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.