An enthusiastic group of 72 bike riders and hikers, ages 13-73, arrived in Eilat on April 30 after biking since April 24 all the way from Jerusalem. They made the trip — the Ramah Israel Challenge — to support special needs programs at Ramah camps in the United States and Canada.
Meaningful moments included witnessing tank exercises as we rode past the Tselim army base; receiving snacks from nursery school children on the road outside their kibbutz; seeing the sunrise (and ibex) over Mitzpe Ramon and getting to know fellow riders and hikers, including a vision-impaired Jewish rider, Rick Goldstein, and his Christian minister friend, Derek Brouwer — on a tandem bike!
Perhaps the most magical and meaningful moment took place after Shabbat dinner, when participants had the privilege of meeting Herb and Barbara Greenberg, the visionary founders and long-time directors of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England—the first Jewish camp program for children and young adults with a range of disabilities.
Herb and Barbara shared stories of the obstacles and opposition they faced in getting the program off the ground in 1970. They shared story after story of successes, like a camper with Down Syndrome inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame; staff members who went on to become accomplished professionals in the field of disabilities and families whose lives were changed as a result of their children’s full participation in an inclusive Jewish community.
After the Greenbergs spoke, three riders who are also parents of Tikvah campers spoke of the impact of Jewish summer camping and vocational training on their children, now in their twenties. Ben, father of Jacob, contrasted the difficulties he had around his son’s bar mitzvah with the unconditional acceptance he experienced at Ramah. Mark, father of Sam, spoke of the friendships his son has made and maintains all year-round, just like his brothers. Oren, father of Avi, spoke about his son’s important jobs around camp, and how he thinks of camp “the other ten months.”
The Greenbergs had no idea that their pioneering efforts would, in a few short years, lead to Tikvah programs at five Ramah camps (California, Canada, Colorado, New England, Wisconsin); in-cabin inclusion programs (Breira B’Ramah–Berkshires in New York and New England); vocational training programs; day camps; and family camps (Camp Yofi–Darom in Georgia, Camp Ohr Lanu in California, Tikvah Family Camp–Poconos in Pennsylvania).
Our riders and hikers came together for this challenge to support a wide range of programs for children and young adults with special needs. Each was aware of the impact of these programs and campers on the entire Ramah community. May we continue to see the Jewish world develop inclusive camping programs for all members of our community.
Howard Blas has served for 12 years as the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England. The overnight camp program provides camping and vocational experiences for adolescents and young adults with special needs. Howard was selected to be part of the first cohort of Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows, a program to teach educators and Jewish community professionals to develop online communities of practice. As a consultant on special needs camping programs for the National Ramah Commission, Howard has developed a community of practice for the directors of Ramah special needs programs, as well as “Shabbos Is Calling,” a weekly video chat for campers and staff. Howard recently received the S’fatai Tiftakh Award from Boston Hebrew College’s Center for Jewish Special Education.