I am filled with the overwhelming feeling of gratifying exhaustion from running Ramah New England’s second Tikvah Family Shabbaton.

When I began working for Camp Ramah in New England’s Tikvah Program, just over one year ago, I knew that one of my responsibilities would be running year-round programs. Ramah is committed to expanding opportunities beyond the summer in order to positively impact Jewish engagement year-round.

I knew I wanted to develop a program designed for families who have children with disabilities, with aspects of the program specifically designed for parents, children with disabilities, and their typically developing siblings.

I had previously worked at two other retreat programs for families who have children with disabilities, Camp Yofi at Ramah Darom and Camp Ohr Lanu at Ramah California. These programs are so valuable, not only for the children with disabilities themselves, but perhaps even more so for the parents and siblings who can relax and have fun without having to explain or apologize for the behavior of a child with disabilities.

Unfortunately, many of the families who attend the Tikvah Family Shabbaton at Camp Ramah in New England have been repeatedly excluded from their home Jewish communities due to structural barriers and a lack of inclusionary supports and practices. Parents have told me that they have to regularly miss out on services and other synagogue programming because there simply are not enough accommodations in place to support the participation of children with disabilities in Jewish communal life.

In contrast, this past weekend sixteen families facing similar joys and challenges came together to create a supportive, understanding Jewish community. Parents had the opportunity to relax, celebrate Shabbat, meet other families with similar experiences and exchange ideas and resources.

Siblings participated in group activities together, developing bonds in a safe and supportive environment. Children with disabilities enjoyed a variety of activities and opportunities for socialization supported by experienced staff. The impact and importance of the Shabbaton for these families is summed up by the following quote, an excerpt from a blog post written by one of the mothers who attended the first Shabbaton with her family.

“Before the Shabbaton, I’d never really visualized what it would be like if, instead of trying to mold our family to fit a mainstream environment, the environment was molded to us… For one weekend, my family learned what it felt like to be, not merely accommodated, but truly accepted and nurtured by a community.”

Being part of the Tikvah Family Shabbaton community feels like being granted access to an exclusive club. Unlike many other professionals in the field of special education, I did not choose this profession due to a family connection. I do not have a family member with a disability, and so I will never truly understand the experiences of the families that attend the Shabbaton. And yet, these families have placed their trust in me. I have learned so much from listening in as parents discuss the joys and challenges of raising children with and without disabilities, laughing together and supporting each other through difficult moments.

Thank you to all of the Tikvah Family Shabbaton families for accepting me into their club, and for working with me to create the unique, supportive, and truly special community.

Tali Cohen is the Director of Tikvah Vocational Services for Camp Ramah in New England. She has also worked with Tikvah at Camp Ramah in Canada and Camp Ramah in California. She is a recent graduate of Pitzer College, where she studied International Education, focusing on developmental disabilities in developing countries.