Original Article in The New York Jewish Week

Eight brave young adults with disabilities from across the United States traveled to Israel over winter break as part of Ramah Israel Institute’s Tikvah Ramah Israel Trip. Most of this year’s travelers are current participants in or recent graduates of the various vocational training programs at Ramah camps. They are in transition to the world of work and, in some cases, moving from their parents’ homes to other living environments. Their itinerary included many of the sites and experiences of a “standard 10-day Israel trip” and a whole lot more.

Ramah offers a Tikvah Israel trip every two years.

This year’s trip, the fifth to date, included must-see destinations such as the Kotel and Har Herzl in Jerusalem, Independence Hall and Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv, Har Bental on the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee. Like previous trips, this trip also took into consideration the unique needs of young adults with disabilities.

In planning Tikvah Israel trips, we create opportunities to help participants gain experiences navigating the world, including self-care, independent living, group dining, food preparation, shopping and more. The unique itinerary masterfully weaves tourist attractions with opportunities to socialize with Israeli friends, often in their homes, and experience Israel through all senses.

A day touring the Old City of Jerusalem, for example, was followed by the group going to various restaurants to order food and dine in small groups. For some meals, we went to (kosher!) food courts at shopping malls and made decisions about what we wanted, within our 40 shekel per person budget. Other days, we purchased an assortment of picnic ingredients and made lunch ourselves.

A trip to visit friends for dinner in their Beit Shemesh home one Thursday evening was preceded by a visit to a large supermarket, where we observed people shopping for Shabbat. We divided into committees, brainstormed foods we might serve guests at a Friday night oneg Shabbat, and went down the aisles in search of the items. We then used Israeli money and interacted with the sales clerks as wepaid.

On visits to homes of friends in Aseret and Kibbutz Alumot (overlooking the Galil), participants learned to bring a host gift, to navigate buffet lines and to have conversations around a big table. We sometimes ate outside under a grapefruit or avocado tree, and we learned that Israeli toilets have two flushers — to save water!

In Givat Zeev (Jerusalem), we serenaded our host, Avram, a longtime advisor in our vocational training program at Ramah New England, and his bride to be, Liron, with singing and dancing. (We returned to the U.S. two days before their wedding.)

While some participants took in much of what our excellent tour guide, Rabbi Ed Snitkoff, Director of Ramah Israel Seminar, shared with them through explanations, stories, songs, and visuals, others connected with Israel through many handson experiences. We baked pita bread on a taboon (outdoor oven) and picked hydroponic lettuce at Kibbutz Tzuba before taking a tour of their accessible nature area.

We visited and played with guide dogs in training at the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind in Beit Oved; we picked beets as part of Leket Israel, The National Food Bank. Our hands turned purple from beet juice, we got mud on our shoes and we interacted for more than an hour with a lovely Birthright group who also came to pick beets. Some participants connected with Israel through climbing into caves at Beit Guvrin and helping excavate at the archaeological “Dig for a Day.” Others enjoyed planting a large olive tree at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, just outside the Knesset.

A highlight for some participants was spending half a day working in the zoo and farm at Kibbutz Shluchot. Some used pitchforks to bale hay; others recycled food and vegetables from the dining room to be used as feed for the farm animals. Some of us actually had the opportunity to feed monkeys; others gathered eggs. Everyone enjoyed a relaxing pre-Shabbat visit to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and a make-your-own picnic lunch on the grass overlooking the ducks and baboons.

Some meals were opportunities to enjoy delicious food while also seeing the amazing talents of people with disabilities. At Jerusalem’s Shekel Café, we enjoyed lunch prepared by workers with disabilities. We had a similar experience in the café of Beit Uri, in Givat Hamoreh in Afula. Beit Uri is home to 110 Jewish and Arab children, youth and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Going to Israel during a period of tension, uncertainty and occasional random violence can be unsettling. But participants on the Tikvah Ramah Israel Trip remained upbeat as they took in the traditional Israel trip sites, met Israeli friends in their homes, worked the land and ate delicious kosher food. These eight brave Ramahniks who happen to have disabilities are proof that people with disabilities — like all people — are capable of connecting with Israel on a very deep level.

Participant Ezra Fields-Meyer sums up his experience as follows: “The Israel trip I went on was great! It was so much fun! It was the best opportunity I have had in a lifetime! I loved going to the Biblical Zoo, Cinema City, the Kotel, the museums, the kibbutz, and much more!”

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director, observes, “These trips are so wonderful, not just because of the inspiration it they provides for the participants, but also as a statement that providing inclusive options for travel to Israel is not only possible but essential.” Rabbi Ed Snitkoff notes, “After guiding and teaching in Israel since 1980, I do not recall feeling as inspired as I do now, after taking part in this trip. What an amazing experience this was, to see Israel, God, Ramah, the Jewish people, and everyday life, through the eyes of incredibly special people.”

