Tikvah Program

Original Article

The American Camping Association (ACA), which employs more than 320,000 camp staff and serves over 7.2 million children in its 2,400 ACA accredited camps report in a 2017 study that 44% of camps offer specialized programs for individuals with disabilities. They proudly note, “For 120 years, the organized camp experience has been serving individuals with special needs.” These camps began by serving campers with physical challenges and this “was the beginning of a pattern of the camp community’s response to societal issues affecting campers with a wide variety of diagnoses, including polio, intellectual and physical disabilities, childhood diabetes, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.”

In the Jewish camping world, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, two special education teachers, started the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England in 1970 for campers with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There has been tremendous growth in the area of inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish summer camps since that time. According to Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, 3,744 campers with disabilities participated in FJC overnight camps in 2019 and 4,145 in day camps.

While many camps did not operate in person in the summer of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is the norm around the world for children with disabilities to participate in summer day and overnight camps and respite camps. These camps differ in affiliation and structure: they may be public or private, faith based or nondenominational (communal), and they may feature various models of camping including fully inclusive, camp within a camp, and separate camps for people with disabilities.

In the United States, overnight camps typically take place during the summer months, and last from several days to 8-weeks. Campers often travel many hours by plan, bus or car to arrive at camp.

In Israel, a country roughly the size of New Jersey, overnight camps are a relatively new phenomena and tend to last from 5 days to 14 days. The recently established Summer Camps Israel organization aims to promote greater involvement in 30 summer camps throughout Israel. Several camps and organizations in Israel currently meet the needs of participants with disabilities and their families.

Programs Serving Special Populations

Shutaf, a year-round Jerusalem-based program, serves 300 participants, ages 6-30, with and without disabilities. They employ a reverse-inclusion model which brings together participants with diverse developmental, physical, and learning disabilities (75% of participants), alongside participants without disabilities (25% of participants).

Co-founder Beth Steinberg reports, “When we moved to Israel in 2006, the camp world here was underdeveloped. The ideas of an American style camp with values to grow and become was unheard of. We wanted summers to be the best time for our kids and we wanted to serve all kinds of needs.” Summers in Israel are usually very hot. Without camp programs, children often stay home alone or with siblings while parents work. Steinberg’s program offers a three-week day camp program each August, with arts and crafts, science, music and movement, sports, archery and a ropes course. Steinberg and her Shutaf team quickly responded to the Covid crisis by offering “Camp in a Box,” carefully planned “boxes” containing arts and crafts projects, sports equipment and gardening projects which were delivered and to over 150 participants. “It felt like a happy gift,” reports Steinberg proudly. Similar boxes are provided to participants and families during the Jewish holidays of Passover (April) and Chanukah (December) when children are on break from school. Steinberg, a veteran of the camp scene in Israel, reports, “There has been some changes recently in camping, with more choices now and some programs offering short term sleepaway programs.

The Jordan River Village Camp

Camp housed on 245 acres in the Lower Galilee of Northern Israel (near Givat Avni), was established in 2006 and is the 16th a network of 30 camps worldwide, part of the Paul Newman “The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.” They offer three unique types of camp programs which take place over approximately 40 sessions per year. One program serves children and adolescents ages of 9 and 18 who present with a wide range of medical conditions and genetic diseases, including cancer, seizure disorders, transplants, and neurological disorders. Director Yakir Sternin proudly reports, “We are the only camp in our organization which offers sessions for participants who or deaf or have hearing impairments, and for children who are blind or have visual impairments.” Sessions are generally 5-6 days and are for children who do not need parental assistance with self-care or medical care.

Three-day family sessions are offered for parents, siblings and children ages 5-18 who require self-care or medical support. Participants are oftenwheelchair users, present with seizure disorders which are not well-controlled, or are user of ventilators. The camp has also established a relationship with the Ministry of Education where campers with intellectual and developmental disabilities and autism attend 3-4 day sessions with their school staff. Sternin is pleased and excited that the camp’s sessions bring together participants from very diverse walks of life in Israel, including Jews who are secular, religious and Ultra Orthodox, as well as Christians, Druze, Bedouins and Circassians. In addition, there are two sessions per year for children who come from the Palestinian Authority and Gaza. “We are on the way to fulfilling a dream,” reports Sternin. “It is one of the most beautiful things when they meet and see eye to eye – when you are fighting for life, it doesn’t matter who your father is and who you pray to! Disability and medical situations create bridges!” Sternin also sees equally strong relationships formed among the over 1000 volunteers who come each year, from very diverse backgrounds.

