They say that it takes a village to raise a child. I say that it takes a village… and a synagogue or three, an edah (Amitzim) and a family camp (Ohr Lanu) at Machaneh Ramah and a loving, supportive family.
On Sunday, October 12, 2014, my son, Jacob Gruen, became a Bar Mitzvah at age 13 at Adat Ari El in Valley Village, CA. He led the Sh’ma, received his talit and blessed it, carried the torah, had an aliyah and read the torah, marched with a lulav and an etrog and said the Kiddush. He also sang a number of songs, including a solo of Adamah B'Shamayim (which he first learned at Camp Ramah) with his Kolot Tikvah choir led by Cantor Michael Stein of Temple Aliyah. To many, this would not seem extraordinary. However, Jacob has autism, which manifests in him as moderate speech and social deficits and academic delays.
Jacob has always been fascinated with the Torah. He has also loved music his whole life. This Bar Mitzvah was a very clear reflection of who Jacob is, with all of his complexities and quirks. It was incredibly meaningful to be able to celebrate it with so many friends and staff from both the Ohr Lanu and Amitzim programs at Camp Ramah. However, the real story is in the journey to the Bar Mitzvah.
In 2009, a year after it started, we began attending Ohr Lanu (Special Needs Family Camp) at Camp Ramah in California. Jacob was almost 8 years old at the time. We have attended Ohr Lanu every year since then. At Ohr Lanu, each child with special needs is matched with a staff “chaver.” We have been blessed with some of the most patient, loving, creative, and, luckily, athletic staffers as Jacob’s Chaverim. Many of them have remained our friends to this day.
Ohr Lanu has saved our sanity. Jacob was, and is, an energetic, agile and athletic boy who did not always understand the dangers of eloping, climbing too high or on inappropriate things, and running really fast as he did all of it. Being at Ohr Lanu, even when Jacob ran to a favorite place or to avoid an activity, felt safe. Most importantly, no one judged Jacob or us. Instead, we received support, compassion and some really good strategies for handling behaviors or dealing with school or Regional Center. Previously, when we would try to vacation with Jacob, we would be watching him with eagle eyes in unfamiliar locations. We could not relax our vigilance in any way. At Ohr Lanu, we were truly “on vacation.”
We look forward to Ohr Lanu all year long, every year. In 2013, we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary at Ohr Lanu. We were serenaded by the staff, including our then-23 year old daughter, a long time Ramahnik. After our aliyah, Rabbi Joe Menashe blessed us as we stood under a talit/chuppah held over us by Ohr Lanu staff. It felt right and beautiful to celebrate in that place and with those people who mean so much to us. One of our other most precious memories was seeing Jacob carry the Torah and have an Aliyah with his family for the first time this past summer at Ohr Lanu.
Our participation in Ohr Lanu helped Jacob transition easily into the Amitzim program. He was familiar with many of the staff, the physical environment, the activities, the food, and, most importantly, what was expected of him. Jacob soaked up every experience available at Camp Ramah, learned every inch of the camp, opened the ark at every tefilot session (not necessarily when it was time for it to be opened), and learned the prayers and the songs used at camp. We did not even realize he knew some of the prayers and songs until long after camp ended.
Tikvah Director Elana Naftalin-Kelman collaborated with us during each school year and during Ohr Lanu to ensure that Jacob had a wonderful, successful time as a camper in Amitzim. This past summer, the Amitzim staff practiced with Jacob to ensure he did not forget what he had already learned toward his Bar Mitzvah.
It does take a village, a camp, and a few synagogues, all with the most amazing staff anywhere, to raise a child. However, what it really takes is a community of caring, patient, loving, empathic, compassionate, and creative teachers, counselors, supervisors and friends. We feel so lucky to be part of all of these communities who worked together to help us make Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah the wonderful, haimish event it was.
Lisa Gruen has been married to Randy Gruen for over 26 years. She is the mother of Samantha, age 24, an aspiring graduate student in Occupational Therapy and a current teacher at a developmental preschool and an art teacher for adults with special needs. She is also the mother of Jacob, age 13, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder and is smart, affectionate, musical and a very fast runner. She is a partner in a law firm specializing in civil litigation defense. Lisa is a product of Camp Tamarack in Michigan and a proud supporter of Camp Ramah in California since she first attended family camp there with Samantha and Randy in 1992. She is a veteran of Ohr Lanu Special Needs Family Camp at Camp Ramah.