In January, 21 campers in the Camp Ramah in Wisconsin Tikvah program and 12 Atzmayim vocational participants traveled to a hotel in suburban Chicago to celebrate Shabbat together. They came from 15 cities in the U.S. and Canada to join their counselors and 11 grade friends for a wonderful camp reunion.
Tikvah, a division of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin developed in 1973, provides inclusion opportunities for children with learning, social, and communication difficulties, including those who are higher functioning on the autism spectrum. This camp reunion was a chance to reconnect and continue the learning and growing that happens every summer.
"For most kids, getting together with your camp friends during the winter is expected. But for kids in Tikvah and Atzmayim, it doesn't happen so easily," said Joseph Eskin, a Chicagoland Jewish High School teacher and the Tikvah division head. "A reunion like this one provides an important part of the camp experience-reconnecting with your friends during the year. This Shabbaton builds on the work we do at camp by normalizing the camp experience for kids with special needs."
Taking place over Martin Luther King Day weekend, the program theme, "Let's Dream Again," provided a framework to look at dreams of liberation. Discussions connected the Torah reading from the book of Exodus with the civil rights movement and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Campers and staff members talked about their own personal challenges and dreams for making life more equal for everyone. "Reunion participants felt comfortable with their camp friends talking about the challenges they encounter on a daily basis," Eskin said.
The college-aged counselors were energized by the reunion. "Our entire staff was so proud to see participants take active roles in Shabbat services. It's an amazing sight to see teens and young adults with a variety of social and learning issues connect to Jewish ritual in this supportive and non-judgmental community," said Ralph Schwartz, director of Ramah Wisconsin's Special Needs Programs. "At the Shabbat morning service, a 16-year old boy who never had a bar mitzvah due to his own anxiety agreed at the last minute to take an aliyah (honor) to the Torah. Upon completion of the aliyah, his self-confident smile was visible for miles and we were all so happy for him."
"When you see the kids talking and laughing at meals and participating in study group discussions—as other kids do—you appreciate the necessity and the value of our Tikvah programs," said Dr. Margaret Silberman, Special Needs Program Chair.
Evan, a Tikvah camper who flew in from Florida for the weekend, was asked if he enjoyed the Shabbaton. "I feel so lucky and happy to be here with all my friends," he replied. "My favorite part of the weekend was bowling on Saturday night. I got three strikes! I love this camp and can't wait to come back."
For more information on the Tikvah camper program and Atzmayim vocational program of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, visit www.ramahwisconsin.com or contact Alicia at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (312) 606-9316. ext. 221.
Linda Hoffenberg is director of Institutional Advancement for Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.