel Levitt of Silver Spring, who has Down syndrome, a genetic condition in which a person has 47 chromosomes instead of the usual 46. This summer will be his fourth one at the camp. “He’s got this amazing opportunity for growth and independence. He’s away from home for two months,” said his mother, Dina Levitt.

She also is thrilled with her son’s summer filled with all-things Jewish. He attends a public school where there are not a lot of Jewish students. But, she said, at Camp Ramah, “he’s got the 24-7 opportunity to hang out with Jewish kids, to learn Jewish stuff.”

“All year long he talk about Camp Ramah. Often, we can’t find his underwear. He’s packed it. Every now and then we have to go and unpack his duffle back,” Dina Levitt said.

When at camp, her son lives in a bunk with other teens to 21-year-olds who are in the Tikvah Program and spends his day engaged in regular camp activities, often with his bunkmates but also with the rest of the campers as well. The Hebrew word tikvah means hope.

The entire camp eats together and celebrates Shabbat as a group. Uriel Levitt also enjoys singing and dancing rehearsals with everyone involved in the camp play, his mother said.

Being included in camp life is so important, because her son learns to model his behavior, she said. “That’s the whole point of inclusion.”

Uriel Levitt also learns responsibility and vocational skills. Two summers ago, he worked at the lake helping the youngest campers learn to swim. “They apparently loved him,” his mother said. Last summer, he helped out in the art room two or three days a week.

Josh Sachs, 21, of Rockville, also attends the Tikvah Program. He has been enjoying his summers at the camp for more than five years. Sachs also has Down syndrome.

As part of his camp life, Sachs has helped make the pizzas the counselors eat after hours. “Basically I chop up stuff. I saut them and then we put them in the oven,” he explained. “Then we serve them.”

By enabling Sachs to be involved in Ramah’s daily life and work in the kitchen performing repetitive skills, the camp is providing the training to help the young man get a job, Blas explained.

Camp as a whole, but his kitchen work in particular, has “been a great experience” for Sachs, said his father, Steven Sachs. “His maturity and his ability to stay on task” has greatly improved.

The young man also has grown through his positive experiences in Temple Beth Ami’s special needs program and his current work at MOST, the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes’ Meaningful Opportunities for Successful Transitions program. There he is learning employment and social skills, his father said.

Camp Ramah, which is part of the Conservative movement, runs eight overnight camps and each has a program for children with special needs. The programs vary from being totally inclusive in camp life to some combination of inclusiveness and special programming, Blas said. All the programs feature Jewish life, he said, adding, “Everybody benefits form Jewish overnight camping.”

Not only do children with special needs have a true camping experience, but they also help other campers they interact with gain a sensitivity toward anyone who is different than them, Blas said.

Many campers continue on for years, eventually becoming counselors. Older children in the Tikvah Program stay on to learn vocation skills, Blas said, pointing out Josh Sachs. “He can sit for two hours and sauté vegetables that go on the pizza. There are a lot of jobs out there in the world “they might not be too exciting for you and me,” like bagging groceries and making pizzas, but these campers “can do it for hours and hours with a smile on their face.”

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Former members of elite IDF units frustrated by toasting marshmallows while cohort called up to Operation Protective Edge

PALMER, Massachusetts — At Camp Ramah in New England this weekend, Israeli emissary Yakov described feeling very far away from what’s happening in Israel while sitting in the idyllic Massachusetts forest surrounding his Jewish sleep-away summer camp. He spoke about a disconnect with his otherwise peaceful town of Nazareth Ilit as tires burn in the nearby Arab village where he usually eats “the best shawarma in all of Israel.”

The camp’s tennis teacher Maoz was discharged 16 months ago from his Special Forces unit. The Jerusalem resident told the Shabbat learning session’s leaders he plans to return home if called, and added, “I am more worried about my brother who is still serving; we don’t hear from him for weeks at a time.”

It is especially poignant listening to Lior describe how hard it is for him being so far from his home and from his unit. The 23-year-old with curly black hair leads nature cooking classes each day for 9- through 16-year-old campers. He vaguely and discretely reported that he has served in “security services” for the past five years and is “still in the army.”

“My friends are lined up near Gaza. And I am making sambussakpitot and roasting marshmallows. It is insufferable,” said Lior.

