In the late 1960’s, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, two teachers working in the field of special education, approached several Jewish summer camps with a novel idea: why not include children with disabilities at camp?
At the time, this was an unheard-of idea, and the Greenbergs encountered a lot of pushback and opposition.
“People worried it would cost too much, disrupt the order of camp, lower the level of Hebrew, and that the [neuro] typical children would leave,” they reflected, years later.
But Donny Adelman z”l, the camp director who was running a Camp Ramahprogram in Glen Spey, New York (the camp later moved to a New England site), responded enthusiastically. As Barbara Greenberg explained in The Jerusalem Post last year, Ramah recognized the Jewish moral imperative that this initiative signified.
It was that recognition, and a willingness to move the needle on Jewish camping, which ultimately led to the establishment of the first Ramah Tikvah program in 1970.
Identifying and recruiting campers that first summer wasn’t easy. Jewish communal professionals were not yet engaged in or thinking much about how to include Jewish children with disabilities in Jewish camping life, and it would be many years before inclusion became a buzzword. But that summer, Herb and Barbara managed to recruit eight campers, and the first Tikvah program was born.
It wasn’t smooth sailing at first. In fact, that inaugural summer, the Greenbergs spent a great deal of time serving as diplomats within the camp community, advocating for their ideal of inclusive camping, and reassuring people at camp who didn’t understand at first how a model like this could work.
But their dedication paid off. Over several years, Tikvah programs began to spring up in Ramah overnight camps across North America, and in dozens of other Jewish summer camps as well (Today, all Ramah overnight camps and day camps serve campers with disabilities, with offerings including camping and vocational training experiences, salaried employment for adults with disabilities, Israel programs, weekly video meetings, and occasional reunions and get-togethers for participants and alumni.)
This model of inclusion was so successful, in fact, that it has begun to serve as an “industry standard” for how Jewish communal spaces welcome children with disabilities into their programming.
While summer programs for campers with disabilities were much needed, there was more to be done. Families still felt there were not enough opportunities for their children to experience Jewish learning during the calendar year and for programming that included the whole family. In addition, accommodations for children with disabilities still weren’t quite meeting the standards necessary for true inclusion (which include, among other things, accommodating for sensory and behavioral needs during prayer services and community-wide events).
Families longed for a place where they could attend a Shabbat service with their child, knowing that a child’s different behavior (loud noises, or an outburst) wouldn’t be deemed a disruption. They desired an environment of acceptance as well as camaraderie with other families.
Rabbi Loren Sykes, a veteran Camp Ramah director and a 2006 Covenant Award recipient, was listening. In 2004, he launched Camp Yofi, a Jewish family camp experience for children with autism, their parents, and their siblings. (Camp Yofi received a Signature Grant from The Covenant Foundation in 2005.)
“We created Camp Yofi out of a desire to establish sacred space for and warmly welcome back Jewish families who were being excluded, actively and passively, from the Jewish community,” Rabbi Sykes shared.
Family camps for children with disabilities take place at Camp Ramah sites once or twice per year in California, the Poconos, and New England.
While inclusive camping clearly benefits people with disabilities and is praised by their parents, the impact on the rest of the camp community is also worth noting. For nearly 50 years, Ramah campers and staff members have been returning home to their synagogues and Jewish communities with a greater awareness of and comfort with people with disabilities. Each camper, staff member, mishlachat (Israeli delegation) member—the entire Ramah community—interacts with people with disabilities in a very natural way—through Shabbat programming, camp-wide field trips, meals in the chadar ochel, special events, free swim, barbecues, and special buddy and peer mentoring programs for campers and staff.
And this bears out in reflections from campers who experience the enrichment of Tikvah firsthand.
“Inclusion has taught me many lessons including patience, tolerance, and acceptance,” said Julia Wolf, a 21-year-old veteran Ramah camper. “These are qualities I take with me in my life, everyday.”
Campers at Ramah who are between the ages of 13-16 also have opportunities across the camp sites to be peer mentors, and often chose to work as inclusion or Tikvah counselors when they return as staff members at age 18. This helps assure a steady pipeline of sensitive, qualified staff.
The Jewish camping community has come a long way since the days of Herb and Barbara Greenberg’s foundational work. Today, many Jewish summer camps offer inclusive programs and the Jewish community as a whole has become far more attentive to the needs of people with disabilities.
But it’s the effect that Tikvah has had on families that is the most resonant of all.
“The Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in New England is Molly’s happy place,” said Hannah Jacobs, the parent of a long-time Tikvah camper.
“It’s more than just a second [summer] home for Molly,” Hannah continued. “It’s also the only place that allows her the freedom to be her true self.”
By Howard Blas, for The Covenant Foundation
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
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“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
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—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project