Camp Ramah

Original Article Published on The Jewish News Syndicate

Say hello to Camp Yalla, which will bring entertainment and connections to kids in the most modern of ways.

This past March, when the reality of no school and parents working from home began to set in, a few young Jewish summer-camp lovers began to raise the next inevitable question: What if camps are unable to open this summer?

Mariel Falk and Avi Goldstein, veteran campers and staff members at Camp Modin in Maine, and a few friends with years of experience at other Jewish summer camps, created Camp Yalla—a virtual Jewish summer-camp experience for 8- to 12-year-olds.

“My heart was breaking over the loss of physical summer camps,” reports Miriam Lichtenberg, a veteran of both Camp Nesher in New Jersey and Camp Ramah, a network of camps affiliated with the Conservative movement. “I wanted to help rectify that and perhaps fill in the gaps that so many children would be missing—namely, community, friendship and a place to be your full self.”

Lichtenberg, will serve as Camp Yalla’s director of Jewish programming, says summer camp is “where I found myself.”

“It is where I made some of my closest friends, developed some of my fondest memories and have always been able to be my truest and best self,” she explains. “Camp Yalla gives me hope. At our camp, we will bring some of the best things about physical camp to our experience—the friendships, the laughs, the deepening of the self and the mind, the ability to be silly and free. Camp Yalla will have all of that, and I am immensely grateful and excited to be a part of that experience!!”

Avi Goldstein on a “scenic hike” up and down her staircase. Source: Screenshot.

Camp Yalla will offer three two-week sessions from July 6 to Aug. 14. A free trial period will take place this month on three consecutive Fridays (June 12, June 19 and June 26), so parents can see whether their kids enjoy the format and decide whether or not to register for the summer. The camp’s founders are aware that potential participants have spent months in front of computer screens, and have been learning from educators about Zoom best practices and protocols. They report that they will be offering “activities geared towards fun and play.”

Campers will choose electives “that suit their interests and give them a sense of ownership over their day.”

To date, 50 campers have expressed interest in attending Camp Yalla. Each session will likely be capped at 120 participants.

‘Social connections are vital, even as we social distance’

Co-founder Avi Goldstein, a recent college graduate with 10 years of experience at New England’s Camp Modin—seven as a camper and three as a counselor—explains that Yalla will meet Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for an hour each morning and afternoon. Mornings will consist of bunk activities to “build community, foster friendships and teamwork.”

Afternoon electives will include such activities as arts-and-crafts, theater, dance and virtual field trips. On Fridays, campers, as well as siblings and parents, are invited to Shabbat services, which take place well before the start of the weekly holiday, followed on Saturday night with Havdalah.

Goldstein, who wrote her undergraduate thesis on the role of Jewish summer camps in the United States in the post-Holocaust period, stresses their desire to offer a taste of Jewish summer camp and to get kids “to want to go to any Jewish summer camp in the future.”

“We are so passionate about Jewish camping!” she practically gushes.

Top, from left: Camp Yalla communications director Lulu Weisfeld raising the flag; executive director Avi Goldstein at a virtual campfire; marketing director Sam Schmaier making some impressive bracelets with her Rainbow Loom. Bottom, from left: Executive director Mariel Falk waking up from a living-room camping trip; director of Jewish programming Miriam Lichtenberg carefully applying her sunscreen. Source: Screenshot.

Goldstein and her team have been in conversation with Rabbi Avi Orlow, vice president of innovation and education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, about ways to potentially “feed” campers to other Jewish summer camps when they reopen in the future. Yalla may succeed in offering a camping experience to first-timers, who will then become lifelong participants. “Our goal is to foster communication, imagination, fun and positivity—and to get kids to want to go to any Jewish camp!”

Many Jewish summer camps and camping movements are exploring ways to offer camping virtually this summer, as well as ways to send “camp in a box” packets to families and to offer small family camps on their camp sites. “I am calling this the ‘summer of learning’ because camps will need to pilot new ways to engage, inspire and connect with their communities,” notes Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp.

Goldstein and her team are getting a well-rounded education in all aspects of running a Jewish summer camp. In addition to learning about offering programming online, they are learning about marketing, budgeting, staff hiring, payroll and the effective use of social media.

While offering Jewish summer camping online is new and uncharted, there may be benefits for both campers and families.

