Earlier this month I had the incredible opportunity to participate in the first Jewish Leadership Institute on Disability and Inclusion. The Institute brought together Jewish leaders from across North America who are working to make the Jewish community more inclusive of all its members, regardless of individual differences. As a young professional beginning what I hope to be a long and fulfilling career working with people with disabilities in the Jewish community, I cherished the opportunity to connect with other professionals who share my passion.
For me, one of the most valuable aspects of the Institute was the opportunity to meet colleagues from across North America, share ideas, and discuss our dreams for the future of inclusion in the Jewish community. In an article in the Times of Israel, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi called this new cohort of Jewish leaders “new chalutzim (pioneers),” comparing the quest for inclusion in the Jewish community to efforts of early Zionists who paved the way for a Jewish nation in Israel. As the youngest person in the room, I felt not only inspired by the presence of so many leaders in the Jewish disabilities field, but also empowered to continue working towards a more inclusive Jewish community.
My commitment to this work began when I was a child at Camp Ramah in Canada in the 1990s, and I have now worked in the Ramah programs for kids with disabilities in Canada, California, Georgia, and New England. Camp Ramah has a profound impact on the lives of those in the Tikvah program by providing these individuals with a unique opportunity to attend overnight summer camp and participate fully in Jewish communal life. Tikvah campers and their parents value the Camp Ramah experience so highly; I have often heard them comment that no experience during the year is able to parallel their experiences at camp.
While the impact of the program for the campers with disabilities and their families is widely known and praised, I wish to draw attention to the less obvious impact of the program, its impact on the camp community as a whole. In my work at Ramah I have the opportunity to work hard to promote inclusion, and have the amazing privilege to observe as incredible relationships grow between campers with and without disabilities. Growing up at Camp Ramah, children learn that individuals with disabilities are not so different as they may seem from afar. As several eight- and nine-year-old girls so beautifully said, “At first you think that the Tikvah campers are really different, and that might seem scary. But all you need to do is meet them. When you get to know them you realize they’re really not that different. They’re just like everyone else in the world. There is much more that is the same than different. They have so much in common where it really counts.” Growing up at Camp Ramah inspired me, along with many others, to pursue a career working to make the Jewish community more inclusive. I am proud to be part of a growing network of Ramah alumni who have chosen careers in this field.
My experience at the Jewish Leadership Institute for Disability and Inclusion solidified my commitment to working towards a more inclusive Jewish community through the replication of successful programs as well as continued innovation. The Institute encourages person-centered services that support individuals in making choices to direct their own lives. Through my work with the Vocational Education program at Camp Ramah in New England, I hope to empower our program participants and support them as they develop skills to enhance their ability to lead meaningful lives as integrated members of their home communities. Though my career is just beginning, I know that if we continue to work together, and truly work with and listen to the desires of Jews with disabilities and their families, we can open up the doors of the Jewish community to everyone and learn to embrace difference.
Tali Cohen is the Director of Tikvah Vocational Services for Camp Ramah in New England. She has also worked with Tikvah at Camp Ramah in Canada and Camp Ramah in California. She is a recent graduate of Pitzer College, where she studied International Education, focusing on developmental disabilities in developing countries.