Tikvah Program

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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Original Article in The New York Jewish Week:

Highlights of Canada’s first-ever Jewish disability conference.

The “Pushing the Boundaries: Disabilities, Inclusion and Jewish Community” conference, April 15-17th in Toronto, truly pushed the boundaries. A severe ice storm and brief power outage may have been minor inconveniences, but they were not going to stop a diverse group of 175 people from such places as Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal, Minneapolis, New York and various cities and towns in Israel, from attending the first conference of its kind in Canada. The conference has been in the planning stages for three years!

The extraordinary people attending and presenting, the wide range of relevant and timely content, the excitement and enthusiasm in the main conference room, and the always supportive and nurturing feel helped make this conference very special. Attendees included people with disabilities, family members, advocates, community members, foundation representatives, professionals from schools, camps, agencies and a wide range of Jewish organizations–even a Canadian member of Parliament.

The conference, scheduled to begin on Sunday evening April 15th was delayed in starting due to extremely icy and snowy road conditions. Starting the conference Monday morning allowed for more attendees and presenters to arrive—and for the all-star tech staff to make provisions for presenters stuck in Washington, New York and beyond to join and present by video conferencing. All sessions were consolidated in to two action packed days—everyone left exhausted and happy, armed with notes, handouts and inspiring quotes to guide them in their ongoing work.

Connie Putterman, a parent, advocate and chairperson of Itanu, UJA Federation’s Inclusion Committee, introduced Monday morning’s keynote speaker, renowned disability rights activist Diane Richler, and participated on Tuesday’s advocacy panel. Attendees will always remember Putterman’s brilliant insight: “Advocacy is telling your story in a way that other people can hear you!”

Diane Richler, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr Foundation International Fellow, past chair of International Disability Alliance, a leader in the negotiation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and a member of the the Ruderman Family Foundation advisory board, delivered a talk, “Inclusion Without Limits: What Has to Change.” Richler was impressed with the Canadian Jewish community which she observed, “has made much progress in the last few years in promoting inclusion…With creative energy, we can leapfrog over the traditional ways of supporting people with disabilities and make the Canadian Jewish community a model for others.”

All conference attendees learned from panels on such topics as housing, employment, innovations from Israel (including Alut, Krembo Wings, and Israel Unlimited/JDC) and from case to cause—the power of advocacy. They also attended specialized breakout sessions, taking place throughout the very impressive campus of the Lipa Green Centre for Jewish Community Services at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Topics included recreation, aging education, person-centered models, education case studies, dating and relationships, camping and creating inclusive shul communities.

Keynote speaker, Ari Ne’eman spoke on “Disability Inclusion: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going,” comedian and inclusion and inclusion advocate, Pamela Schuller entertained Monday evening with her routine, “What Makes Me Tic,” and Tuesday speaker, Maayan Ziv, wowed the audience in a session on innovation and inclusion. Maayan Ziv, a photographer & entrepreneur who also has muscular dystrophy, shared how she has continued to turn obstacles into opportunities. “I have accomplished what I have WITH my disability, not DESPITE it.” She has developed her Access Now app; she and her team are working to document what is accessible in the world. Two of Ziv’s insightful, inspiring quotes will surely travel home with the conference participants. “Accessibility is a mindset that can lead to inclusion;” “People are not disabled- environments are disabling.”

Attendees enjoyed the opportunity to meet colleagues and to share resources. Many extended their already long Monday day session in to night by visiting a program entitled DANI (Developing and Nurturing Independence) for a tour and dinner.

As the conference drew to a close Tuesday after lunch, and participants continued to comment on the unusual weather (it was snowing again!), many exchanged business cards, hugged new friends, and affirmed commitments to ongoing collaboration as we all continue to push boundaries even further!

Howard Blas was the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England and is now director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network. Howard also serves as a teacher of Jewish studies and bar/bat mitzvah preparation to students with a range of disabilities and “special circumstances.” He holds masters’ degrees in both social work (Columbia University) and special education (Bank Street College of Education). Howard received the S’fatai Tiftakh Award from Boston Hebrew College’s Center for Jewish Special Education in 2012 and the 2013 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. He writes regularly for many Jewish publications.

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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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Helping to give special needs kids a fun summer

By Cindy Mindell

For several years, the New England Region of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has raised money to support the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, one of the first summer programs for Jewish campers with special needs.

Now in its 40th year, the pioneering Tikvah has inspired many off-shoots, both within the Camp Ramah system and elsewhere. The program offers three tracks: a full Ramah camping experience for 13- to 18-year-olds; vocational training, socialization, and group-living experience for graduates of the camping program; and inclusion of younger campers in typical Ramah bunks. Many vocational-training graduates have been hired to operate the on-site guesthouse.

Three years ago, the men’s club at Temple Aliyah in Needham, Mass. decided to take its fundraising efforts further. Several members, all avid cyclists, had participated in charity bike-a-thons and saw the model as a way to bring together congregations throughout the area for community-building and tikkun olam.

Tour de Shuls debuted in 2008, involving synagogues throughout the Boston suburbs. The event raised more than $5,000 for Tikvah, says program director Howard Blas, who lives in Woodbridge.

The 2009 Tour de Shuls did the same. That’s when David Diamond of West Hartford learned about the benefit bike ride. Diamond, then president of the men’s club of Beth El Temple in West Hartford, was attending a regional Jewish men’s retreat at Camp Ramah, “and I thought Tour de Shuls would be a phenomenal thing for our community,” he says. Diamond shared the idea with fellow Beth El congregant Bruce Stanger of West Hartford, who serves on the Camp Ramah of New England board and as co-chair of the Israel Ride, an annual 350-mile Jerusalem-to-Eilat bike ride. He has also ridden in the Massachusetts Tour de Shuls. By December, a committee was in place, co-chaired by Diamond and Lisa Sue Levin, also of West Hartford.

“I’m passionate about biking and tikkun olam,” says Levin, a past co-chairof Beth El’s mitzvah day. “I’m excited and honored to co-chair the first Tour de Shuls in Connecticut.”

Levin recently attended the bar mitzvah of a boy with autism, held at a summer camp. “Reading the Torah in the woods in an outdoor sanctuary made me think about our event,” she says, “and how important it is to provide special-needs kids with the opportunity to go to camp, learn about their Jewish background, and help establish their Jewish identity.”

The Connecticut event is sponsored by the Connecticut Valley Region of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, with nine area synagogues providing volunteers and supplies.

Tour de Shuls kicks off at 8am at The Emanuel Synagogue, 160 Mohegan Drive in West Hartford with a pre-ride breakfast. Cyclists of all levels are welcome. There are four rides of varying lengths available. All routes end at The Emanuel with a community celebration including music and light refreshments. Snacks and water will be provided along the routes. Pre-registrants will receive a t-shirt and a water bottle. For more information and to register: www.tourdeshuls.org, or David Diamond at daviddiamond2@comcast.net / (860) 673-6885 or Lisa Levin at lisasuelevin@aol.com / (860) 675-7400.

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