Jews with Special Needs: Strengthening Community Through Inclusion

by Rabbi Mitch Cohen

There’s a picture in my office from a Bar Mitzvah that took place about 15 years ago. It’s of a boy named Brad, being called to read the Torah for the first time at Camp Ramah in Canada, where I was director early in my career.

There are such moments across the Ramah network of summer camps each year, and I remember them all. But this one has particular resonance and meaning, and I want to be reminded of it.

Brad has Down syndrome. His synagogue had determined that he couldn’t have a Bar Mitzvah because he could not properly recite the brachot.

I’m quite sure that this decision, back in the mid-1990s, was not made on the basis of anything other than a lack of perspective, resources and knowledge about those with special needs.

But despite all of the 21st century political correctness in our discourse, public accommodations in our infrastructure and spirit of inclusiveness in our society, those with special needs, like Brad, are still locked out of so many moments of meaningful involvement and growth.

Within the Jewish community – at our camps, our schools, our synagogues and other community organizations – this has been no less of an issue than in the mainstream culture.

But as a people imbued with a commitment to social justice and fairness, we share a special charge to address it through strong advocacy, new thinking and robust funding and execution of programming across the Jewish landscape.

ADVANCE: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference, convening Jewish philanthropists, foundation officials and federation leaders from across the country and abroad this week, is critical to this objective. It is a unique gathering of highly influential communal officials and diverse funders discussing, addressing and tackling this specific issue.

It takes place 40 years after Ramah became a leader in special needs programming with the establishment of the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah New England in 1970, and now active throughout Ramah’s national network of overnight camps.

The program offers children, teens and young adults who are developmentally and intellectually challenged a full, integrated Ramah summer camp experience. Nearly 2,000 campers with special needs have passed through the program and it now serves about 250 campers each summer.

Since that seed was planted, Ramah has expanded its special needs offerings exponentially across its network, with our foundation and philanthropic partners, to serve Jewish youth with autism, mental retardation, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other developmental, learning, mobility and social disorders.

Programs include family camps, vocational training, and even trips to Israel, including one this February, for our youth with special needs. Constant is the immersion of Jewish youth with special needs into the camp population, so they can feed off the energy of other campers, and so others – campers, counselors and American, Canadian and Israeli staff – can feed off them as well.

So why did it take four decades after Ramah helped to make special needs programming a priority for the issue to percolate to the top of the communal agenda? The answer is not all that important, although I presume it’s the maturing of a grassroots issue, and momentum created by Ramah camps and by schools and other institutions throughout the Jewish community where special needs programming and education has taken many shapes and forms.

But now it’s time for the community to look at Ramah’s models and those of others, support them with long-term funding, create an environment for collaboration, and allow special needs programming within the Jewish community to grow, become a part of the mainstream, and stand as an example to our broader society.

Back to Brad for a moment. After his triumph at Camp Ramah in Canada, his Jewish involvement grew. He ignited more Jewish observance in his own home, and he became a regular at synagogue, inspiring his family to do the same.

This ripple effect is a constant and so often noted. The child or young adult with special needs – accepted, encouraged, and embraced at summer camp – is a catalyst for Jewish observance and education among siblings, parents and others.

Those with special needs shouldn’t have to follow us. They can, in fact, lead us. Let’s empower them and give them the chance to be our full and equal partners in our Jewish community.

Rabbi Mitch Cohen is Director, National Ramah Commission.

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  1. says

    Shalom from Tsfat.

    Beit Yael has been providing short term programs such as Jewish holiday camps – usually held at Chanukah and Passover as well as sleep over summer camps for Israel’s blind and/or vision impaired children 9 – 18 since the 1970s. During this time over 1,000 Israeli children have taken part in our programs. This December we will be having a conference for those who are now in the 20s and 30s and who attended these camps throughout their growing up years. In 2011 Beit Yael has two summer camps planned to teach vision impaired children to swim. This is a skill that parents want their children to acquire.

    Beit Yael also offers short term programs for Israel’s vision impaired of working ages, such as those who are newly blind and/or going blind. They come to us for a month long program to enhance their mobility and work skills. We also offer a shorter program of one or two weeks for those who attend Blind Centers around the country. For a complete overview of all our programs please check our website.

    Beit Yael is here to help the vision impaired no matter where in the world they live. Our website brings us into contact with people from around the world who contact us for a wide variety of information.

    We have the potential to replicate our programs anywhere. As well we can offer groups the use of our facility – 11 double bedrooms (all air conditioned) with ensuite bathrooms who may want to come to Israel to have Beit Yael provide them with a program for the vision impaired.

    We welcome hearing from anyone who may be concerned with and/or providing programs and support for those who are vision impaired.

    All the best,
    Mrs. Rena Dvorkin Cohen

  2. says

    I took part in the discussion about informal-education at the JFN/Ruderman conference and it was wonderful to hear the Ramah camping movement brought up again and again as an example of including children with special needs in the Jewish community. More still needs to be done in order to offer enough affordable, quality alternatives for kids and teens with special needs and their families who struggle to find programs for their kids year-round.

    The American Jewish camping model was Shutaf’s inspiration when we founded the program in Jerusalem in 2007. Shutaf provides answers – year-round – for kids and teens with special needs along side their typically-developing peers. Shutaf hosts camps – Hannukah, Pesach and in August – as well weekly youth groups and special tweens and teens young leadership programs. Learning about inclusion and acceptance needs to start when kids are young enough to look past the difference and just focus on having a good time.

    Inclusion is the social justice issue of our times. As Jews, we need to step up to the plate and embrace the issue, those individuals in our community and their families. Families dealing with disability and difference feel marginalized from society and the Jewish community – that’s an unnecessary loss for us all.

    As for me, my son’s Bar Mitzvah – he has Down Syndrome and PDD – is coming up in December. It’s a moment that I’ve thought about for 13-years. If you’re going to be in Israel, join the party – it will be great.