Original Article Published On The Jewish Philanthropy

The light bulb went off in the final minutes of the Zoom discussion of the movie “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” with disability rights pioneer and icon, Judith Heumann. In the Q&A for members of the Ramah camping community, one participant asked, “How do we give the typical campers a Tikvah experience if there is no camp this summer?” He was acknowledging the important reality that campers and staff would be denied the important opportunity to meaningfully interact in person with campers with disabilities from the Tikvah inclusion program.

Without missing a beat, Judy suggested that our synagogues and Jewish communal institutions mark the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which coincides with the same year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Tikvah.

The ADA, a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on disability, was signed in 1990 by President Bush. The law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and imposes accessibility requirements on public transportation. Ironically, religious entities like synagogues are completely exempt from portions of the ADA. All of their facilities, programs, and activities, whether they are religious or secular in nature, are exempt.

The ADA became a law twenty years after the Ramah camping movement started including campers with disabilities. In the early years, inclusion in Jewish summer camps was not a “given”. It required the persistence of passionate visionaries.

In the late 1960s, two special education teachers, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, proposed that Jewish children and young adults with disabilities be included in Jewish summer camps. Despite opposition by people claiming it would bankrupt the camps, disrupt the structure of the camps, lower the level of Hebrew and cause the “normal” campers to leave, the Greenbergs persisted. One Ramah director, Donny Adelman, said, “Why should Ramah exist if not for this reason?” He agreed to have Tikvah at his camp in Glen Spey, New York. In 1970, the camp welcomed eight young adults with disabilities. The camp soon moved to Camp Ramah in New England in Palmer, MA.

At around the time of Tikvah’s founding, Judy Heumann, a young camper with polio, was attending Camp Jened in upstate New York. “Crip Camp” profiles a group of teens with disabilities, including Judy, who attended Camp Jened during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Judy went on to become one of the most important and influential voices in the disability rights movement. Crip Camp won the Sundance Audience Award for US Documentary earlier this year.

Heumann personifies the history of disability rights in American. She fought to be included in the NYC public school system, took on the Board of Education in New York for the right to obtain a teaching license, founded Disabled in Action, and organized over 100 activists with disabilities to stage sit-ins in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The sit-ins laid the groundwork for the ADA.

Heumann’s years of activism include serving in the Clinton and Obama Administrations. Judy has a new memoir, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, and she is a proud and involved Jew and member of Adas Israel in Washington, DC.

Camp Ramah and the National Ramah Tikvah Network’s growth and development parallel Heumann’s lifetime of activism. We have continued to expand the inclusion of campers with disabilities in our camps in North America, and in our Israel programs.

I worked as a Tikvah counselor in 1984 at Camp Ramah in New England, served for many years as a division head and Tikvah director, and currently serve as the director of our National Ramah Tikvah Network and of the Tikvah Program at Ramah Galim in Northern California. In 2015, when Ramah Galim was about to open its doors, director Rabbi Sarah Shulman and her board of directors insisted they open for all campers only once a Tikvah program was in place.

Tikvah programs have served several thousand campers with disabilities, and dozens of our staff members have gone on to work in fields related to disabilities inclusion. Most importantly, perhaps, is the shaping of attitudes for thousands of campers, staff members, families, and Israeli staff members.

The Ramah Camping Movement is not offering in-person camp programs this summer, and we will reschedule some of our “Tikvah at 50” festivities. However, we continue to offer robust programming to all of our Ramah campers online. Each day, our campers, with and without disabilities, participate in various Ramah-style programs virtually. Tikvah vocational program participants are engaged in a 12-session virtual vocational training program.

Thanks to Judy’s suggestion, Ramah will jointly celebrate “Tikvah at 50” and “ADA at 30.” Activities will include a panel discussion entitled “Jewish Journeys: Tikvah’s Role in the Jewish Disability Narrative” and staff/parent movie nights featuring clips on the theme of disabilities inclusion, singing and dancing, prayer services and more.

We greatly appreciate Judy continuing to encourage us at Ramah to do more to be inclusive and aware of the needs of people with disabilities. Here are other ways Judy suggests the Jewish community mark ADA at 30:

  • Share sermons or divrei torah (from the bima or in writing) about ADA
  • Screen and discuss “Crip Camp” and other ReelAbilities movies which show the many abilities of people with disabilities
  • Make concrete strides to go beyond ADA to be more inclusive in our shuls
  • Review what has been done thus far for disabilities inclusion and establish objectives for between now and February (Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month).
  • Engage disabled and non-disabled people from your community – if not already doing so. (Many have already established task forces and working groups.)

