Covenant Foundation

Original Article Published On The Covenant Foundation

In the late 1960’s, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, two teachers working in the field of special education, approached several Jewish summer camps with a novel idea: why not include children with disabilities at camp?

At the time, this was an unheard-of idea, and the Greenbergs encountered a lot of pushback and opposition.

“People worried it would cost too much, disrupt the order of camp, lower the level of Hebrew, and that the [neuro] typical children would leave,” they reflected, years later.

But Donny Adelman z”l, the camp director who was running a Camp Ramahprogram in Glen Spey, New York (the camp later moved to a New England site), responded enthusiastically. As Barbara Greenberg explained in The Jerusalem Post last year, Ramah recognized the Jewish moral imperative that this initiative signified.

It was that recognition, and a willingness to move the needle on Jewish camping, which ultimately led to the establishment of the first Ramah Tikvah program in 1970.

Identifying and recruiting campers that first summer wasn’t easy. Jewish communal professionals were not yet engaged in or thinking much about how to include Jewish children with disabilities in Jewish camping life, and it would be many years before inclusion became a buzzword. But that summer, Herb and Barbara managed to recruit eight campers, and the first Tikvah program was born.

It wasn’t smooth sailing at first. In fact, that inaugural summer, the Greenbergs spent a great deal of time serving as diplomats within the camp community, advocating for their ideal of inclusive camping, and reassuring people at camp who didn’t understand at first how a model like this could work.

But their dedication paid off. Over several years, Tikvah programs began to spring up in Ramah overnight camps across North America, and in dozens of other Jewish summer camps as well (Today, all Ramah overnight camps and day camps serve campers with disabilities, with offerings including camping and vocational training experiences, salaried employment for adults with disabilities, Israel programs, weekly video meetings, and occasional reunions and get-togethers for participants and alumni.)

This model of inclusion was so successful, in fact, that it has begun to serve as an “industry standard” for how Jewish communal spaces welcome children with disabilities into their programming.

While summer programs for campers with disabilities were much needed, there was more to be done. Families still felt there were not enough opportunities for their children to experience Jewish learning during the calendar year and for programming that included the whole family. In addition, accommodations for children with disabilities still weren’t quite meeting the standards necessary for true inclusion (which include, among other things, accommodating for sensory and behavioral needs during prayer services and community-wide events).

Families longed for a place where they could attend a Shabbat service with their child, knowing that a child’s different behavior (loud noises, or an outburst) wouldn’t be deemed a disruption. They desired an environment of acceptance as well as camaraderie with other families.

Rabbi Loren Sykes, a veteran Camp Ramah director and a 2006 Covenant Award recipient, was listening. In 2004, he launched Camp Yofi, a Jewish family camp experience for children with autism, their parents, and their siblings. (Camp Yofi received a Signature Grant from The Covenant Foundation in 2005.)

“We created Camp Yofi out of a desire to establish sacred space for and warmly welcome back Jewish families who were being excluded, actively and passively, from the Jewish community,” Rabbi Sykes shared.

Family camps for children with disabilities take place at Camp Ramah sites once or twice per year in California, the Poconos, and New England.

While inclusive camping clearly benefits people with disabilities and is praised by their parents, the impact on the rest of the camp community is also worth noting. For nearly 50 years, Ramah campers and staff members have been returning home to their synagogues and Jewish communities with a greater awareness of and comfort with people with disabilities. Each camper, staff member, mishlachat (Israeli delegation) member—the entire Ramah community—interacts with people with disabilities in a very natural way—through Shabbat programming, camp-wide field trips, meals in the chadar ochel, special events, free swim, barbecues, and special buddy and peer mentoring programs for campers and staff.

And this bears out in reflections from campers who experience the enrichment of Tikvah firsthand.

“Inclusion has taught me many lessons including patience, tolerance, and acceptance,” said Julia Wolf, a 21-year-old veteran Ramah camper. “These are qualities I take with me in my life, everyday.”

Campers at Ramah who are between the ages of 13-16 also have opportunities across the camp sites to be peer mentors, and often chose to work as inclusion or Tikvah counselors when they return as staff members at age 18. This helps assure a steady pipeline of sensitive, qualified staff.

The Jewish camping community has come a long way since the days of Herb and Barbara Greenberg’s foundational work. Today, many Jewish summer camps offer inclusive programs and the Jewish community as a whole has become far more attentive to the needs of people with disabilities.

But it’s the effect that Tikvah has had on families that is the most resonant of all.

