Reflections on Parashat Shemot and Our Atzmayim-Tikvah Shabbatonby Ralph Schwartz, Director of Special Needs

Sefer Shemot (Exodus) documents who went down to Egypt and the beginning of our people’s suffering as slaves under “a new king … who knew not Joseph” (1:8).  After Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s palace, he is forced to flee Egypt for Midian after killing an Egyptian taskmaster. There he marries Zipporah, has a son Gershom, and works as a shepherd. One day, while tending his flock, the burning bush story unfolds.

Although God performs several miracles for him at the burning bush, Moses initially refuses to be God’s messenger to Pharaoh. Four times Moses says he is not up for the job:

  1. Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh ? (Exodus 3:11)
  2. What shall I say is Your name? (3:13)
  3. What if they don’t believe me and do not listen to me? (4:1)
  4. I am slow of speech and slow of tongue. (4:10)

Each time God answers Moses in what appears to be a calm and understanding way and then responds with an accommodation.  It is as if Moses is scared to take the leap that God has chosen him for. God is patient with Moses until he finally pushes him a little bit.

This past weekend 43 Camp Ramah in Wisconsin Atzmayim (vocational program) participants, Tikvah campers and alumni of both programs gathered at the Hilton Garden Inn in Evanston, Illinois, for our 4th biennial Shabbaton/Reunion.

In the beginning, many of our parents were hesitant to send their children. They said things like:

  1. My child has never flown alone on an airplane before.
  2. My child has trouble with transitions.
  3. My child has never slept away from home before except at camp.
  4. Who is going to make sure my child is safe?

Each time we answered them in a calm and understanding way, reassuring them that their children would be safe and have a great time as well.

We did many of the usual activities people do at a Shabbaton: celebrate Shabbat by praying and eating together, learn about relationships with friends and family, enjoy some good karaoke, go swimming and bowling.

This year we asked some of our alumni, graduates of the Tikvah and/or Atzmayim programs, to sit on a panel speaking to our current Atzmayim participants and Tikvah campers about their life experiences. Some alumni have graduated or are currently attending college; all are working in various jobs in the community and the majority live independently.

For this panel, they answered the following questions posed to them by former Tikvah Rosh Aidah Joseph Eskin, who moderated the session:

  1. What is your job now?
  2. What would you like to do? What are your professional goals?
  3. What have been your biggest challenges?
  4. How was Tikvah/Atzmayim helpful to you?
  5. What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Everyone in the room sat enraptured as each panelist responded to the questions. One alumnus explained that before he came to Ramah, he was in a dark place, lonely and with little motivation. During his time at camp, he made friends who have lasted to this day.  Another panelist shared, “Whenever anyone invites you to go out, go, or else they will think you are a loner, and they will stop inviting you.”

Several alumni expressed their gratitude for camp as a place where they explored and increased their Jewish religious identity, where they had the chance to live in an immersive Jewish community, lead services, and learn a lot.  Everyone listened intently, absorbing advice on how to achieve the next step of independence, socialization, education or employment.

Moses was apprehensive and unsure of himself at the burning bush.  Some of us, and especially our campers and participants, feel the same way when we try something new.  While no one can say if one of them will one day become a leader like Moses, everyone at the Shabbaton is now ready to take on new challenges and risks.  In the special needs programs of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, adolescents and emerging adults with special needs can find support, accommodations, acceptance, and inspiration to be all that they want to be.