Original Article Published On The New York Jewish Week

When the Tikvah Program for campers with disabilities was started in 1970 at Camp Ramah in New England, no one imagined a day when people with disabilities would be meaningfully included in Jewish camping. Now, 45 years later, every Ramah camp in the United States and Canada serves people with disabilities. The National Ramah Tikvah Network includes overnight camp programs, day camp programs, vocational educational programs, family camps and retreats and Israel programs. At Ramah, inclusion is natural, seamless and expected.

Tikvah began as a camping program, in one Ramah location, for campers aged 13 to 18. From the start, Tikva’s visionary founders, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, envisioned a day when the campers would grow up and desire opportunities to become productive citizens. Years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, the Greenbergs taught campers pre-vocational training skills such as following directions, appropriate dress, interacting with supervisors and co-workers and performing various jobs around camp. In 1993, Tochnit Avodah, the newly expanded vocational education program, moved into a newly designed vocational training building: an apartment-like complex with a full kitchen, washer and dryer and living area. Participants ages 18-22 spent a few hours each morning at job sites throughout camp.

Twenty-five years after ADA and after many years of running vocational training programs for people with disabilities at four of our Ramah camps (California, Canada, New England and Wisconsin), we have learned a lot about the realities of job training and employment for people with disabilities. Guiding our work is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment against a qualified individual with a disability, and a staggering 2014 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that only 17.1 percent of persons with a disability were employed. And this number may be high. At Camp Ramah in New England, parents worry their adult children will fall off the cliff after high school ends. In response, we have extended the graduation age for our voc ed program. We continue to partner with foundations and individuals like the Ruderman Family Foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Poses Family Foundation, and the Ramah Israel Bike Ride and Hiking Trip, who share our mission. We recently hired outside consultants to help identify job clusters within camp that may help our participants obtain employment in the outside world, and we have hired outside job coaches to assist. We expanded our job offerings in camp to include food services (through our dining room, bakery and Café Ramah), hospitality (through our six-room Tikvah Guest House), machsan (supply room), mercaz (mail, package and fax room) and more.

Our network of Tikvah Programs will continue to innovate in order to provide vocational training opportunities for people with disabilities. We hope and pray for the day where hiring people with disabilities will be as natural and commonplace as including campers with disabilities at Ramah camps. Click to read more about the vocational education programs at Ramah camps and about the voc ed program at Ramah New England.

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As you can imagine, the days leading up to 9 weeks of camp (staff week plus eight weeks) are exciting and action packed. I am entering my 10th year as the director of the 40 year old Tikvah Program, which offers overnight camping opportunities for nearly 50 children and young adults with a wide range of special needs. Our winter office is based in Boston and the camp itself is in Palmer, Massachusetts; and I have the distinction of being the only year round staff member who doesn’t work out of the camp office. For me, there is no period of packing up the office and moving to Palmer. So, when the office is in transition, my computer is still on and with me. And I receive many calls from Tikvah (and even non-Tikvah) families seeking information from an actual person about bus departures, luggage tags, etc. But, for the most part, I am sitting at home, working hard to put the finishing touches on the Tikvah Program and the Inclusion Programs for Kayitz, 2010. It is crunch time!

This week alone, I met with our rosh edah, sent out Tikvah bunking, interviewed an out of state Tikvah family (at an NYC kosher bagel and pizza store!), spoke with counselors, a newspaper reporter and a funder, did tons of paperwork, and wrote and answered hundreds of emails. You know it is countdown time when emails sent to my camp colleagues the director, assistant director, programming director, business manager and development director are routinely answered even when sent at 11 pm!

Yet, sometimes the best way to prepare for camp is to take a break from camp!

Today, it is a hot, sunny day in Manhattan. After a few hours of doing camp work and staring out at the beautiful weather, I decided to get away from camp by getting on my bike and heading over to Central Park. The park is closed to car traffic starting at 10 am. So, at 11:30 or so, I put on my biking clothes, grabbed my helmut, pumped up my tires and hit the park. The loop is six miles, and the runner and biker lanes were packed with others who had the same idea. The park was packed with school kids having picnics, color wars and attending the marionette show. And there were readers, tennis players and sunbathers galore.