“The Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in New England is Molly’s happy place,” said Hannah Jacobs, the parent of a long-time Tikvah camper.

“It’s more than just a second [summer] home for Molly,” Hannah continued. “It’s also the only place that allows her the freedom to be her true self.”

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Original Article Published On The JNS

They have performed in hundreds of synagogues in the United States and around the world, representing Jewish American culture, tradition, values and spirituality in the world of Americana roots music.

Thanks to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot and the Torah, Mount Sinai is the best-known mountain in Jewish history. If the husband-and-wife bluegrass team of Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff continue their climb through the music world, their Nefesh Mountain band may be the next mountain the Jewish and secular world is buzzing about. Their third full-length recording, “Songs for the Sparrow,” to be released on June 11, may help them in their quest.

“The music of Nefesh Mountain was new to me until last fall when I discovered them on social media and then quickly booked them for a performance at a Covenant Foundation event, and their performance did not disappoint,” reports Harlene Appelman, executive director of the Covenant Foundation, referring to their prestigious annual event—this year held virtually and attended by hundreds in the Jewish world. “The spirit and soul of their music lifted our spirits and added so much joy to our morning.”

Nefesh Mountain arrived on the bluegrass and American music scene in 2014. They have since performed in hundreds of synagogues in the United States and around the world, representing Jewish American culture, tradition, values and spirituality in the world of Americana roots music.

Zasloff and Lindberg spoke with JNS via Zoom from their home in Montclair, N.J., as they await the birth of a child later this month. Their love of music and each other is evident.

“We met playing music,” reports Lindberg. “It is a love story between friends who were in synch, finding common themes in our lives—between Jewish culture, spirituality, bluegrass and country music. We realized there is very little representation of Jewish culture in Americana music. We wanted to tell the story of what it means to be a Jewish American.

“Our challenge was to introduce banjos and bluegrass to the Jewish community over the years.”

‘Driving out the hatred’

Zasloff and Lindberg have been telling this story since their self-titled “Nefesh Mountain” album in 2016, which was followed by “Beneath the Open Sky” in 2018. Over the years, they have collaborated with and forged a kinship with such bluegrass luminaries as Jerry Douglas: (dobro), Sam Bush (mandolin) and Bryan Sutton (guitar).

The cover of their third album, “Songs for the Sparrows.” Credit: Courtesy.

“We’re so grateful to have these incredible musicians join us on these albums,” says Zasloff. “For them to throw their hearts and souls into this music and really understand this message of driving out the hatred that still very much exists in the world today, it’s so moving and emotional for us.”

Their third album, “Songs for the Sparrow,” was inspired by an August 2018 family trip to Eastern Europe. “We tracked down the towns where our families are from, and it was devastating to see the destruction of the Holocaust firsthand and to know that we’re not so far removed from that time,” they observed. The two say they were profoundly moved by the trip.

“The album is about love and was to comfort ourselves after the trip to Europe. The album is pouring musical love on hate,” recounts Zasloff. “People are in pain. This is meant to give a big hug. We all need it.”

Zasloff notes that in October, two months after their return from Europe, the mass shooting took place at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Eleven Jewish worshippers were shot and killed during Shabbat-morning services and six wounded in the most deadly act of anti-Jewish violence in America. “It flat-lined us,” reports Lindberg. “Being Jewish and part of a minority group is a scary thing.”

It prompted Zasloff and Lindberg to compose the song “Tree of Life,” a prayer and anthem to respect and honor those who were killed, their families and their fellow suffering Jewish communities.

The album’s title, “Songs for the Sparrows” was inspired by both the trip to Eastern Europe and the Pittsburgh shooting. “It comes from us thinking about the many groups of people who are horribly discriminated against in the United States. To us, sparrows represent a small but mighty voice. That’s why we chose to name the album for them—they’re often overlooked, but they’re beautiful and everywhere,” says Zasloff.

The pair is looking forward to resuming touring in September after being away from in-person audiences due to the year-plus-long coronavirus pandemic.

“Now that we’ve had the experience of playing to so many different audiences and hearing people tell us how much our music uplifts them, we know that it’s really working and fulfilling some kind of need,” says Lindberg. “Because of that, this album feels much bolder than previous records.”

Zasloff adds, “This album is very much a celebration; it’s about adventure and endurance and pushing through the difficult times. We’re looking at some painful things in these songs, but it always comes back to the idea of persevering and letting love be your fuel.”

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Original Article Published on The eJP

[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.

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