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Unforgettable Summer Time Shabbat – An Inclusive Prayer Service

Meredith Polsky

Written by Daniel Olson, 2012 Waterfront Director, Camp Ramah, Wisconsin
This post originally appeared on the Zeh Lezeh Blog

It’s a rainy Friday night in July at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. The Tikvah group, teens in Ramah’s disabilities program, and Atzmayim, a college-age group with disabilities, were leading Friday night services together for the whole camp. What transpired was a prayer experience that no one present would soon forget.

The kehilla (community) grew silent as Ari– a Tikvah camper for four years and an Atzmayim participant for two — stood up to speak about his growth at camp. Ari reflected on the large circle of people who have been part of his life. He spoke of his counselors, the friends he’d made in Tikvah and Atzmayim, and the campers who volunteer each summer as inclusion buddies, spending significant time with Tikvah friends. During the speech, he invited anyone who had ever been a part of this circle to rise. Half of the room rose to its feet. He thanked everyone present for helping to shape the lives of all the campers with disabilities who come to Ramah. Now, everyone in the room was on their feet, applauding, moved by Ari’s powerful words.

But what happened next was even more moving.

Before Tyler — a second-year Atzmayim participant — began the early evening service, he covered his eyes with his prayer shawl and said the proper blessing. Many members of the kehilla may have questioned why he would need to cover his eyes. After all, Tyler is blind.  As leader of the service, though, he knew his responsibilities and his respect for tradition was clear. Tyler is also deaf, and wears two cochlear implants, which allow him to hear. So while Tyler’s tunes may have been unconventional, they were charged by a deep love and appreciation for Jewish ritual. As his index finger flew across the pages of his Braille prayer book, he demonstrated intense and meaningful kavana (focus and religious intention).

Members of the community could not contain their emotion when Tyler finished. Some were sure they felt the shekhina (divine presence) in the room. Others said they had not felt as close to G-d in a long time. One Israeli staff member wants to use Tyler’s praying as an example at home, to show that Jews with disabilities can participate in religious life and take on leadership roles. Indeed, thanks to Tikvah, that Friday night service was one of the most meaningful religious moments those of us in camp had ever experienced.

— Daniel Olson

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