Friday, February 17, 2012

Mishpatim: Jewish Inclusion Awareness Month

Each year I travel to Israel for staff interviews, I am amazed by the quality of people I meet -  their interests, skills, passions, and commitments.  This is true of the veteran staff members in Israel for gap year programs, junior year abroad programs, and post-graduate studies.  Regardless of whether or not they end up coming to work at camp, every conversation is interesting and covers a wide-range of topics.  This year, I was particularly struck by the number of Israeli candidates I met who were working in their spare time with children or adults with special needs.  Here are two of their stories:

Tamar is a Yerushalmi - she grew up in Jerusalem - and came to the interview with a typical Jerusalemite background.  She attended an open, Orthodox, highly-thought-of-high school for girls (one that many of our staff members attended over the years).  She was very involved in a youth group not only as a participant but as counselor.  She now serves in the IAF, the Israeli Air Force, where she is an officer.  She has tremendous responsibilities.  Yet, somehow in her very spare free time, she volunteers to work with children with autism.  She could take all of the free time she gets just for herself.  Instead, she volunteers and works with children and not just any children but those on the median of the autism spectrum.  These children may not speak, may have other challenges that accompany their diagnosis, not to mention that many come from challenging homes.  Why does Tamar do it? Because she feels an obligation to give back, because she wants to contribute, and because she believes it is the right thing to do.  And, as is so often the case, Tamar feels that she gets back much more than she gives.

Meirav has been out of the army for a few years now.  She lives in Rishon LeTzion, comes from a mizrahi background and while not “religious” is committed to masoret - tradition.  After her army service, Meirav went back to Rishon LeTzion and was bothered by the state of education in her community.  She noticed that there were many kids who were no longer in school.  They had either been cast out or had chosen not to attend.  Many of the children she met came from difficult homes where parents were either unequipped to take care of their children, were involved with drugs, abuse, etc.  Many children had special learning needs that the school system claimed they could not handle.  For the past three years, Meirav made it her job to help these children, to keep them in school and off the streets.  She believes that education is the key to changing society and is compelled to work at bringing about change.  In listening to Meirav, it became clear to me that she saw herself as the last line of defense of a child’s future, that she was called to do this work, and that she too was contributing back to society.

These are just two of the incredible stories I heard during my Israel trip.  There were countless others and, as I mentioned earlier, so many of the stories involved people volunteering their time with special needs populations, with individuals and groups that are often easily overlooked by general society.  

The obligation to be aware of and to include those in our community with special needs is echoed in this week’s parashah.  Among all the laws discussed in Parashat Mishpatim, we are taught the mitzvah of not taking advantage of the stranger, the widow and the orphan:

וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, לֹא תְעַנּוּן

And you will not wrong or oppress a stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.
Exodus 22:20-21

This mitzvah is one of the negative commandments - the “Thou Shalt Not’s” - of the Torah.  The midrashim on these verses, however, read an implicit positive obligation into the explicit negative commandment.  The Mechilta, a set of midrashei halakha on the Book of Exodus, Bamidbar Rabbah and the Pesikta Zuta all address the question of why God loves these three groups in such a special way.  By extension, since we are to strive to imitate God, we too should extend special care for and love of these three categories of people - the stranger, the widow and the orphan.  What unites these three kinds of people? Based on the language of the negative commandment, strangers, widows and orphans can easily be taken advantage of, be oppressed or be ignored.  You can imagine the conversation: “It is too expensive to care for these people, let someone else take care of them” or “We are really sorry but we are just not equipped to help” or “You are not welcome here.  Your child makes too many strange noises during services or during class.”

If the Torah’s call to not take advantage, to not oppress, to not ignore the stranger, the widow and the orphan resonates in today’s world, if the mitzvah of אהבת הגר, היתום והאלמנה - loving the stranger, the widow, and the orphan - as extrapolated from Exodus 22: 20-21 by the midrashim - is embodied by a population in our world not explicitly included in these three groups it is the community of children and adults with special needs.  February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, also referred to as Jewish Inclusion Awareness Month.  During this month, we call special attention to the need for the Jewish world to do more to include members of our community with special needs, to make them feel at home, to make them feel welcome, to make them feel loved by people as they are loved by God.  Throughout the community, Jewish organizations are making extra efforts to educate their participants in how they can be more welcoming and helpful to those with special needs.  I ask you to look in your community to see what is being done in honor of Jewish Inclusion Awareness Month and to get involved.

For decades, the Ramah Camps have been a model of אהבה for the special needs community through our Tikvah programs.  Whether it is the Tikvah Program or the Atzmayim Independent Living Skills Program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin or the Breirah program at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires; Camp Yofi: Family Camp for Jewish Families with Children with Autism at Ramah Darom or Camp Ohr Lanu at Camp Ramah in California, Ramah has been teaching thousands of typical campers and staff members the importance of inclusion for many years.  Moreover, thousands of Jewish special needs children have found a Jewish home at Ramah camps through these programs.  As each of the Tikvah programs is slightly different in population and approach, we now recruit nationally for the programs and work with families to find the right match for their child.  Ramah is constantly striving to improve our programs and skills to better serve and include Jewish children and young adults with special needs. To that end, Ramah started a national network of Tikvah staff members thereby increasing our capacity to learn about best practices nationally and in our camps for including Jews with special needs.  A number of years ago we initiated the Koach birthright Israel special needs trip. And, most important, we have created an atmosphere where everyone’s gifts are seen as Divine, as the reflection of God in this world.  As a result, many of our campers and staff members have learned about, become involved with, become passionate advocates for, have become professionals in the field,  and have been deeply touched by the Jewish special needs community.

Tamar and Meirav; Ralph Schwartz - the director of special needs programming at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin; Margaret Silverman, the chair of our Tikvah committee; and the countless staff members, Roshei Aidah or Division Heads, and Tikvah Chaverim or Friends are just a few examples of people who live the mitzvah of אהבה for Jews with special needs.  During Jewish Inclusion Awareness Month, I hope that we not only find other incredible role models but that each of us, in our own way, become more aware of the importance of inclusion and find ways to actively reach out to families and individuals with special needs children who might not be Jewishly involved now and welcome them into our loving, caring, Divine embrace.

Shabbat Shalom.

For more information on the Tikvah and Atzmayim programs at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, please follow this link:

For more information, follow this link to the National Ramah Website on Special Needs Programs: