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.
[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.
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!
The American Camping Association (ACA), which employs more than 320,000 camp staff and serves over 7.2 million children in its 2,400 ACA accredited camps report in a 2017 study that 44% of camps offer specialized programs for individuals with disabilities. They proudly note, “For 120 years, the organized camp experience has been serving individuals with special needs.”
These camps began by serving campers with physical challenges and this “was the beginning of a pattern of the camp community’s response to societal issues affecting campers with a wide variety of diagnoses, including polio, intellectual and physical disabilities, childhood diabetes, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.”
In the Jewish camping world, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, two special education teachers, started the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England in 1970 for campers with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There has been tremendous growth in the area of inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish summer camps since that time. According to Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, 3,744 campers with disabilities participated in FJC overnight camps in 2019 and 4,145 in day camps.
While many camps did not operate in person in the summer of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is the norm around the world for children with disabilities to participate in summer day and overnight camps and respite camps. These camps differ in affiliation and structure: they may be public or private, faith based or nondenominational (communal), and they may feature various models of camping including fully inclusive, camp within a camp, and separate camps for people with disabilities.
In the United States, overnight camps typically take place during the summer months, and last from several days to 8-weeks. Campers often travel many hours by plan, bus or car to arrive at camp.
In Israel, a country roughly the size of New Jersey, overnight camps are a relatively new phenomena and tend to last from 5 days to 14 days.
The recently established Summer Camps Israel organization aims to promote greater involvement in 30 summer camps throughout Israel. Several camps and organizations in Israel currently meet the needs of participants with disabilities and their families.
Programs Serving Special Populations
Shutaf, a year-round Jerusalem-based program, serves 300 participants, ages 6-30, with and without disabilities. They employ a reverse-inclusion model which brings together participants with diverse developmental, physical, and learning disabilities (75% of participants), alongside participants without disabilities (25% of participants).
Co-founder Beth Steinberg reports, “When we moved to Israel in 2006, the camp world here was underdeveloped. The ideas of an American style camp with values to grow and become was unheard of. We wanted summers to be the best time for our kids and we wanted to serve all kinds of needs.” Summers in Israel are usually very hot. Without camp programs, children often stay home alone or with siblings while parents work.
Steinberg’s program offers a three-week day camp program each August, with arts and crafts, science, music and movement, sports, archery and a ropes course. Steinberg and her Shutaf team quickly responded to the Covid crisis by offering “Camp in a Box,” carefully planned “boxes” containing arts and crafts projects, sports equipment and gardening projects which were delivered and to over 150 participants. “It felt like a
happy gift,” reports Steinberg proudly. Similar boxes are provided to participants and families during the Jewish holidays of Passover (April) and Chanukah (December) when children are on break from school.
Steinberg, a veteran of the camp scene in Israel, reports, “There has been some changes recently in camping, with more choices now and some programs offering short term sleepaway programs.
The Jordan River Village Camp
Camp housed on 245 acres in the Lower Galilee of Northern Israel (near Givat Avni), was established in 2006 and is the 16th a network of 30 camps worldwide, part of the Paul Newman “The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.” They offer three unique types of camp programs which take place over approximately 40 sessions per year.
One program serves children and adolescents ages of 9 and 18 who present with a wide range of medical conditions and genetic diseases, including cancer, seizure disorders, transplants, and neurological disorders. Director Yakir Sternin proudly reports, “We are the only camp in our organization which offers sessions for participants who or deaf or have hearing impairments, and for children who are blind or have visual impairments.”
Sessions are generally 5-6 days and are for children who do not need parental assistance with self-care or medical care.
Three-day family sessions are offered for parents, siblings and children ages 5-18 who require self-care or medical support. Participants are oftenwheelchair users, present with seizure disorders which are not well-controlled, or are user of ventilators. The camp has also established a relationship with the Ministry of Education where campers with intellectual and developmental disabilities and autism attend 3-4 day sessions with their school staff.
Sternin is pleased and excited that the camp’s sessions bring together participants from very diverse walks of life in Israel, including Jews who are secular, religious and Ultra Orthodox, as well as Christians, Druze, Bedouins and Circassians. In addition, there are two sessions per year for children who come from the Palestinian Authority and Gaza.
“We are on the way to fulfilling a dream,” reports Sternin. “It is one of the most beautiful things when they meet and see eye to eye – when you are fighting for life, it doesn’t matter who your father is and who you pray to! Disability and medical situations create bridges!” Sternin also sees equally strong relationships formed among the over 1000 volunteers who come each year, from very diverse backgrounds.
Is a camp program which integrates children and teenagers at risk and with disabilities, in to five day overnight camping sessions. The two sessions per season take place on the grounds of the Jordan River Valley camp, but is not affiliated with that camp. My Piece of the Puzzle was inspired by the United States based program, Camp Ramapo, in Rhinebeck, New York. According to director Jenna Albaz, half of the participants have such disabilities as autism, Down Syndrome and intellectual disabilities, and half come from “broken homes, dysfunctional families, have no friends, or have a police record.” Elbaz is pleased with how the participants integrate and form friendships. “For the at risk children, it is their first time they have felt loved, unconditionally. For the participants with special
needs, it may be the first time they have friends without special needs and they can just be themselves.” Elbaz adds, “It is win/win—it brings out the best in both populations.” Elbaz is in the process of expanding to also offer school year programs, and a mechina, a pre-army preparatory program.
Other organizations in Israel offering camps for participants with disabilities include:
The Israel Scouts, include and integrate 3000 participants with disabilities including visual and hearing impairments and behavioral disorders. They often host overnight camping trips.
strives to attain full social inclusion of people with physical disabilities. One way to achieve this is through weekend groups and summer camps. Each summer, hundreds of participants and volunteers attend 24 overnight summer camps throughout the country. Sessions last for 5 days and include such activities as kayaking in the north, abseiling (descending rock formations with ropes) in the south, hikes, and the performing of community service.
Is a youth movement for children and youth with and without disabilities. They also run a summer camp in the northern Israel coastal city of Nahariya. It is held over 3 sessions each August and is open to family members as well. Activities include swimming, sports, yoga, plays, magicians and more.