What’s needed for those with special needs? Much more!

The message coming out of the first-ever National Ramah conference to focus on the North American network of camps’ 15 different programs for Jewish children, teens and young adults with special needs can be summed up in one word — MORE. Jewish families deeply appreciate the high degree of professionalism and passion of the current Tikvah (“hope” in Hebrew) programs, but, the parents say, much, much more is needed.

The most tangible expression of progress toward that goal could be seen in the announcement of a consolidated $8 million fundraising campaign to develop new special-needs programs at Ramah camps in North America, as well as to expand Israel programs for teens and young adults with disabilities, to expand vocational education programs for young adults and to create more year-round programs for all special-needs campers. All this would go far to strengthen the Ramah special-needs network, with the hope of creating a scholarship endowment fund and more research and PR/marketing.

The half-day conference was held on Oct. 13 at the Jewish Theological Seminary for Conservative Judaism in Manhattan, bringing together 120 people, including parents, current and past camp staff, Jewish educators, seminary students and funders/lay leaders for a day of “celebration and planning” as described by Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission. Rabbi Cohen welcomed the participants and later shared highlights of recent research into the long-lasting impacts of the Ramah special-needs programs, including a 90 percent response by Jewish educators, other professionals, parents, current staff and staff alumni that they  would recommend sending a child to a Ramah special-needs program.

The first Tikvah program was created in 1970 at Ramah New England in Palmer, Mass., by Herb and Barbara Greenberg, two forward-thinking Jewish educators (they now live in Israel), and it ushered in a new era by including campers with disabilities in their regular summer program. Later, vocational training programs for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities were added to the mix, along with family camp experiences.

Similar Tikvah programs can now be found at Ramah camps in California, Wisconsin, Canada and Colorado, all offering developmentally and intellectually challenged youth the full range of camp activities along with independent living skills and the chance to have buddies with typical campers. An inclusion program for campers with less severe special needs is available at Ramah Berkshires in upstate New York. (Full disclosure: Our son has attended the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in California for the past six summers.) 

In addition, Camp Yofi at Ramah Darom in Georgia offers a Family Camp for Jewish families who have children with autism spectrum disorders. Camp Ramah in the Poconos also has a Family Camp for children with developmental disabilities and social learning challenges, and the Chicagoland Ramah Day Camp has a day camp for kids ages 5-11, in partnership with Keshet, a Chicago-area program for Jewish children with special needs.

But even with this array of programs, parents often find themselves flying their children hundreds of miles away for the right fit. Parents from New Jersey told me they were sending their children with intellectual disabilities to Canada, and parents from Philadelphia were sending their kids to Wisconsin. Maintaining meaningful connections after camp ends is virtually impossible for those families. Still, even with those geographical challenges, most of the parents at the conference were lavish in their praise for Ramah’s special-needs programs. As one parent said, “For my son, the Tikvah program at Palmer is the happiest place on earth. He wants to be there all year round.” Other parents said that their teen’s only Jewish friends come from Camp Ramah, as they attend public schools for special education programs.

For the parents of young adults attending the conference, a major concern was expanding the existing vocational programs to other areas of adult life, such as employment and year-round residential options. One parent suggested creating group homes composed of Tikvah program alumni and staffed by former Tikvah counselors, while another shared the idea of a “friendship bank,” where typical campers could befriend Tikvah alumni, as a sort of virtual (and maybe in person) big brother/big sister type of program.

Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation and a leading funder of Jewish special-needs-inclusion programs globally, flew in from Israel to attend the conference and said he hopes that special-needs inclusion will be spread through the Jewish camping world, with the Ramah programs as a model for other Jewish camps.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the day was exploring how the presence of campers with special needs has positively impacted the typically developing campers, something I have repeatedly seen myself as a parent. Staff and campers who interact with our son, Danny, over the course of the summer often come up to us later in the year at shul or in the park, and give Danny a high-five or riff on his favorite one-liners, such as “Oh my God” or “no cheating,” referring to walking without any assistance.

When Rabbi Cohen shared the research gathered as part of a strategic planning study to measure the impact of Ramah programs on children, teens and young adults with disabilities, the highest numbers came from staff and camper alumni. Ninety-five percent of that group agreed that “as a result of contact with a Ramah special-needs program, I gained an awareness of issues having to do with inclusion of individuals with disabilities in day-to-day environments.” 

On a less positive note, 79 percent of the parents surveyed as part of this research project reported, “Due to my child’s disability/special needs, it is difficult gaining access to a meaningful Jewish experience of the type offered by Ramah.” Another 32 percent reported that their children have been turned away from another Jewish program or institution due to their disabilities, and 22 percent of parents surveyed could not have sent their child to a special-needs program without financial assistance

During the community forum at the end of the conference, speakers challenged the participants to move forward and to build on past success. Shelley Cohen, founder and director of the Jewish Inclusion Project, said that all Ramah day, overnight and Israel programs should offer a full-scope special-needs program and that existing programs should be more inclusive. 

“We can do more,” she said, echoing the theme of the day.

Michelle K. Wolf writes the Jews and Special Needs blog. Find it at jewishjournal.com.