Ramah Tikvah

Original Article Published on The New York Jewish week

At 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.

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.

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!

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.

Read more

Original Article at The New York Jewish Week

A partnership between Ramah and Birthright brings young adults with disabilities to experience Israel

Los Angeles Jewish communal professional Michelle Wolf’s daughter had been on a Birthright Israel trip, and she wanted her 22-year-old son Danny to have the same experience. But until recently, she thought that a free Israel tour together with young peers was not in the cards for Danny, who has cerebral palsy and many specialized needs.

To Wolf’s delight, her son is headed to Israel this December on the first-ever Ramah Tikvah/Amazing Israel Birthright Israel trip. Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism, has organized Israel trips for Tikvah Program participants and alumni in the past. This, however, is the first one being offered in collaboration with the exceptionally successful initiative that has brought more than 600,000 young Jews to Israel since 1999.

“When we got an email about the trip, we were so excited! Danny is thrilled to be going to Israel with some of his friends from Camp Ramah in California, where he has gone for the last nine summers,” said Wolf.

According to National Ramah Tikvah Network director Howard Blas, between 20 and 25 young adults with disabilities are expected to fly to Israel from New York on December 18 for the 10-day adventure. The trip’s itinerary includes Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee, and Masada. There will also be unique opportunities, such as a meeting and conversation with IDF soldiers with disabilities.

Many—though not all—of the 18- to 29-year-old participants will have attended a Tikvah Program at one or more of Ramah’s ten overnight camps. Those who have applied and been accepted to the trip hail from every region of North America.

Elana Naftalin-Kelman, Tikvah director at Camp Ramah in California, noted that the largest contingent is from her program.

“The combination of Birthright and Ramah is one that our families have been waiting for. Raising a child with disabilities is very expensive and families don’t have disposable income. This trip is finally giving our Tikvah families access to Israel for their children,” she said.

Naftalin-Kelman expects this Israel experience to deepen the relationships between the Ezra (vocational training program) participants and the other staff at her camp next summer.

“The young men and women in our Ezra program already have good connections with members of our mishlachat (visiting Israeli counselors), but I think those bonds will become even deeper this coming summer due to this trip,” she said.

Those who will have been on the Birthright trip will also be able to share common experiences and memories with neurotypical peers at camp who will likely have visited Israel with the Ramah Seminar summer program, or Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim, Ramah’s semester in Israel for high school students.

Tikvah Program founders Herb and Barbara Greenberg look forward to welcoming the Birthright group during their visit. The couple, which made aliyah in 1998, knows how much detailed planning goes into organizing an Israel trip for young people with disabilities.

“We organized the first Tikvah Israel trip in 1984, and it was not only a learning experience for our kids, but also for Israeli society, which was not used to seeing and interacting with groups like ours,” Barbara Greenberg said.

“Israel had no concept of inclusion to that point,” she said.

The Greenbergs led seven trips through the early 1990s (Blas led subsequent trips), each time increasing their knowledge about how to help young people with disabilities experience Israel. For instance, they discovered that everything on the itinerary had to be a hands-on and on-site activity.

“You can’t talk about the history of a place while riding on the bus. You have to talk about it when you are actually at the site, so that there is a visual, tactile and experiential context,” Herb Greenberg said.

These concrete connections help form strong memories for the trip participants.

“The kids come back with the same feelings as any other kid. They have a visceral connection to Israel and feel more Jewish,” Barbara Greenberg said.

New Yorker Jacklin Simoni is sending her 20-year-old daughter Nora, who attends the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, on this December’s trip for just this reason.

“I want her to see what I saw when I first visited Israel. I was so excited to visit Jerusalem and the wall, I felt I was part of a bigger community that just my own,” Simoni said.

Read more

Original Article Published On The New York Jewish Week

Former Tikvah participant joins Israel hike to benefit the program that supported him in younger years

There is an important concept in the disabilities inclusion world known as “Nothing About Us Without Us.” This simply means that decisions or conversations having to do with people with disabilities must include people with disabilities. This seems pretty basic and straightforward. But could a strenuous five day bike ride and hike in Israel which supports people with disabilities include people with disabilities?

Every two years, the National Ramah Commission and the National Ramah Tikvah Network organizes the Ramah Israel Bike Ride and Hike to support the TIkvah Programs for participants with disabilities in our nine overnight and five day camps.   For the past two rides/hikes, we have been blessed with the participation of parents of Tikvah campers; they eloquently shared their stories with fellow riders and hikers. I have long dreamed of the day a participant or graduate of the program would join us on the ride or hike. Might this be possible?

We all know that people with disabilities often have amazing abilities! Might a campers or alum with a disability be able to handle the tough biking and hiking terrain of Israel? After all, we did have an amazing rider who happens to be blind ride (with a partner, on a tandem bike) and come back two years later as a hiker!

This year, we were approached by Avi, a 30 year old man who grew up in camp and worked for many years in camp as a salaried staff member. He had participated on several Tikvah Israel trips (10 days Israel trips for members of the Tikvah Program) and wanted to participate in a “normal” trip. He regularly joins a local hiking group for strenuous 10 plus mile hikes and was up for the challenge. He did not want anyone to know of his past affiliation with Tikvah. This was no longer relevant, he felt, as he works full time, dates, participates in Jewish communal life, and is capable of handling such a hike.

But how would this young man do on a five day hike which is so much more than just a hike? How would he deal with getting up and out early each day, changing hotels every day or two, navigating social situations, living with a roommate? Thanks to great hiking skills, a winning personality, a desire to succeed, a wonderful roommate, and supportive fellow hikers, this young man (who happens to have Aspergers) was a huge success. And he raised the level of the hiking experience and overall trip for everyone.

-“We couldn’t keep up with him on the snake path up Masada!”

“We had such wonderful conversations on the trails about dating, about the Jewish community and more.”

Many programs for people with disabilities are “separate” and do not include ongoing, meaningful interactions with neurotypical participants. When people with and without disabilities share an experience and form meaningful relationships, they get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and can help each other grow.

Hiking with Ramah. Courtesy of Howard Blas
Hiking with Ramah. Courtesy of Howard Blas

A very experienced hiker in his late 50s shared the following powerful story. “I saw Avi’s pants were falling down and asked if he had a belt. At first, Avi got defensive and said, “Are you telling me that because I have special needs?” “I replied, “Avi, I would tell any friend the same thing. I wouldn’t want them to feel embarrassed!” Avi smiled. He earned that caring friends can point out fashion faux pas, and remind you to drink water and re-apply sunscreen. This is not a special needs issue—this is a caring friends issue. Social skills are best learned in the context of caring relationships in real-life settings.

I look forward to our next ride and hike in two years. I hope more riders and hikers with disabilities will participate. The participation of each unique rider and hiker enhances the ride, hike and Israel trip for everyone.

Read more

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.

Read more