My Piece Of The Puzzle

Is a camp program which integrates children and teenagers at risk and with disabilities, in to five day overnight camping sessions. The two sessions per season take place on the grounds of the Jordan River Valley camp, but is not affiliated with that camp. My Piece of the Puzzle was inspired by the United States based program, Camp Ramapo, in Rhinebeck, New York. According to director Jenna Albaz, half of the participants have such disabilities as autism, Down Syndrome and intellectual disabilities, and half come from “broken homes, dysfunctional families, have no friends, or have a police record.” Elbaz is pleased with how the participants integrate and form friendships. “For the at risk children, it is their first time they have felt loved, unconditionally. For the participants with special needs, it may be the first time they have friends without special needs and they can just be themselves.” Elbaz adds, “It is win/win—it brings out the best in both populations.” Elbaz is in the process of expanding to also offer school year programs, and a mechina, a pre-army preparatory program. Other organizations in Israel offering camps for participants with disabilities include:

The Israel Scouts, include and integrate 3000 participants with disabilities including visual and hearing impairments and behavioral disorders. They often host overnight camping trips.

Yachad Sleepaway Camp at Camp Dror

on the Golan Heights, a twoand-a-half-week Orthodox Jewish sleepaway camp which includes children with disabilities ages 9-16.

Beit HaGalgalim(“House of Wheels”)

strives to attain full social inclusion of people with physical disabilities. One way to achieve this is through weekend groups and summer camps. Each summer, hundreds of participants and volunteers attend 24 overnight summer camps throughout the country. Sessions last for 5 days and include such activities as kayaking in the north, abseiling (descending rock formations with ropes) in the south, hikes, and the performing of community service.

Krembo Wings

Is a youth movement for children and youth with and without disabilities. They also run a summer camp in the northern Israel coastal city of Nahariya. It is held over 3 sessions each August and is open to family members as well. Activities include swimming, sports, yoga, plays, magicians and more.


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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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Original Article Published on The Washington Jewish Week

“Having kids with disabilities is just as normal as having sports at Camp Ramah. It’s what we do,” said Howard Blas, director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah.

That is great news for 18-year old Uriel Levitt of Silver Spring, who has Down syndrome, a genetic condition in which a person has 47 chromosomes instead of the usual 46. This summer will be his fourth one at the camp. “He’s got this amazing opportunity for growth and independence. He’s away from home for two months,” said his mother, Dina Levitt.

She also is thrilled with her son’s summer filled with all-things Jewish. He attends a public school where there are not a lot of Jewish students. But, she said, at Camp Ramah, “he’s got the 24-7 opportunity to hang out with Jewish kids, to learn Jewish stuff.”

“All year long he talk about Camp Ramah. Often, we can’t find his underwear. He’s packed it. Every now and then we have to go and unpack his duffle back,” Dina Levitt said.

When at camp, her son lives in a bunk with other teens to 21-year-olds who are in the Tikvah Program and spends his day engaged in regular camp activities, often with his bunkmates but also with the rest of the campers as well. The Hebrew word tikvah means hope.

The entire camp eats together and celebrates Shabbat as a group. Uriel Levitt also enjoys singing and dancing rehearsals with everyone involved in the camp play, his mother said.

Being included in camp life is so important, because her son learns to model his behavior, she said. “That’s the whole point of inclusion.”

Uriel Levitt also learns responsibility and vocational skills. Two summers ago, he worked at the lake helping the youngest campers learn to swim. “They apparently loved him,” his mother said. Last summer, he helped out in the art room two or three days a week.

Josh Sachs, 21, of Rockville, also attends the Tikvah Program. He has been enjoying his summers at the camp for more than five years. Sachs also has Down syndrome.

As part of his camp life, Sachs has helped make the pizzas the counselors eat after hours. “Basically I chop up stuff. I saut them and then we put them in the oven,” he explained. “Then we serve them.”

By enabling Sachs to be involved in Ramah’s daily life and work in the kitchen performing repetitive skills, the camp is providing the training to help the young man get a job, Blas explained.

Camp as a whole, but his kitchen work in particular, has “been a great experience” for Sachs, said his father, Steven Sachs. “His maturity and his ability to stay on task” has greatly improved.

The young man also has grown through his positive experiences in Temple Beth Ami’s special needs program and his current work at MOST, the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes’ Meaningful Opportunities for Successful Transitions program. There he is learning employment and social skills, his father said.

Camp Ramah, which is part of the Conservative movement, runs eight overnight camps and each has a program for children with special needs. The programs vary from being totally inclusive in camp life to some combination of inclusiveness and special programming, Blas said. All the programs feature Jewish life, he said, adding, “Everybody benefits form Jewish overnight camping.”

Not only do children with special needs have a true camping experience, but they also help other campers they interact with gain a sensitivity toward anyone who is different than them, Blas said.

Many campers continue on for years, eventually becoming counselors. Older children in the Tikvah Program stay on to learn vocation skills, Blas said, pointing out Josh Sachs. “He can sit for two hours and sauté vegetables that go on the pizza. There are a lot of jobs out there in the world “they might not be too exciting for you and me,” like bagging groceries and making pizzas, but these campers “can do it for hours and hours with a smile on their face.”

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