Program Spotlight: Camp Ramah in Nyack

Written by Benay & Steve Josselson

We are the proud parents of a kind, lovable, curious and intelligent five year-old with a diagnosis of PDD NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified).  We both attended Camp Ramah, and we wanted our son, who already shows a love of and thirst for Judaism, to enjoy the same experiences we had.

We did not know what to expect when we first approached Camp Ramah in Nyack to discuss our son.  Having attended the same preschools and day camp for the past 2 years, no one could predict how he would react to the new environment and experiences offered by Ramah.  We were nervous to open a dialogue, but knew that being honest – even when we did not have the answers – was the only way to begin a productive relationship with the staff at Ramah.

Starting with our initial conversation with the camp director in January and subsequent conversations with the camp psychologist, Rosh Edah (division head) and madrichim (counselors), we have experienced nothing but support, collaboration and a commitment to make this summer a successful one for our son.  When on the second day of camp we received a call that our son needed extra support, the director generously assigned him a shadow. Over the next few weeks — with support from Matan and under the leadership of the committed Rosh Edah, shadow, and an amazing group of madrichim (counselors) who were eager to learn how to include and support him – we worked together to help our son adjust to camp.

And he has flourished!  Our son just finished the first session of camp.  With everyone at camp showing great flexibility in their efforts towards inclusion, the shadow pulled back gradually as he acclimated to the camp environment; he is starting the second session in his bunk without support.  Over the past few weeks, we have observed tremendous growth from our son in the areas of communication, articulation of feelings, overcoming anxiety and trying new activities.  Although we know that every day presents ups and downs, and there have been some challenges, our son comes home from camp with a huge smile on his face and lots of stories about the fun he is having.

We were moved beyond words by our son’s participation in Zimriyah (camp-wide music festival).  He has never participated in anything like that before, no matter how excited he has been, sitting in the audience even as recently as his pre-k graduation.  This was not for lack of trying on our part, or that of his loving teachers.  To see and hear him sing in the Zimriyah is really a testament to the wonderful, hard-working, caring and patient Rosh Edah and madrichim, and the environment they have created for him at camp under the leadership of the director.

From the bottom of our hearts, we commend and thank everyone in the Ramah Nyack community for being our partner in making this summer a success.


Program Spotlight: Temple Beth Or

Written by Irene Bolton, Education Director, Temple Beth Or, Township of Washington, NJ Cohort 1 Participant, Matan Institute for Congregational School Education Directors

Something special happened in our school. I had been thinking a lot about finding a way to tie this year’s school theme of Sensitivity to Disability to Pesach in some exciting and creative manner.  I was reminded that Cantor Hayut had met a woman from FL at the URJ Biennial (which we attended in December) who had offered to have her son speak here at TBO.  Her son was a young man of 14 named Sam. He was speaking at the Biennial before almost 1,000 people about what it is like to be living with Asperger’s Syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder) . Talk about Jewish geography—the woman at Biennial outside of Washington DC, lived in FL, and was the sister of one of our congregants!  In just a few phone calls the visit was arranged.  And even more impressive was that the date we set for the program was the day before World Autism Awareness Day.

So, you might be thinking, how will there be a connection to Pesach?  After talking to Sam’s mother, the program became clear in my mind.  Passover is a time to realize how important stories really are to us as a people and to each of us individually.  Haggadah literally means “telling”. Mitzrayim is the Hebrew word for Egypt.  Mitzrayim translates as “narrow place”.

Sam would tell his story about moving from a narrow place to a place to where he could experience the freedom to be more “typical” as he calls it.  He could share about the narrow places he had experienced in his own life and tell of the freedom he found by overcoming his fears and believing in himself. Isn’t that the message we want our students to learn not only about Pesach, but also about life?

As part of the introduction to Sam’s presentation, I asked students to recall the many programs we had this year to help us increase our sensitivity to those with disabilities and reminded our students that we must see everyone as created in the image of God.  We discussed the themes of identity, exodus and freedom as it relates to Pesach, and I asked the students to listen to see if they could find a connection between Sam’s story and the story of the holiday we were soon to celebrate.

