Special Needs

Original Article on The LookStein Center

When the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in Glen Spey, New York began including campers with disabilities in 1970, it began attracting campers and families from a range of Jewish backgrounds—from unaffiliated to Hasidic. At the time, there were no other summer camp options for Jewish children and young adults with disabilities. More options exist nowadays to serve campers with a wide range of disabilities. And they continue to attract campers from families with diverse backgrounds. In a Jewish summer camp context, an Orthodox male rabbi and a female Reconstructionist rabbi sit together and talk—not about God, Kashrut or Shabbat, but they can speak—parent to parent—about autism and vocational training.

Opportunities exist beyond the camping world for Jews of diverse streams and backgrounds to meet, interact and share openly. Specialized Jewish day schools are uniquely positioned to offer even more than camps in terms of Jewish learning and services to parents and families—all year round. The Shefa School in New York City is a model of Jewish day school which offers a unique educational approach to learners from diverse family backgrounds.

The Shefa School reports that it is a Jewish community day school serving students in grades 1-8 who benefit from a specialized educational environment in order to develop their strengths while addressing their learning challenges. All students at Shefa have language-based learning disabilities and have not yet reached their potential levels of success in traditional classroom settings. Many students have started out at other Jewish day schools which may be more in line with the family’s religious outlook. They have come to Shefa in search of a school that understands their child’s learning needs, and often to help restore their self-esteem.

Shefa is proud to call itself “a pluralistic community school serving families across the range of Jewish involvement and observance.” The name “Shefa” which means “abundance” was chosen because “we believe that our students possess an abundance of unique gifts, talents, skills, and insights. Our job is to nourish them emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.”

Founder and head of the 143 student school, Ilana Ruskay-Kidd stresses the need to always be “open and reflective” and notes that the school is “always a work in progress.” She tries hard to create an environment where everyone feels they can come and talk about anything. On the school’s website, under FAQ’s the question of “What is the Jewish orientation of the school?” is addressed as follows: “The Shefa School is a pluralistic community school, seeking to serve families across the Jewish spectrum. Our goal is to make Shefa a welcoming place that integrates rich Jewish values, community, culture, traditions, and holidays — regardless of each family’s particular practice or affiliation. We serve only kosher food and observe all holidays in accordance with the Jewish calendar. Shefa nurtures our students’ commitment to Jewish values and teaches the skills to enable them to participate fully in Jewish life.”

Schools like Shefa require a dedication, self-reflection, and diplomacy. Despite a great deal of forethought, and the best of efforts to anticipate situations which might arise, issues small and seemingly large arise from time to time. These issues are actually opportunities in disguise as they force community members, teachers and administrators to be honest and communicative, and to consider what is and isn’t negotiable. One time, a mother from a very traditional background asked Ruskay-Kidd, “If we are uncomfortable with the Jewish Studies, can we pull our daughter out?” Ruskay-Kidd offered a calculated, thoughtful reply. Learning Jewish Studies together was non-negotiable, but she encouraged the mother to come talk to her about what was making her uncomfortable.

One family asked if Shefa offers a Sephardic minyan. While the school at first didn’t want to “keep separating” the students, they realized the family had a valid point. “The school is probably one third Sephardic,” notes Ruskay-Kidd, “and most of our tunes were Ashkenazic.” The school brought in a person to teach the whole school about Sephardic liturgy and to introduce Sephardic tunes. “Every synagogue has slightly different melodies… Our goal is to be flexible.” The school itself has evolved and now offers a range of tefillah options including mehitza, no mehitza, learners and meditation/exploratory prayer options.

Ruskay-Kidd is pleased as she observes, “We live happily and peacefully together. In a given week, we don’t usually see issues. In a year, we might.” Many likely-to-arise situations, though not all, are addressed in advance: Kashrut (strictly kosher, nationally accepted supervisions, but not Halav Yisrael), kipot; (“we spent so much time on this one—they are strongly encouraged; default is to put it on; one or two have philosophical complaints; and kipot sometimes fall off of heads!” Ruskay-Kidd reports that all wear kipot for Limudei Kodesh and estimates that 50% wear kipot all day long); dress (“kids dress how their community dresses;” requirement is dark bottoms—skirt or pants, no tank tops).

Yet, “situations” do come up—sometimes “caused” quite innocently by families and sometimes even by the school. On one occasion, a non-Sabbath observant family (likely quite innocently) scheduled a bar mitzvah reception which started before Shabbat was over. On another occasion, the school inadvertently almost caused an uncomfortable situation for some students around a seemingly fabulous-for-all community service opportunity. Students had the chance to volunteer at a very established program four blocks from the school which serves 1000 meals a day. But it took place in a church—which was problematic for some families. The school sensitively began to offer this as one of several community service options.

Other issues which may arise in a school like Shefa: teaching Torah (“How we teach the meaning of Vayomer Hashem”), science (“Are dinosaurs real?”) and health education (“Can you opt out?” “Why do boys have to learn about girls’ bodies?”).

Each situation which arises offers opportunities for reflection, problem solving and honest communication. The head of school can’t assume everyone is familiar with “basic” words like shalakh manos (food gifts sent on Purim); at the same time, over-translating may make some more traditional families question just “how Jewish” the school is!

Sometimes the students themselves are the best problem solvers. One traditional student was feeling uncomfortable with a morning greeting ritual which involved students either handshaking or fist bumping the student next to him. He was worried that he may not always be next to a boy and was uncomfortable with the possibility of having this exchange with a girl. While his parents didn’t find this to be problematic halachically, the boy told his parents one evening that it was a “big problem” for him. His parents spoke with him about perhaps explaining his “family tradition” with the class” and waving to a girl who might be sitting next to him. Within seconds, he was already planning (with minimal coaching!) what he was going to tell his classmates. Problem solved!

Ruskay-Kidd reflects on each of these situations and playfully recalls the well-known saying about pluralism. “That is when all of us are comfortable most of the time—but none of us are comfortable all of the time.” Shefa families are clearly happy, and they are emissaries for the school in their respective, diverse communities across the New York tristate area. “It is so inspiring and moving to watch what it means to love your child. The distance they travel…all (of what seems at first to be) barriers…they all disappear!”

Settings like Camp Ramah and the Shefa School demonstrate that it is indeed possible to foster relationships between Jews of diverse backgrounds. Early childhood program and pluralistic day schools are similarly making strides to bring together all kinds of learners and families. Hillel and Limmud and various cross-denominational rabbinic encounter programs AJWS (American Jewish World Service), AIPAC and the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative show what can be accomplished with diverse groups of adults.

Jewish adults coming together goes back to the 600,000 plus who assembled at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah and continued with Jews coming together around such large issues as the plight of Soviet Jewry (250,000 demonstrated on the National Mall in Washington, DC on Sunday, December 6, 1987) and recently in solidarity with the people of Pittsburgh.

Let us continue to strive to develop models of assembling, learning, communicating and sharing in even more Jewish settings.

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by Aaron Herman

How do you you create a meaningful Israel experience for young adults with special needs? Video blogger Aaron Herman spoke with Covenant Award winner Howard Blass, Director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, Tali Cohen, Director of Tikvah Vocational Services and participants about their unique Israel experience.

The Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England is an eight-week overnight camping program for 60 campers with special needs that is integrated within a summer camp for 800 typically developing children. As Director, Howard manages four separate special needs programs, including a full-time overnight camp, a Vocational Training Program, a Camp Employment Program, and an Inclusion Program.

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