National Ramah Tikvah Network

Original Article Published On The eJP

By Helen Chernikoff

As a longtime administrator in the field of disability services, Avrohom Adler had gotten countless phone calls from people in the Jewish community seeking a service provider either on their own behalf, or for a family member or friend. He would do what he could to help them, but his inability to know the outcome nagged at him. Spurred by those experiences, he’s created a database, under the auspices of the Orthodox Union’s (OU) Yachad division, that aims to provide a central address for high-quality referrals, Adler told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“This has been something that I personally have been thinking about for 10 years,” said Adler, Yachad’s international director. “Any organization that provides supports for people with disabilities deals with this. You try to do your best, but there’s no way to follow up.”

Called REACH, the service will initially serve the New York region, although Yachad, which means “together,” plans to expand it to cover the United States. It will offer recommendations for government-funded programs, educational institutions, social and recreational programs, therapists, lawyers, advocates and social workers. Yachad draws on the entire Jewish community in compiling its database, in addition to non-sectarian organizations, such as JCCs, the Rebecca School, located in Manhattan, and Brooklyn’s Strivright/Auditory Oral School of New York.

“This is not a Yachad network,” Adler said of REACH. “This belongs to the community.”

REACH’s director spent a year researching the community’s offerings in order to create the database. Licensed professionals will train a team to operate the database and to work with the families, Adler said.

Founded in 1983, Yachad operates in the United States, Canada and Israel. Adler estimates that Yachad programs serve about 1,000 people annually. The OU was founded in 1898, and has over 400 congregations in its network, in addition to serving as the umbrella organization for NCSY, its youth group; OU Press; Yachad and other programs.

No one organization can serve every person or every need, Adler said — hence the database. He said the team that created the service is “most proud” of the technology, because it will help mitigate the natural human bias of the staff member answering the call.

Employees of Yachad, Adler said by way of example, might feel inclined — even unconsciously — to refer callers to a Yachad program over another. REACH’s software will generate the referrals after the staffer enters the caller’s information into the system. The initial call will take about 35 minutes, and the recommendations will be sent to the caller in an email. REACH will also follow up with surveys to evaluate the quality of the interaction, the referrals and the outcome, which will be fed back into the system, Adler said.

“It comes down to: How did everybody perform, including Yachad?” Adler said. “If people aren’t happy, and it wasn’t a good referral, we have to know that.”

The emergence of such an ecumenical project in the disabilities world does not surprise Howard Blas, director of the Conservative Movement’s Ramah Tikvah Network of summer programs for children with disabilities. “This is one of the places in the Jewish world where people really collaborate nicely. There’s a lot of crossover,” he said, mentioning that a third of the children in the Tikvah network come from Orthodox homes, and that he admires Chabad’s Friendship Circle program, which helps children with disabilities and their families establish relationships.

People with disabilities and their families will find REACH useful, especially in its ability to help callers understand and access government benefits, said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, a disability service and advocacy organization.

Some organizations, such as the Jewish Board, address this need for information by compiling lists of available services and providers on their websites. The lists can be challenging for their creators to keep updated and for users to sort through, said Adler, who worked at the Jewish Board for most of his career.

“All the information in the world that we need is out there, but we need aggregators and organizers to help us access it,” Blas said. “REACH is like a concierge service.”

Read more

Two years ago, a delegation of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) and Jewish Funders Network (JFN) members visited eight Jewish summer camps in the Northeast in three days. Despite their different locations (from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts), sizes, and movement affiliations, the camps had one important thing in common: They were successfully including campers with disabilities in the camp community.

The long bus ride provided opportunities for discussion and processing of all the group was seeing and experiencing. The energy, enthusiasm, sharing, and creative thinking led to an amazing back-of-the-bus brainstorm—how about a one-day conference on disabilities inclusion in the Jewish community after the GA 2012 in Maryland? Thus, “Opening Abraham’s Tent: The Disability Inclusion Initiative” was born.

Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO, Jerry Silverman, literally ran straight from the halls of the GA to Opening Abraham’s Tent to welcome the 120 attendees. The audience members and speakers from across North America and Israel, assembled on short notice, were a “who’s who” of the Jewish disabilities world; each made his or her way to Baltimore to be part of this historic meeting.