‘My friends are lined up near Gaza. And I am making sambussakpitot and roasting marshmallows. It is insufferable’

While he is committed to his service in the American Jewish summer camp, he has been in touch with his commander and is ready to return home, to action, as soon as he gets the call.

“I will pack my stuff, stop by the office to say goodbye and go right to the airport,” said Lior.

And the situation on his yishuv in the Shomron, thirty minutes from Netanya, only makes his distance from home more difficult.

“The Arab villages nearby are exploding and threatening us,” he said.

Lior feels blessed that the Wi-Fi connection from the nearby staff lounge extends to his fire pit and checks his iPhone nonstop.

Rotem Ad-Epsztein, an Israeli emissary of 13 years and the current head of Camp Ramah New England’s Israeli delegation of 50, is very aware her fellow Israelis are constantly checking the news and What’s App groups.

‘They get the news in real time, all the time. It raises the anxiety level’

“When I was a shaliach and we went through similar situations, the delegation head checked the Internet daily and printed out updates. Now, they get the news in real time, all the time. It raises the anxiety level,” said Ad-Epsztein.

Camp directors are well aware their Israeli staff’s inner conflicts. When Ronni Saltzman Guttin heard about the increased missiles falling on Israel last week, she said she immediately thought of the eleven Israeli emissaries working with her at Camp JORI in Wakefield, Rhode Island.

She wondered: What would happen if they were called up and needed to go back to Israel to accompany their IDF units to Gaza? How could the camp community support these Israelis during this difficult time? And what would happen if she lost nearly ten percent of her staff?

According to Abby Knopp, vice president of Program and Strategy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, more than 1,100 shlichim arrive with the Jewish Agency’s support to more than 200 Jewish overnight and day camps every year.

‘Our contacts in the army feel that they are better helping Israel by helping children understand what is happening than by coming back’

“The shlichim are part of the fabric of Jewish camp across North America. They are an integral part of the community and the educational mission of each camp, enhancing the Israel and Jewish education that takes place,” said Knopp.

Camp JORI’s Guttin was the first camp director in the United States to contact Ariella Feldman, director of Shlihcut Services-North America at the Jewish Agency for Israel, but not the last. Feldman offered her sensible advice: Allow the Israelis time and space together; make sure they have time to call home, and make sure they have guidance for talking to campers and staff about the situation in Israel.

Feldman composed a detailed letter to camp directors that addressed emissaries’ concerns. Some shlichim may have gotten calls for reserve duty and are unsure of what to do, wrote Feldman. She wrote she was told by the Jewish Agency’s IDF liason that although the emissaries must inform their units of where they are, there is slight chance of anyone to be asked to return home.

“Our contacts in the army feel that they are better helping Israel by helping children understand what is happening than by coming back,” said Feldman.

Feldman’s letter suggested that “what the shlichim need more than anything right now is the feeling of support and understanding… They are filled with concern and guilt for what their families and friends are dealing with while they are ‘enjoying’ themselves.”

Dan Lange, Associate Director of Camping for the Union of Reform Judaism said URJ camps currently have 219 emissaries on staff this summer.

“Our camps are working hard to ensure our shlichim have the space and resources they need to both stay in touch with family and friends in Israel and process what’s going on,” said Lange.

‘Our camps are working hard to ensure our shlichim have the space and resources they need’

There are nearly 400 young Israelis working in Jewish Community Center day and overnight camps this summer. Since Israelis also come as shlichim through other non-JAFI channels, Jodi Sperling, the North American director of JCC Camps, suggested that the overall number of emissaries in North America is much larger than JAFI’s 1,200.

Sperling composed her own letter to JCC camp directors. “In addition to feeling worry and anxiety about their families in Israel potentially under fire, they may also be feeling frustrated about not being part of what’s going on there and not being drafted as their friends and army units are being called to serve. These feelings may intensify if they feel like camp is ignoring the conflict or their needs,” she wrote.

She goes on to offer eleven suggestions (“provide time and space to be calling home; show solidarity by raising the flag, singing Hatikvah, saying a prayer; remind them they are not alone”) to be implemented by camp directors.

However, despite the nonstop flow of news and the strong convictions of many soldiers to return home, JAFI’s Feldman reported, “Many have called and asked for assistance but none have gone back yet.”