I was at peace, almost in a dream state, as I neared Tavern on the Green on the West Side, in the 60s. All of a sudden, I thought I saw a t-shirt, identical to one I have and actually wear quite often a gray staff t-shirt with RAMAH in big orange letters on the front, and Tzevet (Staff) 2008 on the back. But I was relaxed and pedaling 22 miles an hour. Couldn’t be. Why would a pedicab (bike cab) driver in Central Park in New York City be wearing a shirt from my camp?! My curiosity got the better of me. I slowed and stopped in front of the cab and asked the driver where he got the shirt. Well, Ilya, the pedicab driver, was Ilya the kitchen worker two years ago at Camp Ramah in New England! Where are you from? I asked. Kazakhstan, he replied. He still eyed me a bit suspiciously. I asked, Oh, you worked with Meital and Randy? He smiled. I invited him to come visit. I reached in to my pouch and forked over the one piece of identification I had on my Camp Ramah in New England-Tikvah Director business card. Call me if I can be of help, I said. His smile got bigger. I got back on my bike and went back to dreaming this time of bike rides, in just a few weeks, with my many camp friends including my kitchen staff friends–to Quabbin Reservoir.

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Yes, Pesach is the time to celebrate freedom and redemption. But it is also a time of eating, eating and more eating. We will surely be spending a lot of time around our holiday table, sharing meals with family and friends. We have sure evolved from the days when Pesach meant simply matza, potatoes and gefilte fish. We can now enjoy such delicacies as quiche, pizza and tea rooms in fancy kosher hotels.

We should be proud of how far we’ve come but we shouldn’t be so content with or focused on the gourmet Kosher for Passover food that we forget the true connections between what we put in our mouths and the meaning of the Passover. We all know that matza reminds us of our hasty departure from Egypt, maror reminds us of the bitterness of slavery, and charoset the mortar used in brick making, etc. But the connections shouldn’t end there.

I was thinking of the importance of thinking what we put in our mouths after reading a recent JCarrot posting by Rabbi Eiav Bock, director of the new Ramah Outdoor Adventure Camp in the Rockies.

Here is an excerpt:

Our goal at Ramah Outdoor Adventure is to completely change the way that we approach food at a summer camp. We have budgeted much more money for food than typical camps. Although I have yet to hire our head chef, the question I have asked each applicant is to tell me how they can help make the food they are serving fit within the broader mission of the camp. Anyone who does not see a direct link between the program in the kitchen and the program on the ropes-course cannot be considered for the job. Admittedly, this has made hiring our head chef all the more challenging, because I am not only seeking someone who understands Kosher food, but also someone who understands the intersection between sustainable foods and wholesome cooking.

So what are some of the commitments we have made for 2010? Here are four:

1. Throughout the week, we will be engaging in programming about food during our meals. We will be adapting elements of the Hazon Min Ha’Aretz Curriculum for use at camp.

2. We will make an effort to buy no white carbohydrates. This means, whenever possible, we will purchase whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and whole-wheat bread. We realize that there will be exceptions and of course we are limited to what we are able to purchase with a Kosher symbol. Luckily Colorado is blessed with wonderful kosher organic whole-wheat bread and organic whole-wheat pasta that is certified by the OU.

3. We will serve mainly whole grain cereal and oatmeal for breakfast only on occasion serving typical camp breakfast foods like waffles and pancakes.

4. Campers will take an active role in preparing food at camp. This will enable everyone from the youngest camper to the oldest staff member to take ownership of the food that we will be eating. When the food is great, we will know who to thank. When the food is bad, we will know who is responsible.

Like Rabbi Bock at his new Ramah camp, we Jewish educators, parents and seder hosts have the opportunity to make the important connection between the true meaning of the Passover holiday and the foods we prepare and consume.

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