Our family was fortunate to spend a second summer at Tikvah Family Camp at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a 5-day camp for Jewish families with children with special needs. So why did we go last year? Why did we go back? Tikvah Family Camp isn’t just any camp or even any family camp. This is an opportunity for Jewish families with children with special needs that, in some ways, changed all our lives – from our boys, Josh and Sam, to both my wife Jen and me.
Camp Ramah is a popular Jewish summer camp affiliated with the Conservative Movement of Judaism and the National Ramah Commission. They run day camps and sleep-away camps across the country and the Camp Ramah in the Poconos runs their Tikvah Family Camp program the week after their regular camp session ends in August.
Each family at Tikvah Family Camp sleeps in a bunk–the same bunks that the campers stay in during the summer. The bunks overlook a beautiful lake, but we are not talking about 5-star accommodations. If someone is in the shower don’t turn on the sink or flush the toilet!
Every morning we went to the Chadar Ochel (dining hall) for breakfast. When we arrived, our autistic son, Josh, was met by his chaver (buddy), Oz. Sam was also assigned to a group of typically developing siblings his age with 3 counselors.
After breakfast everyone went to t’fillot (prayers) at either a traditional service or a sensory service that was specially designed to appeal to kids, some of whom have issues with loud noises or sitting still.
The kids spent the mornings with their chaverim and counselors doing typical camp activities: swimming, omanut (arts and crafts), sports, cooking, and music. This gave the parents the mornings free to do whatever we wanted. There were organized parent activities (Zumba, boating, learning with the rabbis) or parents could just go for a walk, read on their porches, or take a nap.
At lunchtime, we met back at the Chadar Ochel, and after lunch there were family activities like swimming, tie-dying, and scavenger hunts. After dinner, there was another family evening activity. Our favorites were m’durah (campfire) and s’mores with shirah and rikud (singing and dancing). After the evening activity, parents got their children ready for bed and a counselor came to the porch of the bunk to allow the parents to go to a parents-only evening activity like trivia night, pita making, and Israeli dancing. This was a great opportunity to meet other Jewish parents with special needs children.
A note about Josh’s very special chaver, Oz, who we were lucky to have both years at camp – Oz is Israeli and has been to Camp Ramah as a camper and counselor and his parents have been with the program for even longer. When Jen spoke to the camp director before our first summer, she warned her that Josh can be fairly strong and obstinate and asked if we could have a strong chaver. We were reassured when the camp director sent us a picture of Oz in his IDF uniform.
Oz turned out to be one of the best parts of camp. He was like a big brother to both Josh and Sam and was able to get Josh to step out of his comfort zone. Oz made Josh comfortable enough to try activities he wouldn’t do anywhere else – ride in a speedboat, ride a horse, and milk a cow. For 5 days, with Oz’s help, he got to just be a kid at sleep-away camp who happens to have autism.
But for Sam, it may have been the most impactful of all. Sam jumped right into camp life: playing sports, dancing, learning Hebrew words and songs and making friends with anyone he met. Jen and I looked at each other and said, “This kid belongs at camp.”
So, this year, we sent Sam to day camp at Camp Ramah in Nyack for the whole summer. There he learned songs and dances, had fun-filled Jewish study and even learned to swim. When he came back to Tikvah Family Camp at Camp Ramah in the Poconos this year he was an old hand. At the carnival on the first night, when the Hebrew music started, he jumped up and said, “This is my favorite song!” and started dancing with the counselors using the same moves he learned at Ramah Nyack. At the end of camp, his counselors nicknamed him Sam “I know that one already” Stein. He loved learning Hebrew and can’t wait to start Hebrew school at Brotherhood this year.
So, how has this changed our lives? Well, it is 5 days that Jen and I have an opportunity to reconnect with Judaism in a non-judgmental environment for our children. At Tikvah Family Camp we got to experience the ruach of camp and much more. Most importantly, while we got to speak with rabbis and other parents about issues of particular interest to parents raising a special needs child, both of our children were safe, secure, and having a wonderful time. It is a Jewish experience without equal.
Evan Stein is Director of Neuroradiology at Maimonides Medical Center.