By: Howard Blas
The month leading up to the camp season is action-packed, a bit stressful and most of all—exciting. In less than a month, hundreds of campers with a range of disabilities will arrive at Jewish summer camps across North America. While the off-season is similarly busy with hiring staff, interviewing prospective campers, planning programs, attending conferences and staff trainings with Camp Ramah colleagues, it allows some time for reflection on our work, and for considering expansion, refinements and new directions—both within our own Ramah camping movement and in the larger Jewish camping world.
The entire Ramah community eagerly awaited the survey conducted by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) and Laszlo Strategies called “Preliminary Research on Special Needs in Jewish Overnight Camp.” One key finding was that “the majority of those involved in camp – including staff, campers, and parents – care about this issue and agree that every Jewish child, regardless of a disability or special need, should be able to attend a Jewish camp. Most involved prefer an inclusion model, with clear recognition that not every camp is able to serve every need…”
We in the Ramah camping movement have been providing overnight, day and family camping and vocational training opportunities to children and young adults with a wide range of disabilities since 1970, when the first Tikvah Program was started in Glen Spey, New York, and soon after relocated to Camp Ramah in New England in Palmer, MA.
Our experience in our eight Ramah camps in the US and Canada has shown the importance of offering a wide range of models and programs as “one size certainly does not fit all.” For example:
● Breira b’Ramah at Ramah Berkshires offers a full inclusion program
● Ramah Outdoor Adventure Program in the Rockies offers Tikvah, where campers with a range of disabilities participate in the same challenging outdoor activities (mountain climbing, horseback riding and more) as their neurotypical peers
● Ramah California now has a dedicated Tikvah educator charged with creating inclusive opportunities for Tikvah campers and with educating the entire camp community about disabilities
● Ramah Wisconsin offers camping and vocational training opportunities to campers with Asperger’s Syndrome and other disabilities alongside their neurotypical peers. They share adjoining bunks, put on a joint play and more.
Now, Ramah Wisconsin is pleased to introduce Tzofeh, a full inclusion program for incoming 4th-6th grade campers, as well as for 7th-11th grade campers requiring additional support with a range of disabilities related to social skills, speech, language and executive functioning.
The FJC/Laszlo survey is a welcome reminder that there is still work to be done, and campers to be served. We in the Jewish camping world should continue rising to the challenge of creating a range of programs offering different models and serving a wide range of disabilities.
We at Camp Ramah are proud of our 43 years of work in the field and we look forward to continuing to grow and serve.
Howard Blas is the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England and a consultant to the National Ramah Commission on special needs camping. Howard recently won the 2013 Covenant Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
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