Last Wednesday, I headed to family camp with Max for five days. I figured we'd have fun; I had no idea how meaningful our time there would be. It was full of firsts for Max—and the discovery of a whole other kind of holy land.
As a a teen, I was a counselor at two Camp Ramahs in New York and loved it. After I found out that the Ramah in the Poconos had a five-day Tikvah Family Camp for kids with developmental disorders and social learning disorders, I signed us up. (The Ramah Tikvah Network offers family, day and overnight camps at nine locations.)
I recently had the opportunity to deliver a shiur on the topic of inclusion of people with disabilities. As a model for a Torah approach to this issue, I looked at the mitzvot relating to the ger. One of those mitzvot occurs in Parshat Eikev, the mitzvah to love the "ger," or stranger:
Love you therefore the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Devarim, 10:19).
For the past few weeks, most of us have been glued to the news and social media to keep ourselves updated on the war in Israel. Some of us have friends and family in Israel, while others are torn by watching young soldiers go off to war.
As I explored the web looking for information about the war, I came across a press release by the IDF that discusses Special Intelligence Unit 9900. This small unit includes soldiers with autism “who have remarkable visual and analytic capabilities. They can detect even the smallest details, undetectable to most people”.
Since we moved into our house 14 years ago, our next door neighbors have been the Hellers. They were an older, semi-retired couple; we were a younger, just-starting-out couple. Nonetheless, they were there to greet us with hanging plants and gardening advice when we first moved in, to admire our kids as they arrived, one and one and two at a time, and then to introduce their grandchildren as playmates to our brood.
As our eldest son’s autism became more pronounced, the Hellers were models of tolerance and love.
I grew up attending Temple BethEl in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Worship was a group activity. We recited the liturgy together, sometimes in response to the rabbi.
Communal worship binds Jews together. Parts of the liturgy, such as the Kedusha and Kaddish, may be recited only in a minyan, a gathering of ten adult Jews.
For some of us with disabilities, praying with a community is difficult. The synagogue may be inaccessible. Individuals who process verbal and written language differently from the “average congregant” might struggle to find and maintain their place in the prayerbook, keep pace with other worshippers, and switch between Hebrew and English.
Editor's Note: In July, the Ruderman Family Foundation awarded five prizes to agencies across the world that are making the Jewish community into a more inclusive one. The New Normal will profile each of these amazing agencies over the next month. Click here to read last week’s profile.
The goal of the St. Paul JCC’s Inclusion and Accessibility Services Program (IAS) is to provide children, teens and adults with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities the opportunity to be welcomed and fully participate in any and all programs offered by the JCC. The staff work with participants who need extra support and accommodations in numerous programs including: theater, swimming lessons, personal training, fitness programs, adult and youth programs. They have been dedicated to inclusive programming for the last thirty years. The program began in 1984 when parents came together and asked the JCC to create inclusive programming for their children, twelve in total, who had physical and developmental disabilities. One year later, the program doubled to support twenty-four children and has steadily grown in the years since.
Someone asked me recently how I would feel if I didn’t have Tourette Syndrome, if suddenly one day I woke up and it was gone. I’m sure it’s a question that anyone with a disorder, or affliction or disability considers and struggles to honestly answer. It’s become such a part of me, woven itself so intricately into the fabric of my life, that even at its worst, I cannot imagine living without it. It’s become a part of my identity.
I’ve had Tourette Syndrome for 24 years. It’s waxed and waned, gone through the roller coaster of okay to really bad to good and back through again.
Editor's Note: Thanks to our friends at the Foundation for Jewish Camp for coordinating this series of blogs from camp. More voices to come!
We have all heard that Jewish summer camp is one of the most valuable experiences a parent can give their child to ensure a strong Jewish foundation. If you think of it as a construction project, the earth underneath the foundation is the community and together, this community builds the foundation they share. As each child grows into an adult, the shared experience of community-building in a Jewish context continues to strengthen his or her Jewish foundation.
Editor's Note: This month, the Ruderman Family Foundation awarded five prizes to agencies across the world that are making the Jewish community into a more inclusive one. The New Normal will profile each of these amazing agencies over the next month.
JewishCare’s Big Brother Big Sister (BBBS) Program mentors Jewish children and young adults who may be facing challenges and adversity in their lives. Based in Sydney, the program helps these youth, about a third of whom have a disabilitiy, through the ongoing support and friendship of a big brother/sister mentor. JewishCare has developed strong links with local schools, synagogues and community groups to raise awareness about issues facing young people with a disability, and about the importance of their inclusion into mainstream services.
JewishCare staff members speak at local Jewish high schools about the BBBS program, and about how having a positive mentor can make a big difference for all kids, including those with a disability.