We look forward to our next Tikvah Ramah Israel Trip in two years and to a Tikvah Ramah FAMILY Trip this December. For details, please contact Howard Blas, National Ramah Tikvah Director, at howard@campramah.org. For more information about Ramah Israel Institute’s programs for congregations, schools, and families, contact Moshe Gold, Director, atmoshe@ramah.co.il.

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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, Tikvah’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.

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Original Article in Washington Jewish Week 

by Suzanne Pollak

“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 sauté 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.”


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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

The first annual Jerusalem Marathon later this month will provide spectacular views of 5,000+ years of history for spectators and competitors alike.

All competitors, that is, except for Richard Bernstein, a blind attorney from Detroit, Michigan.

Bernstein, 37, does not allow his lifelong lack of sight to limit his athletic endeavors.

The 42-kilometer race on March 25 will be his 14th marathon – not to mention an Iron Man in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 2008 and the Eilat Israman half-Iron in January.

The civil rights attorney only first got involved with sports after completing law school at Northwestern University.

“When I was growing up, expectations were much lower for people with disabilities,” he said. “The general consensus was that disabled people have no reason to compete or do physical fitness.”

Not being able to compete took a toll on Bernstein’s self-esteem.

“When you are younger, the leaders of the school – the cool kids – were the athletes,” he said.

Bernstein’s athletic pursuits are more than personal; he’s on a mission to change the public understanding of what disabled people can do.

“Playing sports gives legitimacy to blind people,” he said.

Running in Israel has added significance.

Over the course of the many trips Bernstein has taken to Israel, Israelis have always been accommodating and have gone to great lengths to help the blind athlete. Bernstein recounts buses which have strayed from their typical routes to bring him where he needs to go. People have gotten out of cars at red lights to help him cross an intersection.

He attributes the extreme kindness to the fact that “no one is afraid of being touchy-feely [in Israel]. They’d rather tackle me than tell me a car is coming,” he said.

Currently, people with disabilities are not required to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, where mandatory service for most citizens is, of course, the norm. Competing in the marathon is one way to advocate for the integration of the military, a significant part of Israeli culture.

In turn, Bernstein hopes to change societal perceptions and promote full integration of people with disabilities into Israeli society.

Aiding him in his mission is Shaked, a pilot in the Israel Air Force whose last name can not be printed for security reasons.

Shaked acts as Bernstein’s set of eyes – “the best guide I’ve ever had” – by giving him directional cues such as “hard right” and “soft left” when running.

“My skills come from seeing things from different perspectives,” Shaked said. “I close my eyes and see what might scare him.”

During the Eilat Israman triathlon, they rode a tandem bike and swam with a rope connecting them at the waist.

Shaked was the perfect partner.

Not only did he plan five steps ahead, accurately grade inclines and declines, and articulate every potential footfall, but he also shared the same ideals of raising disabilities awareness in Israel.

For years, the IAF pilot has been advocating for the inclusion of people with special needs into the army.

Shaked had one young man working for him as a graphic designer of pilots’ checklists; another worked in a unit sweeping the floor and performing odd jobs around the base.

Regardless of the job his recruits with disabilities do, Shaked hopes that his work will affect the mentality of the typical soldiers and eventually promote complete acceptance and integration of people with disabilities into Israeli culture.

Richard Bernstein has lived his own life fully integrated. He is a civil rights attorney, primarily handling cases in support of rights for the disabled, and he also is a professor at the University of Michigan, where he teaches social justice.

Practicing law is yet another opportunity to affect change.

“I believe in what I’m doing so strongly. I know that through the law, I can make a difference,” he said.

He didn’t complete law school without significant hardship, though.

Bernstein convinced Northwestern – which eventually changed its policy – that the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) was discriminatory against the visually impaired.

Without being able to see, Bernstein spent hours memorizing and internalizing material during his years in law school. He prepares similarly for trial by learning case law and all of the arguments by heart.

One of the biggest challenges Bernstein had to overcome was lowered expectations.

“There were so many people who said ‘college isn’t for you; law school isn’t for you.’ But I knew this was the kind of work I desperately wanted to do,” he said.

It took him four to five times longer to learn the material than it took his classmates.

All of the effort was for a greater purpose.

“I promised God that if He gave me the chance to graduate and pass the bar exam, I’d dedicate my life to representing people with special needs and make justice.”

That is exactly what he did. Today, he works exclusively pro bono in the public services division of his father’s law firm, choosing the cases that will have the greatest impact on people who otherwise would have no legal representation.

Participation in over 14 major races is a monumental accomplishment, but for Richard, running also provides for a spiritual relationship with God.

Training for a 42-kilometer race without the ability to see takes a tremendous amount of mental discipline and involves working through pain, hardship and difficulty.

“For me to work through that struggle, I was able to have a genuine connection with a higher being,” he said.

Shaked also feels that his work is a reflection of his Judaism.

“We are making a Kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name] by changing lives,” he said.

Bernstein has spent his entire life trying to open eyes and pave new trails, and he sees this latest endeavor as another landmark event on his bigpicture journey.

“God will give you what you need when you need it most,” he said.

“The Jerusalem marathon is going to be just another struggle I will overcome.”

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