Tipping the Balance

by Rabbi Mitchell Cohen

Over these last few days, the social media firestorm around inclusion at Camp Ramah has had some interesting outcomes. First, it has stirred up and added more passion to the communal conversation around inclusion in the Jewish community – an outcome that Ramah, as a pioneer in the field, welcomes unconditionally. Second, it has brought Ramah some outstanding endorsements, particularly from alumni who have “lived” inclusion at Ramah as peers to campers with special needs, and who know first-hand how extraordinarily well inclusion actually works at Ramah. And third, it is a frightening but important lesson on the sharp bite of viral internet postings – the frustration and helplessness that can arise out of one-sided conversations, and the ease with which decades-old reputations can be attacked all over cyberspace.

To the first point: The national Ramah movement set a standard for communal inclusion in 1970 with the establishment of the first Tikvah special needs program, pursuing the extraordinary vision of Herb and Barbara Greenberg, who were well ahead of their professional peers in the Jewish communal world. Inclusion was a concept embraced by Ramah decades ago. It was never “something optional,” as a previous writer in this space suggested; and the full inclusion of children, teens, and young adults with special needs in the Ramah community became a core value for Ramah residential camps in the years that followed. The growing conversation around the need for inclusion in year-round communities, spurred on by Jewish funders led by Jay Ruderman, is one that Ramah not only welcomes, but also plays a key role in facilitating. In fact, the leadership of the Ruderman Family Foundation has encouraged Ramah to extend its mission and begin to build special needs and inclusion programming year-round, so that campers from the Tikvah programs continue to engage Jewishly, enjoy and build upon the social connections and joyful Jewish learning they experience at camp, and remain connected throughout the year. We welcome every opportunity to be part of the communal conversation and to share Ramah’s experience in inclusion to benefit the broader community.

To the second point: It is hard to describe the magic of inclusion at Ramah, and the impact it has not only on the 250 Tikvah program campers that attend Ramah each summer but also on their camper peers, who understand that inclusion is the standard at Ramah and should be the standard in every other communal setting. Additionally, there is the life-altering impact on the dedicated young Tikvah staff members, many of whom choose to serve the Jewish community in careers in the helping professions as a result of their Tikvah experiences. Importantly, there is also the impact of summer learning and experiences on the families of our Tikvah campers, so many of whom have their only Jewish life experiences as a family in the context of Ramah, because of the dearth of opportunities for experiential Jewish engagement in an inclusionary setting year-round.

And to the third point: It is difficult, after the last few days, not to reflect on the potential of social media to damage and even destroy reputations with the click of a mouse. The one-sidedness of the accusations flung at Ramah from literally every corner of the earth, with no appropriate context regarding Ramah’s well-earned reputation for excellence in special needs camping, and the particulars of the case discussed, was disheartening and even shocking. There is no question that our camp’s approach to this issue, however imperfect, came only from a place of caring and sensitivity to all concerned. At Ramah, we find it ironic that the entire conversation on inclusion over the last few days began over an issue that had nothing to do with our special needs programs but rather the issues that arose from the multi-year inclusion of a camper with physical challenges into our typical camper program. This complex web of circumstances, and the online vitriol in response, yields a critical lesson on the vital importance of tempering online commentary, and the need to work that much harder to teach our children about the terrible consequences of lashon harah. As Yehoshua Ben Perahya taught (Pirkei Avot 1:6): When you assess people, tip the balance in their favor. Rambam explained: give the benefit of the doubt to those who have acquired a good reputation. And as Rabbi Shimon taught (Pirkei Avot 4:17): The crown of a good name (keter shem tov) is above all other crowns.

Ramah camps throughout North America have an outstanding record of inclusion, yet we are always cognizant of the need to do more in this area. We have been accommodating children with special needs, educating the entire camp community (and beyond) about the boundless gifts of difference, and have been raising needed funding to extend our program to children with exceptionalities for decades. The Ramah camping movement will continue to build a keter shem tov and actively nurture inclusive Jewish communities that embrace the value of difference.

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen is the National Director of the National Ramah Commission. He has been in that position since 2003, having served previously for eleven years as the Director of Camp Ramah in Canada. He was the founding principal of the Solomon Schechter High School in Westchester County, New York, and was a corporate litigator before receiving his rabbinic degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary.