Ramah brings 100 volunteers to Israel, raises more than $1 million for Tikvah inclusion program

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

More than 100 riders and hikers – male, female, teenagers and seniors – are trekking through Israel now, raising funds for an age-old program at Camp Ramah, which has become a modern buzzword: inclusion.

Ramah’s fourth Israel Bike Ride and Hiking Trip runs May 9 to 16 and has raised more than $1 million dollars for the National Ramah Tikvah Network to enhance Jewish identity and teach Jewish values to individuals with disabilities in a supportive, inclusive and fun environment. The Tikvah program is available in all of Ramah’s nine overnight camps, five day camps and its Israel program.

The ride/hike is the brainchild of Ramah lay chair Steven Goldstein, who had participated in other similar fundraisers in Israel. He felt that such an event would translate well to Ramah, which has as part of its mission “a love of Israel.” Event planner David Offit said despite the logistical challenges of running the organization’s only grassroots fundraiser in Israel, “it is really magical” to enmesh the Israel and inclusion parts of the organization’s mission.

What is inclusion?

The word inclusion has become popularized in recent years, especially through the work of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said Howard Blas, director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network. At Ramah, Tikvah campers are placed in separate, mixed-age bunks but experience several intentional periods of inclusion and integration with neurotypical (NT) campers. This can include swimming lessons, sports or drama, for example, or special Shabbat and or weekday programming.

Some campers with disabilities are integrated into NT bunks, Blas said.

Tikvah program participants, Camp Ramah in Canada.

“We like to look at them like ‘dual citizens,’” said Blas. “These campers are always members of the disability world, but we want them to be included as much as possible. Still, in certain cases, they might not be.”

Camp Ramah was the first camp to offer programming for children with disabilities alongside NT campers. The Tikvah program was the idea of Herb and Barbara Greenberg, now of Ra’anana, Israel. They said it always amazes them that their “crazy idea” turned into something that is still growing and evolving.

Barbara Greenberg explained that in 1969, the United Synagogue pulled together a group of lay leader to think about how to handle children with special needs, as they were failing to integrate them into mainstream Jewish society. She was on that committee when she came up with the Tikvah blueprint. The committee readily backed her. Nonetheless, she said it was not so easy to get Tikvah started. None of the Ramah directors wanted to pilot the program.

“All the directors said they did not want it,” Greenberg said. “They were worried that it would lower the level of Hebrew at the camp or scare the kids or parents.”

Ultimately, Camp Ramah in Glen Spey, N.Y. (now in Palmer, Mass.), accepted Tikvah. It took 300 personal phone calls – all made by Greenberg on her maternity leave – to recruit eight special needs campers.

“All the synagogues said they did not have kids with special needs and they were telling the truth,” Greenberg said. “While Jewish parents of kids with disabilities were active in secular organizations, they were not members of synagogues and their kids didn’t have bar or bat mitzvahs then.”

The program was a severe financial drain on the camp system in its early years, yet Ramah and the United Synagogue continued to stand behind and even expand it. Today, it is easy to recruit Tikvah campers. This summer, according to Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Director, there are 420 kids and young adults registered for Tikvah.

The program has impact on both the Tikvah and the NT campers.

Donna and David Dalnekoff sent their son, David, who is autistic, to Camp Ramah in New England for 27 years – first as a camper and then a staff member. They said the experience helped foster independence in their son and taught him how to work and be responsible. Today, David has a full-time job at a hotel in Israel, where he is able to interact with NT visitors and staff.

“They [Tikvah campers] live with the regular campers and mix with them. The Tikvah kids get used to the regular campers and vice versa. It really works,” Dalnekoff said.

Mark Glucksman’s son, Sam, participated in Tikvah for nearly a decade, making lifelong friends, just like his NT siblings.

“He is very social and loves to be with people, and this gave him the opportunity to do that,” said Glucksman. “It also reinforced the Jewish values and things we do at home.”

Blas said he remembers how his daughter and her friends traveled to another city to attend the bat mitzvah of a Tikvah camper they spent time with over the previous summer, providing that special needs child with a network she otherwise might not have had.

Goldstein said Tikvah has improved the entire Ramah camping community, fostering sensitivity in NT kids and staff. Further, society in general is becoming more accepting and lowering the barriers toe entry for atypical individuals, he said. Goldstein feels Ramah has played a small part in that societal shift.

All of these individuals – from Goldstein and Glucksman to Blas and Cohen – are taking part in the ride/hike to show their appreciation.

“Ramah gets into your blood,” said hiker Shelley Maidmanmenkowitz. And the Tikvah program, said Blass, “is in the kishkes of the camp.”

Photos courtesy Ramah Israel Bike Ride and National Ramah Commission