Our family spent last weekend at Camp Ramah in New England’s first-ever Tikvah Family Shabbaton. Tikvah is Ramah’s special needs program. It is unique among Jewish camps. Within the Tikvah program at Ramah, children with all types of disabilities are welcomed and supported. The Tikvah program is the main reason we selected Ramah for S’s first camp experience this summer. As soon as we discovered the Tikvah program, a glimmer of possibility took shape. When G was first diagnosed on the autism spectrum, we mourned the fact that there were so many experiences we’d hoped for our family and our kids that might not come to pass. We knew S would go to our neighborhood school. Would G ever go there with her? Would G go to college? Have a job? Live independently? Fall in love? One of the experiences we wanted our kids to have together was to go to Jewish camp. We feared that was out of the realm of possibility… until we heard about Tikvah. This weekend, at Ramah, surrounded by an amazing group of families so similar to ours, we could begin to visualize our kids off at camp together. It was a beautiful image.
Aside from the heartwarming thought of G and S at camp together sometime in the future… the Shabbaton was amazing, inspiring, and uplifting of its own stead. I felt a little nervous going in. First off, we didn’t know ANYONE who would be there. Second, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the other participants. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know very many people with special needs. My experience with individuals with special needs is pretty much limited to G’s little buddies from his integrated preschool. I remember my own adjustment period when G started at that school. It took a while for me to acclimate to the sight of one kid walking down the hall with his electronic communication device, while another rolled up a ramp in his motorized wheelchair. It took a while for me to adjust to the guttural sounds and the unpredictable behavior. But once I did, I could see these little guys were just like my G. I began to spend lots of time at the preschool, and I loved it there. But even having had that experience, I still felt a little nervous about the Shabbaton. I was worried about my behavior. Would I stare? Would I say the wrong thing? Would I offer to help at the wrong time, or fail to help when I was needed?
It turns out I had nothing to worry about. The other families were so easy to be around. I sat back and watched the other parents interact with their kids, and for the most part, they looked at ease. It made it easy for me to relax and feel comfortable. There were some challenging moments. One child had meltdown in the middle of services. But two staff members continued with services, while another counselor helped the mom calm her child and shepherd him to a quieter space. Half an hour later, the same mom and child were playing basketball in the gym with big smiles on their faces.
So what made it so easy? So comfortable? The other parents and families were living lives similar to ours, so there was a lot of common ground on which to connect. That was a big part of it. The exceptionally strong leadership from the camp directors was also a big part of it. The National Ramah director, the Tikvah Director, the Director of Vocational Services were all present for the weekend, and set a tone of respect, understanding and inclusion. But there was more.
It was the staff. There were about twenty-five young adults who came to camp to serve as counselors for the weekend. Most were Ramah graduates from the various camps around the country. Some came from nearby, some traveled great distances to be at this event. They came from Philadelphia, Manhattan and Baltimore, all the way to Palmer, MA, just to staff this weekend. Of all the inspiring things I witnessed during the weekend, watching the ease and comfort with which the staff interacted with the kids gave me the most joy.
These young adults are a product of the Ramah movement. They have been at camp, side by side with kids with special needs for years. They have listened to and absorbed the rhetoric about valuing all people, celebrating differences, and welcoming diversity. They have seen leaders who make these values concrete and real. Inclusion is second nature to these young adults.
“Tikvah” is the Hebrew word for “hope”. I left the weekend filled with hope. Hope for our family to have access to experiences I never thought we’d have. Hope for our son to be included and celebrated for his own unique self. And hope for our society, as young adults with such commitment to people with disabilities move up and take more and more leadership roles.