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Tikvah Staff Alumni at the Post-GA Disability Inclusion Initiative

by Guest Blogger Howard Blas, Tikvah Director, Camp Ramah in New England

When Shelley Cohen and Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi returned to their bus after their tour of Camp Ramah in New England, they knew they had to bring the issue of inclusion of people with disabilities to a much larger audience. They had just participated in a three-day bus tour for funders of summer camps for children with disabilities sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jewish Funders Network. Shelley and Jennifer, two energetic, visionary women, who had only first met on that bus, immediately went to work. Astonishingly, in under three months, they managed to assemble nearly 150 people from every part of the Jewish disabilities world for a conference entitled,Opening Abraham’s Tent: The Disability Inclusion Initiative,” which took place in Baltimore, Maryland following the recent Jewish Federations of North America‘s 2012 General Assembly.

(L-R) Steve Rakitt, Executive Vice President & CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington; Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, President, Laszlo Strategies; Delaware Governor Jack Markell; David Feinman, Senior Legislative Associate, JFNA; William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy and JFNA Washington Office Director; Jerry Silverman, President & CEO, JFNA

As I entered the opening reception, I immediately felt at home. Scanning the room, I saw so many people affiliated with Tikvah, one of Ramah’s special needs programs, and quickly realized the strong impact of Ramah on the Jewish disability world. I was greeted by Jerry Silverman, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, who was about to introduce Delaware Governor Jack Markell, the keynote speaker. Jerry and I are old friends from his days as a Ramah New England board chair, softball player and huge fan and advocate for Tikvah. Jerry is a good friend of Ramah and frequently speaks positively about Tikvah in his presentations around the world.

I then bumped into my friend and colleague Elana Naftalin-Kelman, the current director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in California and a recent Joshua Venture Award recipient for her Rosh Pina venture. I was so pleased to see Lenore Layman, director of educational support services at the Charles E. Smith Day School. We worked together for several summers at Tikvah New England in the 80’s.

Her daughter, Elisheva, has been a counselor and rosh edah for years! Sandy Slavet, the parent of a camper in the Tikvah program, was also there, in her capacity as JFCS Boston Director of Jewish Life – Services for People with Disabilities.

Arlene Remz, Executive Director
Gateways: Access to Jewish Education

However, the true national and international impact of Tikvah was most clear to me when the panelists for “Innovative Programs: A Look at the Issues” stepped up to the microphone. Arlene Remz, executive director of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, presenting on Jewish day schools, referred so notably to her involvement with Tikvah in her remarks. The next speaker, Rebecca Wanatick, the community coordinator of MetroWest ABLE, spoke on inclusion in synagogues. She began her comments by acknowledging her work as a Tikvah counselor many years ago. The final panelist, Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, executive director of Yachad: The National Jewish Council for Disabilities, not to be outdone by his colleagues, opened his remarks by saying, “I am the only person here who didn’t work in Tikvah—but it is an excellent program, and Howard Blas is my dear friend and colleague!”

Howard Blas and one of his campers at Camp Ramah in New England

I felt like a proud parent—watching so many of our “kids” grow up and go out to serve in the world. May the alumni of our many Ramah camps, inspired by their relationship with Tikvah, Breira, Yofi, and more, go out into the larger world and continue to do great things!

Howard Blas is a writer, social worker, and special education teacher living in New York City. He has been the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England since 2001, and currently serves as a consultant to the National Ramah Commission on special needs camping. Learn more about Howard at www.howardblas.com.

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