By Guest Blogger Howard Blas, Director of the Tikvah Program, Camp Ramah in New England
Most travelers to Israel long for their visits to the Kotel, Masada, and to an authentic Israeli falafel stand. Members of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, a program for campers with developmental disabilities, can’t wait to visit and spend time with their special friends from the mishlochot. “Mishlochot,” Hebrew for “delegation” or “emissary,” refers to the 40 post-Army Israelis who come to camp each summer to serve as bunk counselors, teach swimming, boating, sports, ropes, nature, dance and singing and represent the many faces of Israel. In return, they bring a bit of American Jewry back to Israel. The delegation to Ramah New England returns home each year with so much more, including deep meaningful relationships, changed attitudes and a desire to work in Israel with a similar group of people.
Delegation leader Rotem, who also heads the waterfront, notes, “When I tell them about Tikvah before they leave for camp, they feel a little discomfort, they don’t really understand what I am talking about and have no idea how they will teach them. When they return home at the end of the summer, they have gained so much including a special bond and an ability to communicate and work uniquely with each camper.”
Swimming teacher Idan recalls happily, “For me, I loved the experience of teaching swimming to a group with lots of joy and pure love of life’s simple things, like water. They got so much satisfaction out of their time in the lake!” And Sivan speaks fondly of her work teaching drama and as a peer buddy to a member of the Tikvah vocational training program. “At first I was nervous about my drama classes with Tikvah. This soon became the most rewarding bright spot in my day. They really loved coming to drama! I also enjoyed my Shabbat special time with my buddy Sarah. We had so much fun playing and talking and hearing about her love for Israel.” Sarah and members of the recent Tikvah Ramah Israel Program enjoyed seeing mishlochot friends during a recent trip to Israel — in their homes in Beit Shemesh, Yafo and Modiin, at the Kotel, and sharing meals together.
While it is hard to measure the impact of the experience, anecdotes abound. Isaac “Buji” Herzog (current member of Knesset and former Minister of Welfare and Social Services, who addressed the recent ADVANCE conference) looks back fondly on his stint as a waiter at Camp Ramah in the 1970s, and has written about his work tutoring a girl in the Tikvah Program. “That experience taught me so much and contributed a great deal to my leadership skills and my desire to help disadvantaged populations,” he says. “This plays a large role in my work as a member of Israel’s current administration.”
– Howard Blas