Original Article published on The Camp Ramah Northern California

Tikvah changed my life. In 1984, I was hired to work in the kitchen at Camp Ramah in New England. A day before my arrival, I was asked if I would fill a last minute opening in the Tikvah Program. “What is Tikvah?” I asked. My experience that summer led to my pursuing a career in disabilities inclusion. I spent a total of 21 years working with Tikvah at Ramah New England and have been working as the director of our National Ramah Tikvah Network for five years. In that capacity, I work with the Tikvah directors of all Ramah camps, sharing best practices, discussing vocational training, staff recruitment, Israel trips and more. Three years ago, I was privileged to have my Ramah affiliations include Ramah Galim.

When I speak about Tikvah nationally and internationally, I point out that there was a lot of pushback in the late 1960s when Herb and Barbara Greenberg proposed the idea for Tikvah. Tikvah opened in 1970 in Glen Spey, New York and soon after moved to Ramah New England. Camp by camp, Tikvah was incorporated in to each camp. We recently celebrated 50 years of Tikvah in Israel during our recent Tikvah Ramah Bike Ride and Hike.

At Ramah Galim, Tikvah was fully a part of camp from the outset. Rabbi Sarah Shulman and the board of directors felt strongly that Ramah Galim should not open its doors without Tikvah. How far we have come in four years!

In 2015, my colleague Elana Naftalin Kelman, the longtime Tikvah director at Ramah California in Ojai, directed a one week Tikvah Program. I was privileged to join the Galim family the following year when Tikvah expanded to a two-week program. With the support and visionary leadership of Rabbi Sarah, we started a two week Ezra vocational training program that summer—with two participants. We soon expanded the Ezra Program to two sessions (one or two session option), and our numbers increased in both Amitzim and Ezra.

Amitzim campers are full members of the camp community. We participate in all camp-wide activities, live in the bayit and eat meals with the camp community in the chadar ochel, participate in Shabbat davening and daily mincha moments—and boogie board, kayak, ride horses, climb the climbing wall, farm and more with our peers from other edot.

Members of the Ezra Program set up the dining room, sort and deliver mail and packages, sort and deliver nishnoosh (snack), work with farm animals at the horse barn, and will soon launch an as of now “secret” in camp business (shhhhh!).

We are pleased that to report that Tikvah has 13 members this session—7 in Amitzim and 6 in Ezra. The participants are excited for their first Shabbat with members of the larger camp community, and they are preparing for their masa (camping trip) next week.

I have been privileged to direct Tikvah year round and in person for the past three years. My in-person work with Tikvah is drawing to a close. In my National Ramah role, I will continue visiting Tikvah programs across North America. I will also be visiting innovative vocational training programs across the country. I will continue to be in close contact with Tikvah and with the Ramah Galim community. We are so proud of the inclusive community Ramah Galim continues to be!

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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.

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