After Sam spoke, our Cantor wrote a note to Sam’s mom who was ill and could not be present for the program. “Sam really moved, touched, inspired and taught us.  He is a real treasure who teaches from his heart, and what he teaches is nothing short of incredible.  Our junior choir kids thought that Sam was the coolest person they ever met.”

After a short question and answer period, the students were divided into groups to continue the program and to participate in special activities. I would like to tell you about our 5th and 6th grade combined session.  I asked these students if they were too old for a good story. They were eager to hear the one I was about to read –  Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim by Deborah Bodin Cohen (a new book published by Kar-Ben) – the theme of which is that freedom is facing your fears and overcoming them. Midrash teaches that Nachshon was the first to enter the water as the sea parted so that the Israelites could cross to freedom. Who said older students are too old for picture books – as long as you make the conversation appropriate!

Sam sat with us and participated in the discussion as we compared and contrasted events in the story to his own life. Students were able to relate Pharoah’s actions to the bullying that Sam described and the Exodus from Egypt to the personal journey that Sam had so wonderfully articulated. They continued to ask many questions. What should the four questions of this program be, I asked several students?

The students were then instructed to get paper and art supplies to illustrate Passover’s theme of freedom, a part of Sam’s story that resonated with them personally, a personal fear they would like to overcome and/or fears the Israelite slaves may have had as they left Egypt.  I was surprised to see that so many of our students chose to represent their own fears with beautiful illustrations and words.  Many actually wrote, “Freedom is overcoming your fears.”

The morning was an amazing one for all of us! We were blessed to have been able to have Sam offer us the wisdom of his experiences at this special time of year. Everyone should have the good fortune to learn and grow from Sam’s incredible courage and strength, insights and abilities.

In telling his story and advocating for Autism acceptance, Sam reminded us that we all have the opportunity to think about freedom in a new light. May we all work to help the world understand that differences should be celebrated. Together we can make the world a better place – a place of peace and freedom.

Kol Hanshama: Every Soul Reaches towards God in Its Own Way

Experts in advocacy and service to people with disabilities engaged rabbinical, cantorial, education, and Doctor of Ministry students as well as alumni during a unique day of learning at the New York School devoted to exploring the responsibility and role of Jewish leaders and institutions in creating communities of inclusion and welcome.  The Yom Iyyun on February 28 was organized by HUC-JIR in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism, and included leaders from a broad range organizations and agencies offering assistance to disabled individuals.  The event marked the 4th annual Jewish Disability Month of February.

“Based on the success of last year’s Yom Iyyun on Special Needs for the MARE program at the New York School of Education (NYSOE), it was clear that this subject needed at be brought to the entire student and alumni community,” explained Professor Jo Kay, NYSOE Director. Her  planning committee included rabbinical student Joshua Beraha, cantorial student Faryn Kates and education student Amanda Farb, and leaders in the field – Rabbi Edythe Mencher, the URJ’s Specialist on Caring Communities and Family Concerns, Dori Frumin Kirschner, the Executive Director of MATAN (dedicated to ensuring that all Jewish children have a rich and meaningful education), Lisa Friedman, Co-Chair of the URJ’s Committee on Access to Jewish Education, and Rabbi Nancy Wiener, Director of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR/New York. “The result was a magical “day of learning,” which has inspired us to continue to build our own commitment to ongoing study and advocacy in addressing the needs of people with Special Needs.” (Read more…)

Program Spotlight on Celebrations!

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Exponent, February 22, 2012

Special Place For Special Needs
Written by Deborah Hirsch

Once a month, Nadine Silber, her husband and two little boys drive all the way from their Bucks County home in Bristol Borough for Saturday morning services at Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia.

The draw: Celebrations! — an educational workshop tailored for children with disabilities and their families.

There are closer synagogues, Silber said, but none of them has programs suitable for their sons — Aaron, 4, and Ethan, 6 — who are both on the autism spectrum. They do whatever Jewish things they can at home, like lighting Shabbat candles, “but it’s a little bit lonely when you don’t have a community to share it with. (Read more…)