Friday night services two weeks ago were the most ordinary and, simultaneously, the most extraordinary services of the summer. Mincha was led by Rachel, Shir HaShirim was read by Noam and candles were lit by Shelby. Kabbalat Shabbat was led by Jonathan, Ma’ariv was led by Tyler and the d’var Torah was given by Ari. Sounds like every other Friday night at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. What made this ordinary Erev Shabbat so extraordinary? The people who led services all came from the Tikvah Aidah, our special needs program, and the Atzmayim Program. Several of the campers have Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. One of the campers was born both blind and deaf, and he led Ma’ariv. There was something else that felt ordinary about this extraordinary group leading services: it was totally typical of camp. Tikvah and our independent living skills program, Atzmayim, are such an embedded part of camp that nobody thinks twice when Tikvah/Atzmayim participants take public leadership roles.
Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and the entire Ramah camping movement are, and historically have been, at the forefront of partnering with the special needs community to design and create programs for this extraordinary group. Some of our camps take a more “mainstreaming” approach where participants live in typical camper cabins with special assistants and extra staffing. Others, like here at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, take a hybrid approach where Tikvah campers have their own cabins and specialized staff, are connected to either the Bogrim or Machon aidot, and participate in both “typical” camp aidah activities as well as those designed just for them. Our camps differentiate our programs so that a wide variety of special needs can be met in ways that will insure the greatest success. As is so often the case, it is the so-called “typical” campers who partner with Tikvah campers and staff members of Tikvah who are most transformed by the experience. They become ambassadors for and often choose to become professionals in the field of special needs education as a result of their experience with the Tikvah program.
What follows are the words of ARI SCHNEIDER-GANS, a graduate of the Tikvah program and participant in the Atzmayim program, which he shared with the entire camp on Friday night:
Tikvah. This common Hebrew word, meaning “Hope,” has been used all throughout Jewish history. It can be found in so many places that the Israeli national anthem takes the word for its title: HaTikvah. The word has also meant a lot to me in my own life. Six years ago, I came to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin with almost no hope. I had struggled at other summer camps and was pessimistic about my chances for success. In 2007, my father told me that he wanted to send me to an environment that was friendly for people like me. He found the Tikvah program here and as they say: Vizohi Rak Hahatchalah- This was only the beginning.
When I first started Tikvah I was the only person standing in my circle. But during my summers here I began to see myself growing and changing in positive ways. Tikvah helped me make these changes—not by forcing a new perspective on me, but by helping me realize my own potential. It took a growing circle of people here to guide me to that conclusion. The Tikvah tzevet I had over the years--Ralph Schwartz, Barak Lanes, Joseph Eskin, and especially Daniel Olson--struggled with me in some areas. But for every hard time there was a learning experience for me, and possibly even for them.
The circle gets bigger with all of the friends who supported me too. They were my Tikvah aidah-mates, of course. They shaped my summers by sharing brilliant ideas for Tikvah Lunch Theaters, and filling my free time with fun antics. They are my friends for life.
The circle is completed by all the Machon aidot that spent their summers with Tikvah. Without Machon ’07, ’08, ’09 and ’10, many fun things like the plays we did, the sports we played, and chaver time in particular would not have been nearly as fun. I would like to ask anyone who has ever been in that circle—Tikvah campers, Tikvah staff, and Machon chaverim, past and present—to rise. Na Lakum. Look how big this circle is! I realize now, six years later, because of all of you, that my time in Tikvah was one of the best times of my life.
If Tikvah was designed to help me feel comfortable in my own skin, Atzmayim is helping me discover an even bigger circle: the adult world. I was nervous to begin this program because I was so comfortable as a Tikvah camper. After much encouragement from Ralph Schwartz and Margaret Silberman, however, I was willing to give it a shot. I now work at the Olson Memorial Library in Eagle River, which has friendly staff and provides an easy-going environment. Working at the library really has been a benefit to me, and it helped me get a job at a radio station back home.
My work at the library would not have been as successful without the daily social and job skills class we have led by Scott Rosen. Scott is a very helpful individual who is full of insight and knowledge, and he has helped to fuel my summers in Atzmayim even when I was having a difficult time. Indeed, in both Tikvah and Atzmayim, the tzevet have been truly exceptional.
On behalf of all members of the Tikvah program—past, present, and future—I would like to conclude by saying that Camp Ramah in Wisconsin has become a large part of all of our lives. The members of this community here have encouraged all of us to make a name for ourselves in the world. I am so proud of my affiliation with Camp Ramah and have so many moments and memories that I am excited to share with an even bigger audience. Of course, the most important audience is already sitting right in front of me. Todah Rabah L’Kulam Sh’Yoshvim Po, thank you to everyone who is sitting here, for making us the people we are today, as well as the people we may become in the future.
As you can imagine, there was not a dry eye in the Bet Am when Ari finished speaking and that is just as it should be.
As we enter Shabbat, all of us at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin are appreciative of the willingness of every family to send their child to camp. We are honored to be a place where campers of all kinds, those who learn physically, those who are visual learners, those who learn by doing, make up the diverse and inclusive community that is Ramah Wisconsin.
Todah Rabbah Ari for sharing your profound and moving thoughts with us all.