Young adults with disabilities do not often get to enjoy Shabbat on a college campus with peers, but that's exactly what happened in early February when five Ramah campers, and four staff members, reunited at Brandeis for a Shabbaton.
What made the get-together even more special was that they were joining a large gorup of Yachad members and advisors for the annual New England Yachad Shabbaton. Yachad is a program of the Orthodox Union, members of all Jewish denominations are embraced and have the opportunity to engage with Judaism in their own ways.
At the Shabbaton, Jennifer, a participant in the Vocational Education program at Ramah, stood up to lead her favorite Hebrew song and beamed as everyone sang along. Techiya, a Tikvah camper who comes from an observant Orthodox home, was always deep in prayer, following along closely in her siddur. The opportunity to participate in Jewish communal life is unfortunately far too rare for our community members with disabilities. Ramah and Yachad alike seek to increase these opportunities, and this Shabbaton is just one example of these efforts.
What is it that makes camp such a central, important aspect of the lives of participants of the Tikvah program? Many of our campers form their most meaningful friendships at camp. The depth of these friendships becomes evident during the offseason when campers and staff alike go out of their way to see friends from Tikvah. When Shana, a long-time Tikvah staff member, heard that some of her campers would be at Brandeis for the Shabbaton, she drove up from Providence for Shabbat so that she could spend time with them. The excitement on the faces of Ilyse, Helena, and others when they saw Shana depicted the meaningful bonds that are fostered at Ramah as a result of the Tikvah program.
For many Tikvah participants, Ramah is the only place where they feel truly included in the Jewish community. At camp, they learn to love being Jewish and have the opportunity to not only participate in all aspects of Jewish life, but also to become leaders.
Ramah's connections with Yachad will only enhance these opportunities.
“Yachad believes strongly in collaboration to help facilitate inclusion and maximize precious community resources. We especially enjoy the warm ongoing relationship which we enjoy with the Tikvah program of Camp Ramah," Dr. Jeff Lichtman, International Director of Yachad, said. "Such a relationship goes well beyond the summer in sharing ideas, resources and mutual support as was evidenced in this past winter Yachad Shabbaton with Brandeis University. We look forward to continuing and building on this warm and wonderful relationship which benefits so many young people who have special needs and their families.”
The collaboration is an ongoing effort. In January New England Yachad and Ramah New England took a group of teens and young adults to the Science Discovery Museum in Acton. The trip was a huge success, and everyone had a fantastic time exploring the interactive and hands-on science museum. We look forward to continuing to form partnerships across movements to increase opportunities for inclusion in the Jewish 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.