By Guest Blogger Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Director, National Ramah Commission, Inc.
Recent research shows that there is nothing quite like the summer camp experience to cultivate young Jewish leaders. And a disproportionately large number of Ramah’s summer camp alumni hold key positions in the Jewish communal world. The leadership development that is a natural outcome of the Ramah summer camp experience influences both campers and staff in Ramah’s Tikvah special needs inclusion programs. As a result, Ramah has become a very powerful incubator for the professional development of Jewish educators who are trained and motivated to serve the special needs population in inclusionary environments.
Ramah emphasizes enriching Jewish and social experiences for campers—both those with special needs and those who are typically-developing—while providing opportunities for college-age staff to learn, experience, and explore their interests in working with youth with special needs. At Ramah’s eight overnight camps, arguably the “hottest” and most competitive staff positions are those of the special needs counselors. While each camp tailors its programming for different types of special needs (see our website, www.campramah.org, for more information), all of the Tikvah, Breira, and Camp Yofi staff members have become part of a new, national network that promotes year-round connections and engagement and offers multiple opportunities for professional development as a national cohort. A generous Ruderman Family Foundation grant for a weekly video-conference, “Shabbos Is Calling,” has helped us maintain the connections between Tikvah alumni and their counselors during the year.
Overall, the new National Ramah Tikvah Network is expanding with additional funding, focusing efforts on extending the magic of the immersive Jewish experiences in camp to year-round alumni engagement, with the support and input of the talented young staff that make Tikvah the great success that it is.
Opportunities in national staff training, staff-sharing of best practices and resources, and Tikvah camper alumni events are quickly advancing Tikvah staff toward more pro-active roles as connectors and educators year-round. By keeping these exceptional young leaders engaged beyond the summer camp experience, we are building a key cadre of Jewish special needs educators who will bring the message and lessons of inclusion to a much broader public.
– Rabbi Mitch Cohen