David Bryfman, CEO of the Manhattan-based Jewish Education Project, observes that “while summertime is often associated with separating ourselves from our screens, this year offers an opportunity for kids all around the world to engage with one another in meaningful, fun and social experiences. If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, it is that social connections are vital, even as we social distance.”

With children meaningfully engaged this summer, their parents may get a few minutes of downtime. “During this time—and maybe even more so in the summer months—parents need to be kind to themselves,” suggests Bryfman. “Giving yourselves a couple of hours ‘off-duty’ while your children attend virtual summer camp might be exactly what you need to be the best parents you can for the entire summer.”

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Original Article Published On The Respectability

Founded in 1948, Israel’s accessibility for people with disabilities was not a top priority.  I recall several almost comical incidents from nearly 20 years ago when helping people with disabilities navigate Israel.  On one group trip, while pushing 20-something Rivka in a wheelchair in northern Israel, the sidewalk abruptly ended. We carried her in the wheelchair to where sidewalk eventually continued.  In the Old City, near the Kotel, I asked soldiers where was the accessible path. They lifted Rivka up the steps in her wheelchair.

Fortunately, Israel today is fairly accessible and straightforward: from riding buses, to shopping in grocery stores, to studying in university. Modern Israel has become a well-known destination for accessible travel.

Israel’s road to accessibility has been a journey. Physical accessibility doesn’t happen automatically; nor does shifting attitudes toward people with disabilities and accessibility.

Twenty years ago, Yuval Wagner, a recently paralyzed helicopter pilot, ignited a public awareness campaign. Wagner eventually founded Access Israel. Having elicited President Weizman’s attention,  the President invited Wagner to celebrate this accomplishment together. Access Israel’s impact on access and inclusion of people with disabilities is now experienced worldwide.

Each year, over 800 people with and without disabilities from 22 countries visit Israel to participate in Access Israel’s International Conference, where they learn about accessibility from technology to tourism; experience Israel’s accessible beaches; visit the now-accessible Old City of Jerusalem; and learn about Access Israel’s work in Israel and worldwide.

“We are the only Israeli organization that focuses on accessibility and inclusion– not only for people in wheelchairs, not only for people who are blind or who have hearing impairments— but for all kinds of disabilities and in all fields of life,” reports Wagner.

Alan T. Brown, Director of Public Impact for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, a board member of FAISR (Friends of Access Israel) and a person with quadriplegia, attests to Israel’s efforts to increase accessibility. Several years ago, Brown met Access Israel CEO Michal Rimon, expressed his desire to visit Israel, and shared concerns about accessibility. Rimon enthusiastically invited Brown to Israel to experience its  accessibility firsthand. Brown later summarized, “Something like this has to be done in America – something that is proactive and aggressive in attaining accessibility for all. I even went on the tour under the Kotel walls in a wheelchair!  I am amazed at how Israel is using more than ramps to include the disabled.  They are also doing it through corporate sensitivity training.”

Pre-COVID-19, tourists with a wide range of disabilities experienced the country, holy to many of the world’s religions.  I have been leading trips to Israel for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for many years.  I have served as group leader for multiple trips with Camp Ramah’s Tikvah disabilities inclusion program and Shorashim Birthright Israel Asperger’s trips.  Each trip’s participants travel the country, visit Jerusalem’s Old City, Tel Aviv, Old Jaffa, Safed, the Golan Heights, Masada, and the Dead Sea. We go camel riding and explore off-the-beaten path gems such as the chocolate factory at Kibbutz Ein Zivan. Tikvah’s and Birthright’s participants experience a multi-sensory, multi-cultural country with great excitement—and no barriers.

Close to 2,100 young adults with disabilities from around the world have experienced Israel on nearly 100 Accessibility Israel trips, according to Elizabeth Sokolsky, executive director of Birthright Israel North America.  Birthright Israel offers approximately ten accessibility trips annually for participants with a variety of medical, developmental, and physical disabilities including: Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Asperger’s, vision or hearing impairments, IBD and Crohn’s Disease and other medical issues, and for participants who use wheelchairs.

Sokolsky emphasizes, “It is our belief that every eligible young adult should be able to travel to Israel to experience their birthright. . . . Accessibility trips typically have fewer participants than a traditional Birthright Israel trip, with a larger participant to staff ratio as well as other programmatic accommodations as needed. Birthright Israel also offers opportunities for young adults with a disability to join a classic trip as an inclusion participant, who may be accompanied by an aide or shadow.”

