Ramah Tikvah Programs

Original Article in 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 Edelman z”l, the camp director who was running a Camp Ramah program 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 (dining hall), 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 in The New York Jewish Week

t the farewell dinner in Tel Aviv on the last night of our ten day Birthright Israel Amazing Israel Ramah Tikvah trip, we went around the table sharing memories and trip highlights. The 21 participants with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the six staff members, representing five Ramah Tikvah Programs and twelve states—from Wisconsin to Alabama—spoke enthusiastically about the jeep ride on the Golan Heights, the de Karina chocolate making workshop at Kibbutz EIn Zivan, the Night Spectacular Sound and Light show at the Tower of David in Jerusalem, the Biblical Zoo, the view of Syria from Golan, Masada, the Dead Sea, the Kotel, and shwarma! The participants then asked for my highlight. It didn’t take long for me to share my answer, though my highlight was so much more than a place. “Tefillot and your knowledge of Israel and Judaism,” I replied, as the group asked for clarification.

Tefillah is Israel. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Each day, our group met for morning prayers, in such places as hotel bomb shelters, banquet rooms, outdoor tents, and the bus. We used a special Tikvah siddur from Ramah camps, we faced east, and south—depending on our location. Some participants wore kippot, tallis and tefillin. And we sang such “classics” as Modeh Ani, Mah Tovu, Halleluya and Shema, and such Tikvah Ramah favorites as the Baruch SheaMARCH, Thank You, God, and The Rise and Shine Amidah Song. (The group had no problem MARCHING to the Baruch SheaMARCH prayer when we were praying in the hotel; they weren’t sure how we could safely march on the bus ride to Masada. We decided it was safer to sit!)

The participants got up early to sing and dance and share this meaningful experience with camp friends—all before eating a sumptuous hotel or kibbutz guest house breakfast. Alexa sat in the back of the room, or at the front of the group, using Hebrew sign language to sign each acrostic prayer—Ashrei, El Baruch and El Adon. She was happy to teach her friends Hebrew the sign language she learned at Camp Ramah in New England.

The California Ramah group recruited their friends to come up and lead the Shema and VeAhavta—making sure all eight members of the camp in Ojai, California were there.

Sam wanted to make sure we left time each morning for Adon Olam–and wondered, “Who will say the Shema with us each night before bed?”

Maddy, a female participant from Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, wanted to make sure she would have an opportunity to put on family heirloom tefillin—at the Kotel. We excused ourselves from the group’s tour of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park-Davidson Center, found a special spot, and had a few moments of special prayer, wrapped in tefillin.

The participants from the various Ramah Tikvah Programs felt a sense of connection to their fellow campers.  They enjoyed the predictability of the daily prayer ritual. And they looked forward to thanking God each day for the many gifts they have received. Isn’t that what prayer is all about?

Maddy asked me before the trip if she could lead birkat hamazone on Shabbat and we had a few takers for kiddush and hamotzi as well.

Ramah Tikvah participants in Israel. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Our tour educator, Doron, an observant Jew himself, was blown away, observing that this knowledge of and enthusiasm for prayer was not typical of most Birthright trips, or any Israel trip for that matter. He was also impressed with their level of knowledge about Israel and Judaism in general.

When Henry offered a scholarly explanation at Tel Dan in the north to a question about Israel’s water issues, Doron calmly removed his tour guide license from around his neck and placed it on Henry. “You are our tour guide now!” Henry was so excited, sharing his YouTube video acquired knowledge about drip irrigation and desalinization. Doron used this “trick” on several occasions, rewarding participants particularly knowledgeable about the Old City of Jerusalem, Masada and more with the tour guide’s license.

In the Israel Museum, participants found many objects and exhibits to be familiar—including tefillin, chuppah, matzah baking, Chanukah menorahs and the three fully reconstructed synagogues.

In the north, at the Mishnaic village of Kfar Kedem, the lovely guide thought he would be introducing the group to pita making on a taboon (outdoor oven)—like he has done for years with so many tour groups. For this group, pita making was nothing new. Our Ramah camps each bring 40 or 50 shlichim (Israeli emissaries) to camp each summer. Our campers have been making pitot and eating fresh chumous for years!

Touring in Israel. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Our ten day Israel trip was fun and educational for the participants. I too, learned a valuable lesson which we in the Jewish community should take to heart—and fund accordingly: people with disabilities are very capable of connecting in a meaningful way with Jewish ritual, practice, and knowledge, and with Israel. When our summer camps, synagogues, youth groups, schools, communities and Israel trips open their doors to include everyone, the payoff is as clear as the beautiful sky we saw from Jaffa on the last night of our trip of a lifetime.

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