Reflections on the Ramah Experience
USY International Convention (Orlando) Speech
By Mitch Paschen, December 2002
Hi, my name is Mitch Paschen and I’m autistic. No, I don’t stare at the wall for hours without saying anything, but I do have most of the U.S. Atlas memorized. If anyone needs to know how to drive to Phoenix from here (or any other large city), come and see me later. And, you know what the capital of Nepal is? It’s opposite of dog-woman-don’t. . . . . . Katmandu.
I have a form of high functioning autism called Asperger’s Syndrome or AS. I have some unique abilities and interests, like I read reference books, I like elevators and escalators, and I can remember things and details that seem unimportant to others. Like, how many floors a building has.
Because of some of these interests and abilities, people think I’m odd and so it is hard for me to make friends. I am fortunate that my best friend from back home is here with my family today.
I live in a small town in south-central Wisconsin and out of 782 kids in our high school, I’m the only one who’s Jewish. When I had the chance to go to Camp Ramah in Northern Wisconsin, I was a bit hesitant, because I have a hard time meeting people. My parents encouraged me to go, because of their Tikvah program. They had met the directors and were very impressed.
Anyway, my experience at Camp Ramah was awesome. I was put in the Tikvah unit where there were other campers with Asperger’s and other disabilities. I found out that there were other people in the world with the same interests as me and that I wasn’t so different. The best thing was that these people were Jewish and that they could read and speak Hebrew like myself. For once in my life I discovered what it was like to have a group of friends and even to be popular. Other campers, not just in the Tikvah unit, would come up to me and start talking to me. They seemed to like me. This taught me that not every kid was mean and that I could be treated nicely. I was even paired up with peer mentors from the other camp units. Suddenly, I didn’t seem so different than everyone else.
I attribute this mostly to the fact that the other campers were all Jewish. My parents have brought me up to respect and tolerate other people, no matter how annoying they are or how they treat you. The other Jewish campers were great and I was treated with respect.
When I finished my first summer at Camp Ramah, I was very depressed, having to go back to the middle school “hazard” area. All I could do was talk about how great camp was and wonder why the middle school kids couldn’t treat me the way I was treated at camp. I really missed my camp buddies.
Then, my parents received a phone call asking if I would be interested in going to St. Louis for a USY Winter Shabbaton. I was only in 7th grade and technically you need to be a freshman in order to go. It’s a good thing that most of the staff didn’t know that, or I might have been kicked out. I still don’t think they know what grade I’m in, because this year in Denver, they gave me a tag saying I was in 11th grade and I’m only in 9th.
I was thrilled to be able to go to St. Louis and I was rooming with two of my Camp Ramah buddies from Tikvah. In fact, we were the only three kids that got to stay in a hotel; the rest of the people had to stay in host homes. The programs were cool and it was great to be around all of the Jews. I actually learned some Jewish jokes:
Did you ever hear about the five constipated men in the Bible?
Cain, because he wasn’t Abel.
Pharaoh, he couldn’t let ‘em go.
Moses, he had two tablets.
Joshua, he blew the walls down.
Solomon, he sat for 40 years.
That joke may have been a bit inappropriate, but I just had to tell it.
The next summer at camp, I was much more relaxed and it felt like home to me. I participated in more of the camp activities, like the radio station, and I did some wood-working projects. Despite what I’ve heard, Jews can be handy at times and they don’t always have to call someone when something breaks down.
That next school year wasn’t as bad, knowing I’d get to go to another USY weekend and see my camp friends. This time it was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was fun, except for the long bus ride down there. For those of you who don’t know, there’s nothing in Iowa except corn. At least, we stayed on the 11th floor of the hotel and since Iowa is so flat, we could see for miles from our room. I stayed again with two buddies from the Tikvah program at camp. We listened to the programs and went on a field trip to the Amana Colonies, which was like an old-fashioned town.
This year at Camp Ramah was probably my best. I led the whole camp in the Mincha service one Shabbat, I learned how to read script Hebrew, and I auditioned for the camp play, The Wiz. I got the part of the Wiz. After the play, I felt like it was my Bar Mitzvah all over again because all the campers came up to me and congratulated me. It was an experience that I won’t forget.
In closing, I’m proud to be Jewish and I’m proud of the way that Jewish people treat other people. My Camp Ramah experience and the USY weekends have shown me that I’m a good person, despite being a little different than anyone else. We all have our unique abilities. I am so thankful to Camp Ramah and USY for giving me the opportunity to be around other Jewish people. Hey, look at me here. I’m in a whole room of Jews and it feels great! Thank you all.