I was proud to represent the National Ramah Commission at the convening. Looking around the room, I saw so many colleagues from across North America, and from many different organizations in the Jewish disabilities world. Many of us reflected proudly on how we got our start in this field by working with the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah. Since 1970, the Tikvah Program has been a pioneer in serving and including campers with disabilities and in training staff members for this important work.

In recent weeks, Ramah has taken this to the next level by creating the position of director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network, a position which I assumed last month and which is funded by the Oppenheimer Haas Foundation. The National Ramah Tikvah Network will expand its efforts to support the Ramah camps’ efforts to raise funds and create new programming to meet the needs of this vitally important population.

Now, two years later, nearly to the day, the GA returns to Maryland. So much has happened in the disabilities inclusion world since that initial meeting to establish Opening Abraham’s Tent. Much of the Jewish world—from synagogues to organizations to funders—is making strides toward inclusion and serving people with disabilities. We need to keep the people engaged in this effort and the issue high on the Jewish communal agenda. The work is not over.

The topics of disabilities and inclusion are now more openly discussed in religious schools, synagogues, camps, Jewish organizations, and even in the Israel Defense Forces. As a result, new disabilities and inclusion initiatives are being launched, and existing ones are being expanded throughout the North American Jewish community and in Israel. We are proud that many of the individuals establishing, leading, and staffing these initiatives and programs gained their skills and knowledge in the disabilities field by having trained and worked at Ramah’s Tikvah camping programs.

Here are just several examples of new initiatives or expansions of already existing disabilities inclusion programs:

  • The Shefa School, a new Jewish day school in Manhattan serving children with language-based learning disabilities, opened this past September.
  • The Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) recently hired a full-time director of their disabilities initiative. This will allow more camps to receive resources, support, and training as they expand services to campers with a wide range of disabilities.
  • Two new Tikvah programs for campers with disabilities will be opening by summer 2016 at Ramah Darom in Georgia and Camp Ramah in the Poconos. They will be staffed through the growing pipeline of young adults who have participated in National Ramah Tikvah Network training, which now includes staff from all other Jewish camps and is funded with the support of the Neshamot Fund of UJA-Federation of NY.

-Hineinu: Building Jewish Community for People of All Abilities, a cross-denominational partnership, recently produced a free, 32-page guide designed to increase disability inclusion in synagogues.

– JCC camps across the United States and Canada continue to expand services for people with disabilities.

– Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, continues to evolve and grow, now offering “shadow programs for maximum inclusion, where campers are FULLY integrated into a typical bunk together with supportive  ‘shadow’ staff.”

– The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and Ruderman Family Foundation launched a new Inclusion Initiative, with the goal of improving attitudes about inclusion and disabilities and ensuring full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life.

This increased disabilities inclusion awareness and these new and expanded initiatives are due in large part to increased collaboration and sharing among Jewish institutions and organizations. In the Ramah camping movement, we have always believed that the best results come from joint efforts, and we have been eager to share best practices derived from our 45 years of experience in inclusion of Jewish campers with disabilities.

With generous funding from the Covenant Foundation, Ramah recently convened thirty camp directors, disabilities program coordinators, funders, and key shareholders from across the entire Ramah movement for a day of strategic planning around disabilities camping. This effort was an exciting milestone in our efforts to think together about ways we can both strengthen inclusion within Ramah as well as share our expertise with other camping movements and educational organizations seeking to create programs for children with disabilities and include them in every aspect of Jewish life.

Last week, I had the privilege of having dinner in Ra’anana, Israel, with Herb and Barbara Greenberg. In the late 1960s, these two humble Long Island public school teachers had the visionary idea to create a Jewish overnight summer camp program for campers with developmental disabilities. Despite opposition and concerns that it would lead to “normal kids” leaving, decrease the level of Hebrew, be too costly, and otherwise negatively impact the Ramah camping experience, they went ahead with their idea, with the support of a lone Ramah director, Don Adelman (z’l).

Now, 45 years later, Tikvah serves 320 children, teens, and young adults with disabilities in the Ramah camps throughout North America and also offers family camp and vocational training programs, as well as the launch of new inclusion programming in the Ramah Israel Seminar summer travel program. We all benefit from the Greenbergs’ and Don Adelman’s efforts and look to them as inspiration as we train the next generation of young people dedicated to making a place for everyone inside the Jewish community’s tent.


Read more