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PALMER, Mass. — Each summer, Camp Ramah in New England (CRNE) brings close to 60 post-army emissaries to serve as bunk counselors and teach in such specialty areas as dance, sports, swimming, nature, woodworking, Hebrew and Jewish Studies, ropes and krav maga. Campers and staff are accustomed to such names as Neta, Ela, Tal, Ofer…

This past summer, however, one young Israeli tennis player, who spent a week at Camp Ramah in Canada, followed by a few days at CRNE, turned a few heads with his unusual first and last name – Fahoum Fahoum.  “Fahoum means navon, like your division name, Nivonim, (the wise ones), the young visitor told a packed open-aired tent of 16-year-olds during an evening discussion at the Palmer, Mass. camp. The campers were captivated by Fahoum’s personal story and peppered him with questions about his life in Israel.

Fahoum loved growing up in Haifa. “Growing up as an Arab Muslim in Haifa was very special,” he says. “Haifa is known for its relationship between Arabs and Jews. I am thankful for growing up in Haifa because the environment gave me a better chance to integrate.”

Fahoum and his sister, Nadine Fahoum, were the first Israeli Arabs to attend the Reali School in Haifa. He credits his mother with the idea of sending him to the Israeli Jewish school but notes, “there were many concerns among our friends in the Arab community.”

“I believe the community was worried that the school would not be ready to welcome someone like me,” he recalls. “Along the years, people around saw how the support the Hebrew Reali School gave my sister and me, and how it nurtures its children. They actually became very curious about becoming a part of the Reali family as well.”

Fahoum says both he and his sister received a fine education and a wonderful introduction to tennis through their years at Reali. Nadine went on to play in such tournaments as the Juniors Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Olympics. Fahoum was the number one junior in Israel at age 14.  “Tennis is like a language.  It is used to communicate with others.  It is a common language,” observes Fahoum.

Nadine attended Old Dominion University in Virginia and ultimately transferred to Duke University, where she played #1 on the women’s tennis team.  Upon graduation, she went on to work in New York for the Israel Tennis Centers and is currently pursuing graduate studies at New York University.

Fahoum also began his college academic and tennis careers at Old Dominion; then transferred to Quinnipiac University in Hamden, where he played tennis and is pursuing  a communications major and business minor. He is interning at the Quinnipiac Alumni Association in the office of Public Affairs and Development. He hopes to attend graduate school at the Yale School of Management.

“I hope to accomplish mutual understanding and future between Arabs and Jews, using sports as a tool for communication,” he says.

During Fahoum’s stint at the two Ramah camps, he did a lot more than teach tennis. Bryan Gerson, head of the sports program at Camp Ramah in New England, observed, “Fahoum adds a professionalism-on and off the courts-with a great personality and a wonderful message of inclusion. Sally Klapper of Stamford, now a junior at Ramaz in Manhattan, called the experience of having an Israeli Arab at camp “eye opening.” “It was interesting to hear from someone who is so completely accepted into Israeli society,” she said.

Bringing an Israeli Arab to a Ramah camp is not an obvious move for an observant, Zionistic Jewish summer camp. Rabbi Mitch Cohen, the National Ramah Director, feels that bringing Nadine Fahoum to three of its eight Ramah camps in the United States and Canada is very important. “Bringing Fahoum to Camp Ramah helps to emphasize the importance of co-existence and tolerance of other people, especially at a time when Jewish-Muslim relations are so sensitive. Through tennis, and the great work of the Israel Tennis Center, Fahoum inspires us with his life story.”

And Fahoum couldn’t be more pleased with his time at Ramah camps.  “The visit really made me feel like home. I came to Ramah to learn more about the Jewish community abroad and share some of my experience and future goals with its members. My being in Ramah allowed the camp to have a more complete experience of Israel. After all, Israel is not all Jewish, so my visit helps complete the picture. I hope that after my visit, both campers and staff will have greater confidence in a mutual future between Arabs and Jews.”

Fahoum remains both realistic and hopeful as to the power of sports.  “Sports provides a tool for communication,” he notes. “Although Arabs and Jews live next to each other, they have no common language and therefore rarely integrate. Sports is a language in and of itself. Sports provides a common ground for different people from different backgrounds to integrate. Partnerships on the [tennis] court can lead to friendships off of it.”

Fahoum certainly thinks of one day returning home to Israel – but he remains both practical and realistic. “I will go back to Israel when I feel like I received enough support to begin establishing a concrete project back home.”


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