Sam Busis has many responsibilities as a teacher’s assistant at the preschool at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. He makes sure the children play safely in the classroom and out on the playground, sets up the room for nap time and passes out snack. He also packs up the lunches, pins notes on backpacks and does many other jobs.
“The teachers notice a big difference on Tuesdays when I’m not there,” Sam said proudly.
Sam, 30, gained many of his childcare skills through the vocational education program at Camp Ramah in New England in Palmer, Massachusetts. Four Ramah camps—California, Canada, New England and Wisconsin—run vocational education (“voc ed”) programs for campers who have aged out of the camps’ Tikvah programs for campers with disabilities. Vocational education programs are being piloted in several other Ramah camps as well. Each summer, approximately 60 young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 participate in these programs, with some working as paid and unpaid staff at camp, and others employed in businesses in neighboring towns.
At Camp Ramah in New England, Sam works in the gan (childcare center for staff members’ children), while some voc ed participants operate the six-room Greenberg Guest House, the only motel in the country run exclusively by young people with disabilities, and others work in the camp’s mailroom, bakery, or supply room.
Josh Klein, 28, of Minneapolis, feels his experience in the Atzmayim vocational program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin in Conover, Wisconsin, was essential to his landing his job at Lunds & Byerlys, an upscale supermarket in the Twin Cities. While in Atzmayim, Josh worked for two summers as a bagger at Trig’s grocery store in Eagle River, Wisconsin. A letter of recommendation from Trig’s helped him get a position working as a bagger and in parcel pick-up at Lunds & Byerlys. He held this position for seven years before being promoted last October to cashier.
“At camp I learned how to coexist with others, and I use those skills every day,” Josh said.
Sam, who has a second job working one day a week as a catering assistant at a Philadelphia-area law firm, agreed that camp prepared him well for his work.
“I learned how to talk to kids so that they’ll listen to me and to calm situations. I improved my work skills in the vocational education program,” Sam said.
Sam’s mother, Dr. Judith Beck, acknowledged that finding and retaining suitable work can be a challenge for young adults with disabilities.
“It’s difficult for them to find competitive work. And co-workers can be unfriendly or critical. Transportation is often an issue, as well,” she said.
Howard Blas, National Ramah Tikvah Network Director, who recently met up with Sam at a Shabbaton at Sam’s synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, was pleased to learn that Sam was not only doing well at his two jobs, but that he was also traveling to them on his own by public transportation.
“Sam arrived to Camp Ramah 15 years ago as a shy, quiet Tikvah camper and is now a very independent adult with two jobs, meaningful friendships and a wonderful social life. And he is very at home in his shul,” Blas noted.
Being an active member of both the Ramah and wider Jewish communities is important to Sam.
Sam often hangs out with his parents, sisters, brothers-in-law and young nephews and niece, or with his synagogue’s congregation. But he can also be found staffing Ramah New England’s Tikvah Family Shabbaton, where he does activities with the preschool- age children.
Sam has also traveled to Israel three times on Tikvah Ramah Israel trips led by Blas.
“Israel was a whole new, different experience each time I went. Every day we went to at least three different places. One of my favorites was a place that trained dogs to help people who are blind. I liked eating Israeli food, especially falafel,” Sam said.
Not all vocational education participants and graduates are as involved with Ramah and in their synagogue community as Sam, but many maintain some ties.
Josh, who attended Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for eight years, is still in touch with his camp friends. He also enjoys going back to camp in the summers to visit his younger brother Jordan, who is a current Atzmayim participant.
Some vocational education participants stay in touch with one another and with Ramah during the non-summer months through weekly “Shabbos Is Calling” and “Shavua Tov” video chats. Additionally, a number of camps hold in-person reunions during the year, such as Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s biennial reunion for its Tikvah and Atzmayim participants and alumni.
Camp Ramah is proud of Sam, Josh and the other similar vocational education “success stories”—but not only for the critical employment skills these individuals have gained.
Sam’s mom emphasized the other reason why the work Ramah does with young adults with disabilities who age out of traditional summer camp programs is so important.
“Ramah has provided our son with a unique opportunity to mature and grow in a loving environment that stresses and practices Jewish values,” she said.
Continuing its ongoing support of Ramah’s vocational programs, the Ruderman Family Foundation has granted $150,000 over three years for vocational education at Ramah California, Canada, New England and Wisconsin, and to encourage vocational education inclusion programs at other Ramah camps.
Renee Ghert-Zand, a freelance journalist, lives in Israel and is a parent of two alumni of Ramah California and Ramah Nyack.