I did not think Camp Ramah in Wisconsin would change my life when I got off the bus in Conover as a 13-year-old. My best friend at the time had been trying to get me to go to Camp Ramah for years, and he finally convinced me when I was entering 8th grade in the summer of 1994. My experiences overall as a camper were great. I made friends, tried new things, and embraced my Jewish identity. The biggest thing I gained as a camper was a nickname. I was born with clubfoot. Through my childhood I had three surgeries, multiple castings, had to wear a leg brace while I slept, and had many years of physical therapy. The lasting effects are that my left foot is four sizes smaller than my right and my left leg is significantly weaker. I had a hard time making friends and sports were challenging for me growing up. My foot impacted my self-esteem and even though it is not something easily noticed, it made my childhood very difficult.
When I got to camp, I only knew one person. The first night as we were going around the cabin introducing ourselves, I mentioned that my left foot was four sizes smaller than my right one and all my cabin mates ran over to see it. This was a very different reaction to my disability than I was used to seeing. One of my cabinmates decided at that moment to call me “Lefty” and my life changed right then and there. The next day, my cabin introduced me to everyone as Lefty and told them they needed to see my feet. Something that I had always been ashamed of became a source of pride.
That first summer of camp truly changed me. For a variety of reasons, I did not go back to camp for Machon, but returned for my final summer as a camper and was part of Nivonim 1996. I made a tallit that summer that I still wear today. During that summer I met Ann Lesley Hamvas who is now my wife and mother of our four children. I was only a camper for two summers and I really thought that was the end of my Ramah journey. I was very wrong.
Even though my days as a camper were great, it has been my years as a staff member that have been so significant in my growth and development. The summer of 1998 I worked in Nagarut. When I was not in the wood shop, I was spending time with the campers I lived with. The director of camp at the time, Rabbi David Soloff, must have seen something in me that I did not. He called me during the off season and asked if I had ever thought of being a Tikvah counselor. I honestly had not. My struggles growing up and living with my foot had given me an understanding of people’s visible and invisible differences. People who needed a friend often sought me out. Rabbi Soloff thought that working in the Tikvah program would be a good fit for me. When I said I would give it a try, I set in motion a series of life-altering events.
I loved being a counselor for Tikvah. I have so many positive memories it is hard to select one. One of my favorite memories was when one of my campers auditioned and was selected to play the part of Tony in West Side Story in Hebrew. This was a big deal for camp and for my camper. I remember he was not feeling well on the day of the performance but no one and nothing was going to stop him from performing. I was so proud to watch him on stage, it was like watching my own child perform. I had heard big applause before, but this was massive. The amount of hard work he put in during rehearsals was seen when he was on stage and when he got off, the smile on his face made his whole face glow. He continues to act in productions and still shares information about his shows with me.
I have had the privilege to watch campers grow for many years and know that the time they spent with me for four to eight weeks during the summer was impactful for their future and independence. During my time as a counselor in Tikvah, I watched the program grow and change. My first year as a counselor, there was one girl and eight boys in the program. In recent years, there have been two cabins for boys, a cabin for girls, and many participants in the Atzmayim vocational program.
Tikvah integration into the camp community has expanded since my first summer as a counselor. In the 1990’s, Tikvah was a part of camp but at times felt apart from camp. We worked hard to increase our visibility in camp. Under the direction of Rose Sharon, we hosted Café Tikvah and welcomed staff multiple times each summer into Moadon Tikvah for cakes, socialization, and comfort. These Tikvah Café evenings became highlights of the summer for the hosts and for the guests. We increased opportunities for chaverim (buddies within the Machon aidah) to help campers get to know my campers. Each year we grew bigger and bigger. Recently, campers in Machon and Tikvah started to call their combined aidah Mikvah as they saw themselves as one group and not two separate ones.
