Shabbos is Calling: Camp Ramah engages Jewish teens with special needs in a year-round Jewish experience
by Howard Blas
In Azeem Kayum’s moving book, Wrestling with the Goddess, his mom writes, “Azeem does not want your sympathy. He wants your friendship. He wants to be accepted for who he is. I want all of you to realize that any one of you can be hit by a car today and become disabled. Would you like to be ignored and isolated? It is always better to be kind and lend a helping hand. Remember, Azeem is a person. He has feelings. He is a teenager, just like you. He likes to hang out and shoot the breeze the same way you do. If you try talking to him, you will find that he enjoys goofing around and has a great sense of humor. All he wants is to be treated with respect.”
Azeem often feels cut off from his peers.
Perhaps research conducted on social isolation in the elderly can be applied to Azeem and people of all ages with special needs. In a 2002 study at the University of California, Irvine, Ph.D. candidate, Dara Sorkin, surveyed 180 elderly men and women and found that those who were lonelier had a higher risk of heart disease. Those who are socially isolated are likely at greater risk for heart disease and other ailments, according to research.
And the opposite also appears to be true. “Those who have strong social networks are healthier,” says Carlos Mendes de Leon, Ph.D., a professor of internal medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who has researched this link for 15 years.“ There are good studies out there showing that those who are socially more engaged tend to live longer and have better health over time than those who are more isolated,” he adds.
Jewish camps are one place where, increasingly, people with special needs are finding a place to develop social networks. For over forty years, my own Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England has been offering overnight camping opportunities – and meaningful social networks – to people with a range of disabilities. And new day and overnight camping programs, both within the Ramah movement, and across the denominations, are starting each summer. Most allow for a great deal of natural, daily, ongoing interaction with campers in the typical divisions.
Unfortunately, the last day of camp often means a return to months of social isolation.
I have repeatedly encountered the frustration and despair of parents whose children have extraordinary Jewish experiences at camp, and sadly return to a year-round home life without meaningful Jewish social connections or communal involvement. “I wish that Jacob could experience Camp Ramah for ten months a year instead of two,” notes Ramah New England parent, Marcia Yellin.
In our attempt to connect campers and staff members year round, we have piloted Shabbos Is Calling, a weekly Camp Ramah video conferencing program which brings together teens with a wide range of special needs and staff members – to sing songs (like their favorite, “Shabbos Is Coming, We’re So Happy…”), hear stories about the weekly parsha, and shmooze. Members of the weekly thirty minute video chat share stories of school and work missed due to a snow storm, reminisce about the recent Tikvah Reunion, engage in informal Jewish learning, and discuss what special treat they will have at Shabbat dinner. According to one parent, their son with autism has the 7 pm meeting on his digital planner and looks forward to it all week. And the counselors are having nearly as much fun – one counselor, Joe, leaves the library stacks in search of an internet connection so he can connect with his campers and fellow campers.
With funding by the Ruderman Family Charitable Foundation, whose President, Jay Ruderman, has consistently, challenged the Jewish community to “embrace special needs as a core part of the continuity conversation,” this new program brings together children with special needs and their summer counselors from the various Ramah special needs camping programs in a video conferencing program. Every Thursday evening at 7 pm, Ramah New England Tikvah Program campers follow the link on MegaMeeting, and they are directed to a special meeting room. As if by magic, friends and counselors from across the country appear in on the screen, in up to 18 squares, “Brady Bunch-style.” Each participant wears a head set and is filmed in real-time on his/her computer’s webcam. Just as the campers wrap up with “Rad Hayom,” the traditional camp “good night” song, members of the CRNE Tikvah Vocational Training Program are getting ready for their 8 pm.
Thursdays are busy Ramah nights on MegaMeeting! Campers with special needs at Ramah Canada have a special time to share their unique experiences. Ramah California campers will soon meet around the upcoming holidays of Purim and Passover, and Ramah Wisconsin will soon kick off with two staff and five members of their vocational training program; their unique program will serve as a source of support, connection and Jewish chizuk (reinforcement) for these young adults on college campuses
This rather simple technology has many potential uses in the Jewish special needs world. Imagine the potential of videoconferencing to connect people who meet at a Yachad Shabbaton, a Friendship Circle event, or at a JCC class for people with special needs? It is my hope that we will be able to help other organizations build year-round networks which provide Jewish social connections year round. As research suggests, “happy campers” are truly healthy campers.
Howard Blas is the Director of the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in New England. For more information on Camp Ramah’s special needs programs, see campramah.org.