Over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, 21 campers in the Camp Ramah in Wisconsin Tikvah program and 12 Atzmayim vocational participants traveled to a hotel in suburban Chicago to celebrate Shabbat together. They came from 15 cities in the U.S. and Canada to join their counselors and 11th grade friends for a wonderful camp reunion. Tikvah is a division of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin developed in 1973 to provide inclusion opportunities for children with learning, social and communication difficulties, including those who are higher functioning on the autism spectrum. This camp reunion was a chance to reconnect and continue the learning and growing that happens every summer. Joseph Eskin, a teacher at the Chicagoland Jewish High School and the Tikvah division head, observed, “For most kids, getting together with your camp friends during the winter is expected. But for kids in Tikvah and Atzmayim it doesn’t happen so easily. A reunion like this one provides an important part of the camp experience – reconnecting with your friends during the year. This Shabbaton builds on the work we do at camp by normalizing the camp experience for kids with special needs.”
The program theme “Let’s Dream Again,” provided a framework to look at dreams of liberation. Discussions connected the Torah reading from the book of Exodus with the civil rights movement and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Campers and staff members talked about their own personal challenges and dreams for making life more equal for everyone. Joseph Eskin added, “Reunion participants felt comfortable with their camp friends talking about the challenges they encounter on a daily basis.”
According to Ralph Schwartz, Director of Ramah Wisconsin’s Special Needs Programs, the college-age counselors were energized by the reunion. “Our entire staff was so proud to see participants take active roles in Shabbat services. It’s an amazing sight to see teens and young adults with a variety of social and learning issues connect to Jewish ritual in this supportive and non-judgmental community. At the Shabbat morning service, a 16-year old boy who never had a Bar Mitzvah due to his own anxiety agreed at the last minute to take an aliyah to the Torah. Upon completion of the aliyah his self-confident smile was visible for miles and we were all so happy for him.” Dr. Margaret Silberman, Special Needs Program Chair, stated “When you see the kids talking and laughing at meals and participating in study group discussions – as other kids do – you appreciate the necessity and the value of our Tikvah programs.”
The kids had so much fun and loved schmoozing and hanging out with friends. A highlight of the summer program is Chaverim, which pairs 10th grade campers with buddies in the Tikvah program to spend a few hours together every week. One such buddy is Rebecca Abrams, an 11th grader at Chicagoland Jewish High School, who joined the Shabbaton. “It is such an amazing idea to have a winter reunion for the kids in Tikvah and Atzmayim. Friends are important to everyone and this is a great way to maintain friendships and make new ones. I loved every minute of the weekend.”
Evan, a Tikvah camper who flew in from Florida for the weekend, was asked if he enjoyed the Shabbaton. He replied, “I feel so lucky and happy to be here with all my friends. My favorite part of the weekend was bowling on Saturday night. I got three strikes! I love this camp and can’t wait to come back.”
Camp Ramah in Wisconsin Assistant Director Yael Bendat-Appell reflected on the experience, “The power of the Shabbaton was in the high level of thoughtful, accessible programming; the commitment and compassion of the staff members; and most importantly, the joyful and heartwarming reunion of the participants with their cherished friends. Creating a winter Shabbat experience for our Tikvah and Atzmayim participants was a labor of love for those of us who helped make it happen.”
For more information on the Tikvah camper program and Atzmayim vocational program of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, visit www.ramahwisconsin.com or contact Alicia at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 312.606.9316 ext. 221.