I had enrolled in college to study cinema, theater production and design. I envisioned myself working in the Chicago theater scene or critiquing films. My four years as a Tikvah counselor changed that. Each summer my skills, compassion, and problem solving grew. When I was at camp working with Tikvah, I was happy and fulfilled. Every night I went to sleep tired, but I felt accomplished with what I had achieved that day. Seeing growth year over year is still very rewarding and I realized that this was my calling. I longed for the relationships I was building with my campers year round. I wanted to help facilitate skills like independence and self-advocacy not just during the summer but all year long. I knew I wanted to be a special education teacher. Camp is directly responsible for this change in the trajectory of my life.
Currently, as a special education teacher, I am tasked with connecting with the students who are hard to connect with. I am the one who develops the creative approach to unexpected behaviors. My years as a staff member have made me the teacher I am today. At camp I learned the skills to adapt, lead, teach, plan, and support others. I bring a different expertise to the classroom as my training came from an informal education perspective.
I have been on staff at Camp Ramah every summer since 1998 (except for 2006, 2007 and 2020). I worked as a Tikvah counselor for four years, Rosh Tikvah for two years, co-led the newly created Atzmayim program with my wife the second year of its existence, was a staff trainer for multiple years helping counselors with campers with behavioral needs, was the director of Atzmayim, and helped develop and run the Tzofeh program every year of its existence. Atzmayim is a transitional program for high school graduates to work on independent living and vocational skills. Atzmayim started with four campers and has grown into a fixture in Eagle River and has a beautiful programming space and living quarters at camp for its many participants.
For the last seven summers, in addition to bringing my problem-solving skills to a variety of camp projects, I’ve been the point person for the Tzofeh inclusion program. Tzofeh was designed to support counselors working with campers with a variety of special needs. This was not a visible program and I did a lot of work behind the scenes to support the staff and campers. It is personally meaningful to help provide new opportunities for Tikvah campers to spend most of their day with their peers. This expanded approach to inclusion continues to enhance our whole camp community.
My favorite thing about being on staff for all these years is seeing the complete story of my campers. I remember their first summers and now get to see the adults they have become. I am in touch with Tikvah alumni who are happily married to each other, others who have families, careers, and are living independently. I have been on staff with previous campers and have been able to stay connected over the years.
I am often asked why someone should sent a child to Camp Ramah. The question becomes hard when their child has special needs. There is always a risk trying something new and different. Every experience can be interpreted in many ways. I know that there is something magical at Camp Ramah and somehow every person can find exactly what they need. Whether it is Judaics, sports, art, Hebrew, theater, companionship, or connections to Israel – or all of the above – camp offers the opportunities each person needs. For someone with a special need, camp can provide teachable moments that cannot be recreated in a school. Camp is a lab for social skills, independent living, and so much more.
The Ramah experience is very powerful. I know that at each stage of my life, camp has given me the opportunities I needed to become the best version of myself. When I was a camper, it gave me a nickname which gave me confidence as my disability was turned into a strength. As a staff member, it gave me the skills to establish a career where I can continue to be impactful on the lives of young people year round. As an adult, it has been a place to watch my family grow. Three of my four children have spent every summer of their lives at camp. Missing camp last summer due to the pandemic was hard and showed me how important camp has been for my children, my wife, and myself. Camp truly is our home. We’ve learned that camp can bring out the best version of every person, that our children are the happiest at camp, and their camp friends are their best friends.
It is worth repeating – I am who I am today because of Camp Ramah. Camp saw things in me that I did not see in myself. I often wonder who I would be if I did not go to camp that first summer. All the greatest things in my life I owe to camp. Twenty-six years ago, I took a chance on a new experience and I am glad I did. I have talked to many of my past campers from the Tikvah program or staff that have worked with me over the years and they all trace the line from where they are now back to Camp Ramah.
In my experience, Tikvah has improved the lives of everyone who has been a part of it, whether it is as a camper, staff member, or part of the greater camp community. I have been so privileged to be able to continue to be a part of Camp Ramah and in a position to support staff and campers.