Thousands of Jews have grown up at Jewish camps that include people with disabilities. They have seen first-hand how important it is for everyone to feel included. Let’s celebrate ADA at 30 with a renewed commitment to including everyone!

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Original Article Published On The Camp Ramah in New England

This year, as Ramah New England celebrates 50 years of the Tikvah Program, inclusive camping and the visionary leadership of Herb and Barbara Greenberg, it is worth acknowledging their equally impressive vision for vocational training within our Ramah camps. Herb Greenberg recounts, “I recall at early parent conferences that most parents were ecstatic about the outcomes of the summer and at the same time were expressing frustration and anguish that Tikvah had a cutoff age. So again, in the late 70’s we started the vocational training. The first efforts were one to one recommendations in the kitchen, bakery, mercaz and the gan. “

In my 15 years as director of the Tikvah Program at CRNE, we worked to expand the Voc Ed program. Participants learned jobs skills as well as what is known as “soft skills,” on the job behavior and etiquette required for success, and have been employed at such job sites as the Greenberg Guest House, chadar ochel, Voc Ed bakery, the gan and the misrad.   We have also offered supported, salaried employment to some voc ed graduates as well as to others with disabilities.

Proudly, each Ramah camp with a Tikvah Program offers vocational training programs, known by such names as Ezra and Atzmayim, with some programs offering employment in local towns near camp–in coffee shops, grocery stores, day care centers, motels and children’s museums.

Even with the success of our vocational training programs, all families and Ramah programs still face the same issue the Greenbergs were dealing with in the 1970s—what happens when young adults “age out” of high school and camp?   Many Voc Ed participants enjoy meaningful employment at camp—and are unemployed or underemployed in their home communities.

I have been concerned with parents not knowing what options exist when they age—a period commonly known as “falling off the cliff.”   Thanks to the generous support of the Covenant Foundation, I have embarked on what has so far been a two-year journey to identify creative job sites and training programs for people with disabilities.  While some major companies are to be commended for their programs which train and support people with disabilities (Our Tikvah grad, Aaron, who has been working at Walgreens distribution center in Connecticut is a great example!), many parents have had to be very creative—often starting their own programs and businesses.  I have identified car washes (Rising Tide and Gleam), pizza stores (Smiling with Hope Pizza), t-shirt and sock companies (Spectrum Design and John’s Crazy Socks), hydroponic farming (Vertical Harvest), computer (Blue Star Recycling) — and even microbreweries (Perkiomen Valley Brewery).  (https://howardblas.com/disabilities/job-sites/)

Perhaps the most exciting businesses are the businesses started by people with disabilities. Truly Scrumptious by Alexa, https://www.trulyscrumptiousbyalexa.com/, was started by our very own Alexa Chalup, a 14 year participant in various Ramah programs—inclusion, Seminar, Amitzim and Voc Ed.  Who doesn’t enjoy custom made Oreos dipped in chocolate—with special logos and monograms?!  Alexa was invited last week to share the story of her company and to share her creations with 125 attendees at the 3-day Covenant Foundation Project Directors meeting in Pearl River, New Jersey.

Alexa told the packed room at the conference, “In High School, I sold coffee and baked goods out of a Kiosk and enjoyed making people smile. It gave me an idea, that coffee would taste much better with a Truly Scrumptious Treat by Alexa.  My passion lead to the creation of my very own business.  At Camp Ramah, I met Howard 14 years ago as a first year camper. I’m now in their Voc Ed program, which is a combination of staff and life skills training. My jobs at camp included food prep in the kitchen and the bakery. Both taught me skills that helped prepare me for my business. The lessons I learned have really changed my life. My goal is to dedicate more and more time to Truly Scrumptious by Alexa as the business grows. Eventually, I would like to hire my friends, all with different special abilities, to grow my business. It’s important that everyone has a place to go every day, do what they love, have a wonderful social life with friends and keep teaching the world everyone can be productive and have a dream.  I would like to thank Covenant Foundation for this opportunity to tell my story. Through your support of Howard, his programs have taught me skills and confidence that made my dream come true by starting my own company, like anyone else.”

We thank the Greenbergs for their visionary leadership, Ramah for continuing their mission and to funders like the Covenant Foundation for their support.  We hope Alexa’s story continues to inspire others!

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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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