Reflections on Al Pi Darko: National Ramah Symposium on Special Needs Programs

Rabbi Amy Bolton

Rabbi Amy Bolton

Guest Blogger Rabbi Amy Bolton, National Ramah Community Outreach Coordinator & Conference Coordinator  

We have all heard these sentiments expressed before: “Camp was my child’s best Jewish experience,” “Camp changed our lives,” “”I love Camp Ramah!” What was special about hearing these words last week was that they came from Ramah camper alumni with disabilities and parents of campers with disabilities. These families never dreamed that they could have a Jewish camp experience.

On October 13 at The Jewish Theological Seminary, more than 120 Ramah camp directors, alumni, staff, staff alumni, parents, funders, and lay leaders came together for Al Pi Darko, Ramah’s first national symposium on special needs programs. With New York weather feeling like a July day at camp, we gathered for presentations and discussions on best practices and future goals for our programs, and for the field of special needs camping in general.

During the conference, Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director, presented the results of a study that demonstrated the impact of Ramah programs for children, teens, and young adults with disabilities. Among the study’s key findings were that Ramah has a stellar reputation and is regarded as a pioneer by professionals in the field of special education; that parents believe their children gain meaningful exposure to Jewish community at camp; and that the impact of camp extends to special needs program staff and to typically developing campers who interact with campers with disabilities, influencing the choices they make in life. The inspiring discussions that took place throughout the day were evidence of these findings. (Links: eJewishPhilanthropy ArticleStudy SummaryFull Report)

We were all energized by remarks made at the opening of the conference by Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, who said, “Our hope as a foundation is that Ramah’s dedication to inclusion will spread throughout the Jewish camping world…Ramah has really established themselves as a leader on this issue.”   

Jo Ann SimonsJo Ann Simons, President and CEO of Cardinal Cushing Centers and advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation, spoke about her son Jon’s experience at the Tikvah program at Ramah New England, where he found a caring, inclusive Jewish community and was celebrated for his achievements golfing in the Special Olympics. We were all were moved to tears by Jo Ann’s story: “… when Jon rounded the hill of the 9th green on Day 3, there were over 200 people wildly cheering for him. Nobody had 200 spectators-not that day, not during any competition…A week later, word spread through camp that Jon was returning to camp. It was dinner, and banners had been made to welcome their hero-my son. Everyone was eating when Jon, bronze medal around his neck, entered the hot and dusty hall. Campers sang, “Did you ever know that you’re my hero”?”

Panel at Al Pi Darko
Panel: The Impact of Ramah

The culmination of the conference was an inspiring panel discussion. Young professional Nava Kantor, a former Tikvah counselor and rosh edah at Ramah Wisconsin, told how her Ramah experiences influenced her career choice: “It would be hard to overstate how much Tikvah has impacted my professional decisions and informed the kind of work I want to do…working with Tikvah is really what cemented my desire to be outwardly oriented, to look beyond my privileges and abilities and use them to help others live better lives.” Nava is a case manager at Urban Pathways in New York and applying to graduate programs in social work.

Jason Lieberman, a disability advocate who was the first inclusion camper at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, shared the power of his camp experience for his friends as well as for him: “We had 18 boys in my bunk. Nine of us wrote our college essays three years later on that summer and our experience together.” Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, described his experience as a parent of two children with autism spectrum disorders. The family participated in Ramah Darom’s Camp Yofi family camp and the children are now campers at Ramah Wisconsin. “It [camp] really changed our lives. It was the first time we really found a place in which the special needs community intersected with the Jewish community, where we could feel really like we were embraced by both of these, and that both of these were integrated in a meaningful way.”

Marie Strazulla, an alumna of Ramah New England’s Tikvah, Voc Ed and Post-Voc Ed programs, who works as an administrative assistant and teacher’s aide, summed it up best: “I love Camp Ramah!”

Read more reflections on Al Pi Darko written by Ralph Schwartz, Director of Special Needs Programs at Ramah Wisconsin.

View photos from the conference on Facebook.

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