Tikvah at 50, ADA at 30: Time to Reflect on Our History, Celebrate – and Keep Going!

By Howard Blas

The light bulb went off in the final minutes of the Zoom discussion of the movie “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” with disability rights pioneer and icon, Judith Heumann. In the Q&A for members of the Ramah camping community, one participant asked, “How do we give the typical campers a Tikvah experience if there is no camp this summer?” He was acknowledging the important reality that campers and staff would be denied the important opportunity to meaningfully interact in person with campers with disabilities from the Tikvah inclusion program.

Without missing a beat, Judy suggested that our synagogues and Jewish communal institutions mark the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which coincides with the same year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Tikvah.

The ADA, a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on disability, was signed in 1990 by President Bush. The law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and imposes accessibility requirements on public transportation. Ironically, religious entities like synagogues are completely exempt from portions of the ADA. All of their facilities, programs, and activities, whether they are religious or secular in nature, are exempt.

The ADA became a law twenty years after the Ramah camping movement started including campers with disabilities. In the early years, inclusion in Jewish summer camps was not a “given”. It required the persistence of passionate visionaries.

In the late 1960s, two special education teachers, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, proposed that Jewish children and young adults with disabilities be included in Jewish summer camps. Despite opposition by people claiming it would bankrupt the camps, disrupt the structure of the camps, lower the level of Hebrew and cause the “normal” campers to leave, the Greenbergs persisted. One Ramah director, Donny Adelman, said, “Why should Ramah exist if not for this reason?” He agreed to have Tikvah at his camp in Glen Spey, New York. In 1970, the camp welcomed eight young adults with disabilities. The camp soon moved to Camp Ramah in New England in Palmer, MA.

At around the time of Tikvah’s founding, Judy Heumann, a young camper with polio, was attending Camp Jened in upstate New York. “Crip Camp” profiles a group of teens with disabilities, including Judy, who attended Camp Jened during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Judy went on to become one of the most important and influential voices in the disability rights movement. Crip Camp won the Sundance Audience Award for US Documentary earlier this year.

Heumann personifies the history of disability rights in American. She fought to be included in the NYC public school system, took on the Board of Education in New York for the right to obtain a teaching license, founded Disabled in Action, and organized over 100 activists with disabilities to stage sit-ins in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The sit-ins laid the groundwork for the ADA.

Heumann’s years of activism include serving in the Clinton and Obama Administrations. Judy has a new memoir, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, and she is a proud and involved Jew and member of Adas Israel in Washington, DC.

Camp Ramah and the National Ramah Tikvah Network’s growth and development parallel Heumann’s lifetime of activism. We have continued to expand the inclusion of campers with disabilities in our camps in North America, and in our Israel programs.

I worked as a Tikvah counselor in 1984 at Camp Ramah in New England, served for many years as a division head and Tikvah director, and currently serve as the director of our National Ramah Tikvah Network and of the Tikvah Program at Ramah Galim in Northern California. In 2015, when Ramah Galim was about to open its doors, director Rabbi Sarah Shulman and her board of directors insisted they open for all campers only once a Tikvah program was in place.

Tikvah programs have served several thousand campers with disabilities, and dozens of our staff members have gone on to work in fields related to disabilities inclusion. Most importantly, perhaps, is the shaping of attitudes for thousands of campers, staff members, families, and Israeli staff members.

The Ramah Camping Movement is not offering in-person camp programs this summer, and we will reschedule some of our “Tikvah at 50” festivities. However, we continue to offer robust programming to all of our Ramah campers online. Each day, our campers, with and without disabilities, participate in various Ramah-style programs virtually. Tikvah vocational program participants are engaged in a 12-session virtual vocational training program.

Thanks to Judy’s suggestion, Ramah will jointly celebrate “Tikvah at 50” and “ADA at 30.” Activities will include a panel discussion entitled “Jewish Journeys: Tikvah’s Role in the Jewish Disability Narrative” and staff/parent movie nights featuring clips on the theme of disabilities inclusion, singing and dancing, prayer services and more.

We greatly appreciate Judy continuing to encourage us at Ramah to do more to be inclusive and aware of the needs of people with disabilities. Here are other ways Judy suggests the Jewish community mark ADA at 30:

  • Share sermons or divrei torah (from the bima or in writing) about ADA
  • Screen and discuss “Crip Camp” and other ReelAbilities movies which show the many abilities of people with disabilities
  • Make concrete strides to go beyond ADA to be more inclusive in our shuls
  • Review what has been done thus far for disabilities inclusion and establish objectives for between now and February (Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month).
  • Engage disabled and non-disabled people from your community – if not already doing so. (Many have already established task forces and working groups.)

Thousands of Jews have grown up at Jewish camps that include people with disabilities. They have seen first-hand how important it is for everyone to feel included. Let’s celebrate ADA at 30 with a renewed commitment to including everyone!

Howard Blas is Director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network. He is a social worker, special education teacher, writer and 2013 recipient of 2013 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.