Camp Ramah

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.”

Read more

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.”


Read more

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.”


Read more

Bike Ride (  Three riders have deep connections to the Nutmeg State:  Dr. Cliff Nerwen of Riverdale, N.Y. grew up in West Hartford;  Rami Schwartzer, a recent graduate of Columbia University/Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) List College Joint Program and incoming JTS rabbinical student, is a West Hartford resident.  And the author has been a long-time resident of the New Haven Jewish community.  The following is an excerpt from a diary I kept of this once-in-a-lifetime ride:

I am standing in the El Al line at JFK airport, behind hundreds of Birthright Israel participants, waiting for my purple suitcase to return from being x-rayed.  The packed plane is a welcome sign that no one is scared away by Nakba Day, commemorated today in Israel.  The tall, dark glasses-wearing Israeli security guard looks at me and says in a serious voice, “I know you!”  I look confused and he says, “Amir-Camp Ramah New England 2004 — I was on the mishlochot (Israeli delegation) and worked in Nivonim (the oldest division).”  I knew we were in for a safe flight.

We land and claim our luggage.  The only person to have a problem clearing customs, ironically, is a Manhattan assistant DA.  They suspect his bike is new and force him to open his bike box and take his bike apart.  We are soon on the road to Kibbutz Ein Gev, where we arrive in time for a delicious dinner and sunrise over the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee which we will ride all the way around in exactly seven days.  We meet Oded and his staff from Gal Galil, a tour company specializing in Israel bike rides, receive our ride shirts and two water bottles.  This is starting to feel real!

Riders who brought bikes assemble them; the rest of us are fitted for our rental bikes. Our name signs are attached to the front and to our helmets.  Some members take their bikes on a short spin around the kibbutz. Shawna, a rider from Montreal, befriends Eric, a kibbutz member, who offers to take our group on a tour of the 200 acres of banana plants.  Who knew plants only give fruit once, and that the blue plastic bags often seen covering bananas in Israel are there to protect the fruit from the huge leaves smacking against and bruising the fruit?!  We left for a tour of Gamla, sometimes called “The Masada of the North,” and saw vultures soaring above. Then, the ride became a little more real with our first “evening briefing,” a nightly activity required for all riders, where we reviewed course routes and elevation maps

The bus brought us to Katzrin in the Golan Heights where we had a beautiful pre-ride ceremony, consisting of psalms, songs, and readings in the ancient Katzrin synagogue.  Then, on our bikes!   The first hills heading south to Hispin and Ramat Hamagshimim reminded us Connecticut riders that the familiar rolling hills and even the elevations of Woodbridge, Bethany and West Hartford, and our training rides in Central Park and up the Palisades of New Jersey were no match for the Golan Heights!  What makes a ride like this so special — other than the great cause — special needs camping programs, and the camaraderie — 40 riders — ages 13 through 70 — is riding through Jewish and Israeli history.  Today, we ascended to Tel Saki, famous site of a battle during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where the Nahal Brigade and the armored Brigades 7 and 188 fought against a whole Syrian division!
We ended the day with a steep ascent to Har Bental, overlooking Israel’s tallest mountain, Mount Hermon, which some brave riders would climb tomorrow.

Perhaps the most interesting day of all—biking through the Druse village of Mass’adeh, a climb up the Hermon by some brave riders.  The first to make the climb to the top was Matthew Goldstein, the youngest rider who had celebrated his bar mitzvah at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires five days before!  All riders descended from Mount  Hermon (cool seeing Israel’s one and only ski area, in the summer!), ate an amazing soup and sandwich lunch at Hurshat Tal Park, and biked on to Agamon Hahulah Reserve—famous for the half billion birds which pass through each year on their way from Russia to Africa.  A particular highlight of our night at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi was the tour of the sleek, an underground arsenal of guns and ammunition.

Imagine riding along the Lebanese border for so many miles—just days after tensions in the area related to Nakbah Day. You wouldn’t know it — except for the fact the road we just traveled on was closed when we attempted to get back on, following our tour of the Galil Mountain Winery.  Oh, well, what’s a few extra mountainous kilometers for the sake of our safety!  The beautiful descent through an Arab village, followed by a huge climb to our beautiful C Hacienda Forestview Hotel in Maalot was worth it!  The riders spent Shabbat together—swimming, playing miniature golf and ping pong, and eating like royalty.  All riders had the opportunity to hear from Tikvah Program founders, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, founders and directors for 29 years of this visionary program for campers with special needs.  I felt honored to be on a panel with my mentors, who moved to Israel 12 years ago. The riders truly felt connected to the cause they were raising money for—and they were treated to stories about campers with special needs–from forty plus years ago!

Saturday May 21 – Monday May 23:
After Shabbat, the riders were joined by members of the singing group, The Shuk, for a Lag B’Omer kumsitz (marshmallows, bon fire, and great singing).  Sunday two part ride—Upper Galil to Lower Galil (with lunch and a tour of Kibbutz Hannaton), and mountain biking on the Israel Trail, starting in Tiberias, offered breathtaking views of the Kineret, the Sea of Galilee.  On Monday, we set out from Tiberias and rode around the entire Kineret. About half the group did the optional hour and a half climb up the Golan Heights for a final look over the breathtaking Galilee and Golan Heights — which we had just proudly experienced by bike over the past five days.  We covered approximately 250 miles, and climbed 15,000 feet.  We leave with the wise words of Ramah Israel director Dr. Joe Freedman in our ears;  “Israel is a smorgasbord — you can’t have everything at once, so you have to keep coming back!”  See you soon, Israel!


Read more