Ramah Special Needs Program Celebrates 40 Years of Inclusion

by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

Campers, families, counselors and others touched by Ramah’s Tikvah program for special needs youth converged Sunday at Camp Ramah New England to mark the groundbreaking initiative and four decades of impact.

The Tikvah program, established at Camp Ramah New England in 1970, and now active throughout Ramah’s national network of overnight camps, offers developmentally and intellectually challenged youth a full, integrated Ramah Jewish summer camp experience.

“It is one community, and every person counts,” said Betty Ross of Swampscott, MA, who traveled to Camp Ramah New England to mark the occasion with her 17-year-old daughter, Ilyse, who has Down’s syndrome and is spending her sixth summer in the Tikvah program. “She has such a Jewish heart, she loves Israeli dancing and singing, and it is a blessing for her to be here. The things she is exposed to, and the unqualified acceptance and involvement is priceless.”

Tikvah campers are largely mainstreamed into the camp community, creating an environment of inclusion benefiting them and enriching the experiences of other campers, counselors and professionals. Since it was established at Camp Ramah New England, nearly 2,000 special needs campers have passed through the program nationwide, and it now serves about 250 campers each summer.

The anniversary celebration Sunday attracted nearly 125 participants from across the country. They marked the occasion with activities with current campers and staff, a softball game in honor of a former Tikvah camper, exhibitions and special educational sessions.

Designed and established by Jewish educators Herb and Barbara Greenberg, Tikvah was a trailblazing initiative grounded in an inclusionary approach to special needs education. It is now an integral part of the Ramah camping experience and has transformed Ramah campers – special needs or not.

“The founders of Tikvah were truly pioneers, believing that special needs students and campers should have the same and equal opportunities and exposures as everyone else,” said Howard Blas, director of the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah New England. “It has and continues to benefit everyone and has created a comfort and appreciation of differences. Tikvah at camp is and should be as natural as having swimming, softball and Shabbat.”

In its 40 years, Tikvah has influenced and informed special needs education across North America and has given families a positive, life-changing Jewish camp option for their special needs children.

In the decades since the program’s start, Ramah camps across North America have implemented a variety of Tikvah programs, from inclusion experiences to vocational training to family camps. They draw from a diverse population, including children with cognitive impairments, autism, and cerebral palsy.

“We are especially proud of our programs for children, teens and young adults with special needs,” said Rabbi Mitch Cohen, Director of the National Ramah Commission. “In addition to the obvious benefits for these young Jews and their families, they also help all of our campers and staff to deepen their sense of inclusion and sensitivity. And parents of children with special needs appreciate Ramah’s nurturing their child’s Jewish soul.”

The Tikvah celebration comes at a turning point in the field of Jewish special education, officials said.

“You have a lot of communities beginning to take this seriously,” Blas said. “There are programs springing up in different places, in different settings to the benefit of youth, families, and all involved.”

“Tikvah programming is a centerpiece of the camp community,” said Rabbi Jim Rosen of Beth El Temple in Hartford, CT. “Participants are cherished and welcomed by everyone. Over 40 years, this has had an enormous impact on the lives of individuals, families and the Jewish community.”

about: Ramah is the camping arm of the Conservative Movement, operating under the educational and religious guidance of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).

image: Those gathered at Camp Ramah New England on Sunday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Ramah Tikvah program took time to express their appreciation in a “Tikvah at 40” art project and installation; courtesy Avi Friedman.