Jewish Special Needs Education – Vocational Training at Ramah Campsby Daniel Olson

I have often heard the Ramah movement and its constituent camps described as a laboratory for Jewish living. Every single day at camp, children and young adults test out new ways of ‘doing Jewish’. The examples of experimentation we most often hear about are things like creative tefillot (prayers), fostering mentschlichkeit (consideration of others) in the context of daily camp activities, and consistently being on the forefront of experiential education. Last summer I had the privilege of visiting three Ramah camps (New England, California, and my home camp of Wisconsin) to research how their Vocational Education programs fit into Ramah’s exploratory environment. I found that even though the settings were sometimes different than what we typically think of as camp (like grocery stores and cafes), the same sense of Jewish experimentation was present in each program.

Take the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, or welcoming guests. A feature of all three vocational programs I visited was that participants had access to a kitchen, something no other group of campers or staff had. Participants used the kitchens to learn independent cooking skills as part of their vocational learning, and in addition also had the privilege of inviting other members of the camp community to share in the food they prepared. Many times during the week, and especially on Shabbat, vocational participants invited friends into their space as guests and served them perhaps the greatest treat in camp: home-made, fresh, and delicious food. Camp offered a safe setting to not only practice cooking, but to practice the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim.

At Ramah California and Ramah Wisconsin, some of the participants’ job sites are located outside of camp in communities without a large number of Jews. Participants in these programs may be the only Jewish employees at a particular business. Through casual conversations with bosses and co-workers, vocational participants learn to discuss their Judaism and their Ramah community. They must ask for a day off on Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av, a day of fasting and mourning) and explain to their boss the significance of the holiday. At Ramah Wisconsin one young woman who was celebrating becoming a Bat Mitzvah invited one of her co-workers to attend services at camp that morning. These programs allow for experimentation with representing the Jewish community to those who might not know anything about it.

Because the vocational programs center work skills as the major component of their curricula, the Shabbat experience has a significant impact on participants. Shabbat is intensified for some vocational participants because they really have earned their day of rest after a long week. Participants are given the freedom to choose how they would like to spend their day off, with some time carved out for Jewish learning in each program. Participants get to experiment with Shabbat’s restful holiness and all the possibilities that offers.

I learned a lot more about the vocational programs this summer than is described above, but I wanted to highlight some of the features that best capture the sense of Jewish experimentation at each camp. Ramah’s commitment to allowing campers and young adults the freedom to try on different Jewish hats has always been one of my favorite things about our camping movement and it was gratifying, though unsurprising, to see the same thing happening in the vocational programs.

Daniel Olson is a PhD student in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU and a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar. His work at NYU focuses on better understanding the goals of programs for Jews with disabilities. Previously he worked as a full-time educator at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and as the unit head for Atzmayim, a program for young adults with disabilities, at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.

*** Continuing its ongoing support of Ramah’s vocational programs, the Ruderman Family Foundation has granted $150,000 over three years for vocational education at Ramah California, Canada, New England and Wisconsin, and to encourage vocational education inclusion programs at other Ramah camps.