כ׳ בשבט ה׳תשע״ז (February 16, 2017) Reflections on Seminar Inclusion, Summer 2016
By: Rabbi Ed Snitkoff
There was another week to go on the program, and most were excited to travel back home, yet sad to see Ramah Israel Seminar come to an end. It was a time of reflection for everyone, including participants and the staff. One very hot afternoon, two Ramah Seminar participants, Tamar* and Abby*, asked to speak with me during our stay at Kibbutz Mashabei Sade in the Negev. We found a corner in the shade (a very important element in surviving the desert heat!) and we sat down to talk.
Abby began, “Rabbi Ed, we really wanted to speak with you a month ago about a really big issue when the program began, but we were embarrassed. Now both of us wanted to come and apologize to you for even wanting to complain then, and to tell you how glad we are that we did not.”
I had no idea what she was talking about, but I soon understood.
Tamar continued, “We were both roomed with Adina*, and we were very upset about it. After all, this is our summer, a time for ourselves. We did not understand why we were burdened with someone with special needs in our room.” Abby added, “But we decided to wait a week and see what happened.”
I knew who they were speaking about: Adina was a Tikvah camper from one of our camps who took part on Seminar as part of our inclusion program. Adina was not communicative in a typical sense, and people who engaged with her had to work hard to connect. Very hard.
Abby and Tamar opened their hearts to thank me and Ramah for giving them the opportunity to make someone with disabilities an intimate part of their lives. The reason they “waited it out” and did not complain that first week was because they both understood they were being handed a life-changing opportunity. They
asked to remain with Adina as their roommate for the rest of the summer.
Tamar and Abby told me that they learned about different levels of human communication and connection, love, compassion, and friendship. They also told me that we must continue to include people with disabilities in Ramah and in Seminar. “We gained much more than we gave Adina– much much more!” As a result of the summer, both expressed interest in a career working in special education.
There was a time when only neurotypical teenagers could take part in Ramah Israel Seminar. That has changed radically, as more and more of our community has come to understand that a community means EVERYONE. Ramah Israel Seminar is committed to the inclusion of all Ramah campers, regardless of individual challenges.
Over the years we have included children with various physical, intellectual, and emotional challenges by ensuring proper, individualized support. This is done by connecting, over the school year, with the individuals, their families, and their home camps. Our staff of professionals, working together with Howard Blas, the director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network, has successfully included children with autism, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, and visual and hearing impairments. What an amazing blessing this has been for Seminar participants as well as the program!
I will never forget a unique tour I participated in, guided by a Seminar participant. The participant is blind, and he guided us through an “all senses” park at Kibbutz Lavi, designed for people who are blind.
Everyone wore blindfolds, and Yoni* took us through the park, explaining the different stations from his point of view. We explored touch, smell, sound, and other ways to “see.” Every participant in the group now had a new, different understanding of the word “blind.”
Every year, we conclude our first week of Seminar (in the Galilee) in a place called LOTEM. There is no better place to wrap up our first Seminar theme, “Community.” LOTEM strives to make nature accessible for everyone. They work with people with hearing impairments, intellectual disabilities, vision impairments, behavioral disabilities, physical disabilities, and other special needs. LOTEM is the only fully accessible nature hike in Israel, along Nahal Shofet. There are multiple stations such as an olive press, perfume workshop, pita ovens, a gigantic water wheel and pump for irrigation, and the only accessible wine press in the world. Our participants took part in the various programs, under the supervision of fellow participants with disabilities, and concluded the day with a discussion about community and the importance of inclusion of ALL.
We are committed to inclusion at Ramah and Seminar and look forward to another summer of inclusion!
*Names changed to protect privacy