This week’s Parsha, Vayeira, begins with the famous story of the three angels/messengers coming to visit Abraham and Sarah. One angel inquires of Abraham “Where is your wife Sarah?” Abraham replies “there in the tent.” The angel then says, “I will return to you next year at this time and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah, who is listening at the entrance to the tent, laughs to herself. Commentators interpret her laughing in different ways. The most common explanation given is that Sarah laughed because she did not believe that at their advanced ages they could have a child. The angel then says,

היפלא מה’ דבר
“Is there anything too wondrous for the Lord?”

This past Sunday, I attended, together with 135 others, the National Ramah Symposium on Special Needs Programs entitled “Al Pi Darko.” (Click here to read more about the symposium.)The name of the conference comes from the Book of Proverbs, “Educate a child according to his way, even when he grows old, he will not depart from it.”  If we want to educate all Jewish children, then we must modify our programs to meet their individual needs. This is what we do at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin through our inclusion programs such as Tikvah and Atzmayim.

Over the course of the symposium, directors of each of the Ramah programs for children with special needs (Tikvah, Breira, Camp Yofi, Vocational Programs) along with some parents of current Tikvah campers, and representatives of foundations that support Jewish specials needs camping programs presented a wide range of sessions on issues including: various models of inclusion, vocational training, family camps, funding and sustainability, and the impact of Ramah. Rabbi David Soloff, Dr. Margaret Silberman, Daniel Olson, Nava Kantor, Kashmir Kastanowitz, and Lilli Flink were among the current and former Wisconsin staff who participated in the conference. I was very proud of the Ramah Wisconsin contributions made by our participants and presenters in the sessions.

The diversity of the presentations as well as of the conference attendees was indicative of the importance of building inclusive Jewish camps. Sessions were led by leaders who passionately believed that children with special needs do best when they are encouraged, supported and integrated in the camp community. Attention was also paid to the increasing research which shows how much the neuro-typical community also gains from an inclusive experience.

The first Tikvah Program started at Camp Ramah in New England in 1970 and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin quickly followed in 1973. I am sure that at the time these programs were established, many people did not believe it was wise to bring children with disabilities into the mainstream of society. I wonder if another angel/messenger of God was sitting in on those discussions whispering to the naysayers, “Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?”

Each summer we see God’s wonders as our campers and staff members learn together and grow in their acceptance and appreciation of each other.

Shabbat Shalom,
Ralph Schwartz