online kehillah

TikvahNet: Ramah’s Virtual Vocational Training and Socialization Program

By Maya Albin

This past summer, camps across North America could not safely open due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Children, families, and staff were deeply disappointed, but Ramah camps pivoted to offer engaging daily virtual programming and much needed social connection for our Ramah communities. These meaningful and inspirational programs were especially valued by the families of participants in our camps’ Tikvah programs, which help children, teens, and young adults with disabilities thrive at Ramah. Tikvah programs, first established at Ramah in 1970, have expanded over time to offer support for neurodiverse campers throughout the Ramah Camping Movement, including vocational education (voc-ed) programs to prepare neurodiverse young adults for the workforce. As the summer of 2020 approached, many voc-ed participants, alumni, and their families expressed concern about losing the opportunity to develop important vocational and social skills.

We knew we needed to create innovative social and vocational programs for our current and past Tikvah and voc-ed participants, but there were many questions that accompanied this unprecedented undertaking. How could we engage participants with vastly different skill sets, interests, and ages (teenagers to adults over 40) in the same activities? Would participants be interested in meeting strangers from a different state or country online? Could online programs foster the same kehillah (sense of community) and friendships we see so powerfully at our Ramah camps in person?

Fast forward nine months later: “TikvahNet,” the movement-wide online programming run by the National Ramah Tikvah Network, has engaged over 80 current or former Tikvah-supported campers in addition to the programs offered by our camps. We began with an intensive six-week summer program that focused on different vocational lessons twice a week, continued to have social and vocational programs bimonthly this fall, and have just started our third round of online programs for the winter and spring. We have covered topics such as money management, workplace socialization, our right to vote, and self-advocacy, as well as cooking, dancing, a Hanukkah party, and a virtual tour of Israel. So how did we do it, and what did we learn?

First, ensuring that programs are engaging and accessible for everyone requires extensive planning, but is essential to success. We balanced discussion-based content and hands-on activities, such as making thank you cards for frontline workers or cooking, to cater to each participant’s learning style and interests. We took the time to meet with some families in advance to tailor programming to their child’s needs, such as making visuals-based alternatives to activities (e.g., an “all about me” collage for our resumé lesson). The slides for each breakout group were completed in advance and modified for the interests of each group. They were released a day in advance, which allowed participants and families to pick and choose which content they thought fit their child’s interests and helped support our participants who are unable to read.

Second, a mix of large and small group activities is key. Each session has a similar structure – we meet, play a familiar rikud (Israeli dance) song while people join, and invite participants to informally chat with each other by unmuting on Zoom. We then head into our breakout groups of ten participants each, spearheaded by amazing young leaders who have worked in various Ramah Tikvah programs, for small-group activities and discussions. Those groups are where we have seen true friendships form – perfect strangers became close friends who kept in touch after the programs ended, and old camp friends have re-connected. We end by singing our traditional end-of-the-evening Ramah song, Rad HaYom, and have “social time” where participants can share with the group whatever is on their mind (e.g., say hi to a specific person, ask everyone about their weekend, or remind people to stay safe during the pandemic).

Third, group engagement and learning thrive when group leaders give agency to members and act as facilitators, not teach didactically. Facilitators ask the group questions to explore each topic (e.g., what do you think it means to be professional?) and build on group members’ responses. We have found that including participants with vastly different skills in the same group can be beneficial for both parties. Participants with extensive vocational and social skills reported feeling proud when teaching their peers, and those who were traditionally off task adjusted their behavior to fit in with the professional environment of their group. One parent described the shift they saw in their child, reporting that “[his] demeanor changed. He became serious and appropriate to a ‘class’ setting … it was fabulous witnessing him interact in an adult way.” In our end-of-program surveys, participants shared that the programs made them “feel happy and welcomed,” “feel special,” and taught them “how to be [an] independent person.” Parents felt our programs helped with “the next phase and challenges [their] children will meet as they are/will approach adulthood,” provided connection “during this socially isolating time,” and provided some respite – “I’ve been the sole caregiver 24/7 since March. Having these snippets of time wherein he has been engaged in valuable skill building has been a true gift.”

Finally, consulting stakeholders, including program participants, their parents, and educators, is key to creating meaningful programming. We started these programs after hearing participants’ and parents’ concerns about the loss of social and vocational opportunities during the pandemic. Using an iterative approach, we modified our programs based on feedback from participants (e.g., informal observations during sessions, formal surveys). We are excited to offer a mix of social and vocational programs, featuring guest speakers from businesses that hire neurodiverse adults, in our current block.

Most importantly, this online kehillah has brought joy and connection to many who have felt especially isolated in the past year. I am continually inspired by the positivity and resilience of this group, several of whom are front-line workers supporting their communities and bonded over this fact in our sessions. Although these programs began during this devastating pandemic, I am confident that our online Ramah kehillah is here to stay.

Maya Albin is the TikvahNet program coordinator at National Ramah. She is a long-time Ramahnik and has worked to build Tikvah vocational programs at Ramah Darom (GA) and Ramah Canada (ON). She is from Toronto, ON and is currently completing her Masters of Science in Speech-Language Pathology at McMaster University.