SPECIAL NEEDS PROGRAMS
Letter to the Editor of The New York Jewish Week
December 1, 2009
Ramah Programs for Children with Special Needs and Their Families
by Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director
The Ramah Camping Movement has long been sensitive to the particular difficulties faced by Jewish families of children with special needs such as those described in the November 10, 2009 opinion piece in the Jewish Week, "'Invisible Disability’ Kids Are Being Left Out." Since the first Tikvah program was established in 1970 at Camp Ramah in New England, the Ramah Camping Movement has been committed to providing a Jewish camping experience for children with a wide variety of special needs, with the goal of enhancing Jewish identity and teaching Jewish values in a supportive, fun environment.
Each of the Ramah special needs programs serves a slightly different population of children with special needs, with some overlap; programs serve varied age groups and are of varying lengths. Regardless of their geographical location, families are directed to the regional Ramah camp with the program that best suits their children’s needs.
The Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in Canada is designed for teens with developmental disabilities. The Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in California serves adolescents with learning, emotional, and developmental disabilities. The Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England is designed for teens with mild to moderate mental retardation, autism spectrum disorders, and neurological impairments. For adolescents and teens with learning problems and social difficulties including Asperger’s Syndrome, the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin provides a blend of individualized support and integration into the regular camp program. For those campers who have gone through the Tikvah programs and have “graduated,” these Ramah camps offer vocational training and independent living programs.
Two Ramah camps offer inclusion programs for children with special needs. Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, located in Wingdale, New York, offers Breira B’Ramah ("Choice in Ramah"), an inclusion program for children with mild to moderate social and/or learning disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autistic spectrum disorders, and learning disabilities. Camp Ramah in New England also offers an inclusion program, serving campers with more moderate social skills deficits in addition to those with developmental delays.
Several Ramah camps also offer family camp programs, which enable children with special needs, along with their parents and siblings, to enjoy a Ramah camping experience. Under the direction of specially trained staff, family members participate in a full range of camp activities as well as Jewish observance and learning. Ramah Darom’s Camp Yofi is designed specifically for families of children with autism. Ramah California’s Camp Ohr Lanu serves families of children with a wide range of special needs; similarly, the Tikvah Family Camp at Camp Ramah in the Poconos serves families of children with a variety of social learning disorders and developmental disorders.
In addition to programs that take place at our residential camps, Ramah has also sponsored trips to Israel for teens with special needs. This past year, for example, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin partnered with KOACH, the college outreach project of United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism; Taglit-Birthright Israel; and Shorashim, an educational tourism company, to organize a trip to Israel for seventeen young adults with Asperger's Syndrome. In recent years, Camp Ramah in New England has run several trips to Israel for Tikvah participants and alumni.
The National Ramah Commission, along with individual Ramah camps, continually seeks funding and grants to provide scholarships and tuition assistance for children with special needs. For example, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation has provided generous funding to help families with financial difficulty to send their children with special needs to our Tikvah programs.
The Ramah Camping Movement is inspired by the work of our dozens of staff members leading our programs in special needs education, and we look forward to providing even more programs in coming years.
(Excerpts from this letter appeared in "Sensitive to Special Needs," in The New York Jewish Week on December 1, 2009.