Hope Is on the Menu at Cafe Ezra
It’s Thursday night at Camp Ramah in Ojai, and after most of the campers have gone to bed, more than 100 staffers squeeze into the staff lounge. Their hosts for the evening — all clad in red T-shirts — are the nine participants in the camp’s Ezra program, a unique vocational education program that serves young adults with special needs.
Cafe Ezra, as it is known, is the highlight of the week for Ezra’s members, who do everything from baking cookies and serving drinks to greeting visitors at the door. On this particular Thursday, July 15, one Ezra participant is particularly excited: Daniel Kamin, 22, is welcoming his older brother, Aaron, 26, as the night’s featured entertainment.
The brothers, who grew up in Studio City, have always had a close, supportive relationship, but success has always come easier for Aaron. With longtime friend Alex Band, he formed the rock band, The Calling, which has enjoyed considerable success since the release of its first album, "Camino Palermo," in 2001. The album reached multiplatinum status with the hit song, "Wherever You Will Go," which topped Billboard’s charts for 23 straight weeks.
The pair released their second album, "Two," in June and recently returned from a sold-out tour in Europe. However, for Aaron, nothing could be more important than a night spent at Camp Ramah — one of the first places where his brother has found a comfortable, happy place in the Jewish community.
Growing up, Daniel had frequent seizures, which caused some speech delay and significant learning disabilities.
Aaron did most of his schooling at Steven S. Wise Temple, but "there was really no program in the Jewish community for kids like Daniel," said their mother, Marlene Kamin, a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
She found the best options for Daniel in public schools. Last year, at age 21, Daniel graduated from Grant High School in Van Nuys, where he took special life-skills classes in a program for students with learning disabilities.
Daniel did well, but his social situation in a mainstream high school was less than ideal, Kamin said. He spent the past year in a state-funded work-training program in the San Fernando Valley, which helped him learn work and social skills.
All the while, Kamin, who with husband David has been active in survivor organizations such as the 1939 Club, searched without success for a way to help Daniel make a connection in the Jewish community. It was an administrator at his grandfather’s convalescent home who pointed Daniel toward Camp Ramah, which started the Ezra program four years ago to accommodate young adults like him.
"The whole thing was beshert," Kamin said, using Hebrew for "meant to be."
Ezra operates as a sequel to Ramah’s Amitzim program, which serves children and teens with special needs. Both programs run under the umbrella program Ramah calls Tikva (Hebrew for "hope"). Kamin said hope is an understatement for what Ezra has done for her son this summer.
Ezra helps young adults with disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, autism or slower mental capacity to learn to function as independent adults. Through a type of work-study structure, each participant is given a job at the camp. (Daniel has received rave reviews for his work in the infirmary.) The program also teaches basic life skills, such as maneuvering at a supermarket or depositing a check in the bank.
The participants put many of these skills to work each week in planning the Cafe Ezra event.
"They get a feeling of responsibility," said Tara Reisbaum, Tikvah program director. "The experience of being at camp adds to their personal growth and allows them to see how much potential they have."
Daniel’s mother, who is also a special guest at this evening’s Cafe Ezra, said she "can’t even describe in words" how proud she is of Daniel, who has written many letters home reporting how much he loves camp and how independent he has become.
A way to celebrate that success is to have Aaron, honor him with a performance. To the enjoyment of an eager audience, Aaron opens his performance with his most popular song, "Wherever You Will Go."
But this night, he lets his younger brother have the spotlight and the microphone. Daniel sings, dances and plays the harmonica, while Aaron plays the guitar and sits back to admire his brother.
"Daniel is able to maintain his beautiful spirit," Aaron said later. "Everyone should be jealous of him for that."
Daniel makes no secret of his admiration for his brother, saying with a big smile: "I like being a genius when it comes to music. I like being smart like my brother."
The love that fills the room is felt by more than just the brothers. Rabbi Daniel Greyber, Ramah’s executive director, sums up the event’s sentiment: "Evenings like this give us a sense of what is true in the world, what is faithful, what is possible."
On this Thursday night in a crowded room tucked into the quiet hills of Ojai, that hope resonates for all.