What’s Happening at Ramah
Inclusion's rewards: Covenant Foundation acknowledges three educators who bring an open mind to Jewish education
by Carolyn Slutsky, August 2006
(This article first appeared in The Jewish Week, Inc. on August 22, 2006.)
Each year since 1991, the Covenant Foundation has been giving out $25,000 awards to outstanding educators. This year the three winners, Jane Taubenfeld Cohen, Marc Kramer and Rabbi Loren Sykes, all share a vision of inclusiveness in the field of Jewish education. Harlene Winnick Appelman, executive director of the Covenant Foundation, says that this year’s winners are all “sensitive to the diversity of the Jewish people,” and understand that Jewish society, rather than being monolithic, is actually a pluralistic community of different backgrounds and voices. “We believe that by continually celebrating excellence it’ll act like magnet and a way to raise the bar,” says Appelman. “The more we can put a spotlight on great things, the more other teachers will want to emulate that.”
Giving Autistic Kids A Camp Experience
Rabbi Loren Sykes has been involved in Jewish camping for the majority of his childhood and adult life. Rabbi Sykes, who is executive director of Camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, Ga., says that for many young Jews, camp is “the most significant Jewish address for them,” an experience they carry with them long into adulthood.
“Jewish summer camping should be viewed as an obligation rooted in Torah and should include every Jewish child,” says Rabbi Sykes. The chance to “live with peers and have incredible role models and the 24/7 intensity should be experienced. When you can live Jewishly in camp like that, you can live Jewishly anywhere.”
Rabbi Sykes has been involved with Ramah Darom since its first year in 1996, when there were 250 campers. This summer, 920 Jewish children, mostly from the South, attended camp throughout the summer.
Last year, Rabbi Sykes and colleagues at Ramah Darom decided to address a need they felt was not being filled by traditional summer camps and founded Camp Yofi for families with autistic children. Rabbi Sykes wanted to create a place where families that were otherwise isolated from Judaism and one other could come together and experience summer. He knew this population wasn’t being served, but says, “I didn’t fully appreciate the sense of disconnectedness that these families had, and I was moved by the level of empowerment that people felt because of it.”
After attending Camp Yofi , many of the families went back to their Jewish communities and founded synagogues or advocated so they could be more integrated into existing communities. This year, some families are returning for a second year at Camp Yofi, but others stepped aside to allow other children and their parents to have the opportunity to go to camp.
Inclusiveness, Rabbi Sykes says, means recognizing the individuality of staff, campers and families while creating a camp environment in which they can all come together. “If you exclude the family because of the child, you lose whole family,” he says. “But if you include the child, you gain whole family.”
Celebrating Educational Difference In The Classroom
Jane Taubenfeld Cohen says her purpose in Jewish education is to create “the best Jewish day school I possibly can be involved in,” and when she founded South Area Solomon Schechter Day School in Stoughton, Mass, she was ready to take her own challenge.
Cohen is a proponent of “differentiated instruction,” meaning that all children, from those with learning problems to the highly advanced, should learn together in the classroom and have the same opportunities. She has witnessed kids with reading difficulties learn to read fluently in English and Hebrew, and says transformations are not uncommon when children are encouraged.
“I think we can teach a child where that child is,” says Cohen.
She says that using differentiated instruction, the teachers in her school have learned to focus on the learner rather than just the curriculum, and that their classroom instruction and teaching have improved as a result.
Families have had varied responses to the inclusive nature of her school, but Cohen says she is engaged in an ongoing dialogue to make everyone as comfortable as possible, and that most families find the balance of advanced math and science coupled with opportunities for slower learners one they are willing to embrace.
“Parents want everything for their children, and we have to find way to give them as much as we possibly can,” she says.
One of the most moving incidents in recent memory, Cohen recalls, was when a family wrote thanking her for including their son in the school community. The family told her that not only did her attention to their son help him and them, but that it would influence his children and grandchildren.
“Every moment of my life is a moment to reflect on what’s happened before,” says Cohen. “We’re constantly talking about the journey in Jewish education. And you’re not talking about widgets you’re talking about children, so you have to constantly strive to learn more and do more.”
Building Inclusive Day Schools
Marc Kramer is consistently struck by the passion he sees in families who send their children to Jewish community day schools that promote religious diversity.
“I think that there is a kind of energy and excitement and awareness in having children from across the spectrum of Jewish practice sitting down together and learning Torah,” says Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, a center for the advancement and support of pluralistic Jewish day school education.
“It’s an amazing phenomenon,” he continues, “a real new way to be thinking about what it means to be the Jewish people.”
Kramer, who was educated at Brandeis, Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary, has been instrumental in the expansion across America of community day schools that cross denominational boundaries to include families of varying levels of religiosity. Such schools have become popular particularly in communities with smaller Jewish populations that can’t support several Jewish schools, he says.
Among the many challenges pluralistic Jewish schools face, which include general problems like the rising cost of tuition and the retaining of quality educators, is the need to engender a sense of acceptance among people who have different religious beliefs. “I always remember that my way isn’t the only way, my eternal truths are not necessarily somebody else’s eternal truths,” Kramer says.
“Part of it is just being able to step back and say, if I want Jews who are Jewishly different from me to accept, embrace and acknowledge validity of my perspective, I have to afford them the same. It’s a two -way street no matter what,” he says.