We eagerly look forward to a day soon when tourists with and without disabilities will again have the opportunity to experience Israel, celebrate Israel’s 72 years of growth, and dream of a day when the country will be even more fully accessible to everyone.

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Original Article Published On The Camp Ramah in New England

This year, as Ramah New England celebrates 50 years of the Tikvah Program, inclusive camping and the visionary leadership of Herb and Barbara Greenberg, it is worth acknowledging their equally impressive vision for vocational training within our Ramah camps. Herb Greenberg recounts, “I recall at early parent conferences that most parents were ecstatic about the outcomes of the summer and at the same time were expressing frustration and anguish that Tikvah had a cutoff age. So again, in the late 70’s we started the vocational training. The first efforts were one to one recommendations in the kitchen, bakery, mercaz and the gan. “

In my 15 years as director of the Tikvah Program at CRNE, we worked to expand the Voc Ed program. Participants learned jobs skills as well as what is known as “soft skills,” on the job behavior and etiquette required for success, and have been employed at such job sites as the Greenberg Guest House, chadar ochel, Voc Ed bakery, the gan and the misrad.   We have also offered supported, salaried employment to some voc ed graduates as well as to others with disabilities.

Proudly, each Ramah camp with a Tikvah Program offers vocational training programs, known by such names as Ezra and Atzmayim, with some programs offering employment in local towns near camp–in coffee shops, grocery stores, day care centers, motels and children’s museums.

Even with the success of our vocational training programs, all families and Ramah programs still face the same issue the Greenbergs were dealing with in the 1970s—what happens when young adults “age out” of high school and camp?   Many Voc Ed participants enjoy meaningful employment at camp—and are unemployed or underemployed in their home communities.

I have been concerned with parents not knowing what options exist when they age—a period commonly known as “falling off the cliff.”   Thanks to the generous support of the Covenant Foundation, I have embarked on what has so far been a two-year journey to identify creative job sites and training programs for people with disabilities.  While some major companies are to be commended for their programs which train and support people with disabilities (Our Tikvah grad, Aaron, who has been working at Walgreens distribution center in Connecticut is a great example!), many parents have had to be very creative—often starting their own programs and businesses.  I have identified car washes (Rising Tide and Gleam), pizza stores (Smiling with Hope Pizza), t-shirt and sock companies (Spectrum Design and John’s Crazy Socks), hydroponic farming (Vertical Harvest), computer (Blue Star Recycling) — and even microbreweries (Perkiomen Valley Brewery).  (https://howardblas.com/disabilities/job-sites/)

Perhaps the most exciting businesses are the businesses started by people with disabilities. Truly Scrumptious by Alexa, https://www.trulyscrumptiousbyalexa.com/, was started by our very own Alexa Chalup, a 14 year participant in various Ramah programs—inclusion, Seminar, Amitzim and Voc Ed.  Who doesn’t enjoy custom made Oreos dipped in chocolate—with special logos and monograms?!  Alexa was invited last week to share the story of her company and to share her creations with 125 attendees at the 3-day Covenant Foundation Project Directors meeting in Pearl River, New Jersey.

Alexa told the packed room at the conference, “In High School, I sold coffee and baked goods out of a Kiosk and enjoyed making people smile. It gave me an idea, that coffee would taste much better with a Truly Scrumptious Treat by Alexa.  My passion lead to the creation of my very own business.  At Camp Ramah, I met Howard 14 years ago as a first year camper. I’m now in their Voc Ed program, which is a combination of staff and life skills training. My jobs at camp included food prep in the kitchen and the bakery. Both taught me skills that helped prepare me for my business. The lessons I learned have really changed my life. My goal is to dedicate more and more time to Truly Scrumptious by Alexa as the business grows. Eventually, I would like to hire my friends, all with different special abilities, to grow my business. It’s important that everyone has a place to go every day, do what they love, have a wonderful social life with friends and keep teaching the world everyone can be productive and have a dream.  I would like to thank Covenant Foundation for this opportunity to tell my story. Through your support of Howard, his programs have taught me skills and confidence that made my dream come true by starting my own company, like anyone else.”

We thank the Greenbergs for their visionary leadership, Ramah for continuing their mission and to funders like the Covenant Foundation for their support.  We hope Alexa’s story continues to inspire others!

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