Unforgettable Summertime Shabbat: An Inclusive Prayer Service at Ramah


As the days shorten and we move toward the darkest time of year, I want to share with you a summer memory from one of the summer staff at Camp Ramah’s Tikvah program in Wisconsin. Such tales of true inclusion move us deeply, all year long.

–Jay Ruderman

By Guest Blogger Daniel Olson, 2012 Rosh Atzmayim (Vocational Program Director) at Camp Ramah, Wisconsin

It’s a rainy Friday night in July at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. The Tikvah group, teens in Ramah’s disabilities program, and Atzmayim, a college-age group with disabilities, were leading Friday night services together for the whole camp. What transpired was a prayer experience that no one present would soon forget.

The kehilla (community) grew silent as Ari– a Tikvah camper for four years and an Atzmayim participant for two — stood up to speak about his growth at camp. Ari reflected on the large circle of people who have been part of his life. He spoke of his counselors, the friends he’d made in Tikvah and Atzmayim, and the campers who volunteer each summer as inclusion buddies, spending significant time with Tikvah friends. During the speech, he invited anyone who had ever been a part of this circle to rise. Half of the room rose to its feet. He thanked everyone present for helping to shape the lives of all the campers with disabilities who come to Ramah. Now, everyone in the room was on their feet, applauding, moved by Ari’s powerful words.

But what happened next was even more moving.

Before Tyler — a second-year Atzmayim participant — began the early evening service, he covered his eyes with his prayer shawl and said the proper blessing. Many members of the kehilla may have questioned why he would need to cover his eyes. After all, Tyler is blind.  As leader of the service, though, he knew his responsibilities and his respect for tradition was clear. Tyler is also deaf, and wears two cochlear implants, which allow him to hear. So while Tyler’s tunes may have been unconventional, they were charged by a deep love and appreciation for Jewish ritual. As his index finger flew across the pages of his Braille prayer book, he demonstrated intense and meaningful kavana (focus and religious intention).

Members of the community could not contain their emotion when Tyler finished. Some were sure they felt the shekhina (divine presence) in the room. Others said they had not felt as close to G-d in a long time. One Israeli staff member wants to use Tyler’s praying as an example at home, to show that Jews with disabilities can participate in religious life and take on leadership roles. Indeed, thanks to Tikvah, that Friday night service was one of the most meaningful religious moments those of us in camp had ever experienced.

— Daniel Olson



Filed under Disabilities rights, Disabilities Trends, Initiatives, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Unforgettable Summertime Shabbat: An Inclusive Prayer Service at Ramah

  1. Laura WHarton

    That service sounds truly moving and beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Having been present for this Tefillah, I can honestly sat that it was one of the most powerful and moving prayer experiences of my personal and professional career. The level of kavvanah in the Bet Am was higher than virtually any other place I have ever been. Thank you Ari and Tyler and thank you Daniel for sharing this.

  3. Corine Bockenek

    Daniel, thanks for sharing this moving experience. I have read Ari’s reflections from that service, but appreciate the setting. So proud that Jiilian has friends like Ari and Tyler, and a counselor like you. Ramah Tikvah/Atzmayim programs are blessings to me as a parent and for the young adults that participate.

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  5. May you go from strength to strength. I had the privilege of participating in the work of the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for six summers (1998-2004), as it was making its transition to serving the teens it now reaches and the Atzmayim program was just beginning, with its first two or three participants. To hear of the programs continuing to thrive and becoming increasingly integrated with and included in camp life – with participants honored with leading Friday night services – is overwhelming. Thank you!

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