In 2011 National Ramah received a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation to create a program called “Shabbos Is Calling.”  This program, which includes four Ramah camps serving special needs populations – New England, California, Wisconsin, and Canada – provides an invaluable social outlet that is truly impacting the lives of our Tikvah campers and staff members.  Each week they connect via video conferencing and sing songs, hear stories about the weekly Torah portion and share memories with their Ramah friends.  We share this article by Ralph Schwartz, the Director of Special Needs Programming at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, which demonstrates the impact of this new program.    

The Shabbos is Calling video chat began with the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England last year as a way for teenagers with special needs to maintain friendships developed during the summer, stay connected to the camp community and reduce the loneliness and social isolation all too common with this population. Since the video chat was done on Thursday evenings, it was named Shabbos is Calling.  The Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin began its weekly check-in several months ago and named it Shavua Tov or “Have a Good Week,” since these video chat meetings take place on Sunday evenings.    

We are most grateful to the Ruderman Family Foundation whose funding has made Shabbos is Calling and Shavua Tov possible and led to the following events. 

At the beginning of Shavua Tov, a staff member gives a D’var Torah on the Torah portion or something that has occurred in Jewish current events. Each camper then does a check-in when they share with their peers how their week has been.  We never imagined what we could do with Shavua Tov until our Sunday, January 7, 2012 video chat.  That day my eyes were filled with tears.

In the beginning of January, the mother of one of our Tikvah campers suddenly passed away. Several staff members attended the funeral, visited the family and sent a meal during the Shiva period.  While speaking to the camper’s father immediately following Shiva, I reminded him that our Shavua Tov video chat would be starting again after a two week vacation and asked if he thought Josh would want to participate.  His dad responded to me with “that’s a great idea.” I asked him if we could talk about the death of Josh’s mom and he replied “yes, let’s do it.”

As often happens in Jewish life, the weekly Torah portion directly related to events in our life.

I began Shavua Tov by describing the Torah portion we had just read in synagogue, the last portion in Genesis, Vayechi, which talks about the deaths of Jacob and Joseph after each had lived long, rich lives and lived to see their grandchildren. As sad as their deaths were, sometimes people die before their time and that can make the pain even deeper.  (With a deep breath I continued.)  Unfortunately, Josh experienced this last week when his mother suddenly passed away in his presence.  Although he called 911 immediately, there was nothing the paramedics could do to save her when they arrived.   

The campers’ reaction was to be quiet. We could tell that they were surprised and thinking over the information they had heard. They certainly knew it was serious and out of the ordinary and did not know how to respond.  The Tikvah staff and I then began teaching about the Jewish observance of comforting the mourner. We talked about how to act in the presence of a mourner and what to say to someone who has just suffered a loss.  With staff support, Josh’s peers began to express their condolences and support to him one by one.  One camper tried to give him a hug over the computer, another talked about his own experiences when a close relative passed away, a third shared how hard it must be and how helpless he felt. A fourth shared the verse recited to welcome a mourner during Kabalat Shabbat services or said when leaving a Shiva home. The staff members each took their turn as we expressed our own messages of condolence and support to Josh. 

Josh listened to us and said little. He appeared to be taking it all in. Several times during the call, Josh turned to hug his dad who sat next to him for emotional support during this video chat.  I shared with everyone that at a time like this the mourner may not have words to respond back but that was okay. Sometimes in our grief we choose to remain silent. The Jewish way is to provide comfort to the bereaved and not to expect acknowledgement.

The call went longer than normal that night, but no one seemed to notice. In fact it seemed like no one wanted to end the call that night. The next day Josh’s dad told me that Josh felt tremendous support from his camp friends and they were both very grateful to the Tikvah Program of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. 

I was equally thankful to his dad for allowing us the opportunity to support Josh as well as to educate our campers and teach them the true meaning of Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lezeh – All Jews are responsible for one another.