Last month, the Tikvah program for campers with disabilities at Camp Ramah in New England took a group of 12 young adults, graduates of the camper program, to Israel for a ten-day trip. This trip was not the first of its kind. In fact, every two years Ramah New England offers a Tikvah Israel trip, with many participants returning to Israel again and again for a chance to visit the Jewish homeland with their close friends from Ramah.
Highlights from the trip included a visit to the Kotel tunnels, taking the cable car down to Rosh Hanikra, and a visit to an army base where Israelis with disabilities serve in the Israel Defense Forces alongside their typical peers. The Tikvah Israel trip provides a unique and personalized Israel experience to a cohort of people who may not otherwise have this opportunity. As the typical campers from the eight overnight Ramah camps across North America graduate the camper program, they have the opportunity to travel to Israel with their camp friends on Ramah Seminar, and we believe that everybody should have that opportunity.
When asked about their favorite part of the Israel trip, many participants said that a highlight was visiting the army base where we met soldiers with disabilities. One participant, Eric, commented that it was nice to see people with disabilities, people “like us,” serving in the army. Other participants loved seeing their friends from Mishlachat, Israelis who had worked at camp in previous summers and developed close relationships with Tikvah participants. As we traveled around the country – from Beit Shemesh to Kibbutz Alumot, from Jerusalem to Gadera – former Mishalchat members opened up their homes and invited our group to join them for a meal. They were so excited to welcome our group to Israel and reconnect with close friends from camp. This show of hospitality truly illustrates the success of inclusion at Ramah, where lifelong friendships are formed regardless of individual difference or ability.
The Tikvah Israel trip is just one part of an array of year round programming for Tikvah participants. Many parents and Tikvah participants alike have commented that their closest friends are their camp friends, and that they struggle to find meaningful connections to Judaism outside of camp. As a result, Ramah New England strives to provide opportunities year round for Tikvah families. In addition to the Israel trip, we have a weekly video conference call, Shabbas is Calling, several regional events, and in March we will have our first ever Tikvah Family Shabbaton, open to both current Tikvah families, and families who have children with disabilities with no previous Ramah connection. We continue to look for new ways to facilitate Jewish connections and relationships for our Tikvah community year-round, and look forward to a day when all people are provided with equal access to opportunities within the Jewish community.
Tali Cohen is the Director of Tikvah Vocational Services for Camp Ramah in New England. She has also worked with Tikvah at Camp Ramah in Canada and Camp Ramah in California. She is a recent graduate of Pitzer College, where she studied International Education, focusing on developmental disabilities in developing countries.