Tikvah Program

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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