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A Crucial Part of the Whole

Meredith Polsky

Written by Elana Naftalin-Kelman, Camp Ramah in California Tikvah Director and Founder of Rosh Pina

Every Friday night at Camp Ramah in California the most magical thing happens.

Our twelve young adults with special needs in our Ezra vocational program have the time of their lives.oneg shabbat ramah tikvah

Right after dinner, the Ezra staff, their specialist buddies and guests file into the Library for a spirit filled Oneg Shabbat.  The Oneg starts with a raucous rendition of Im Tirtzu, moves into Yibaneh HaMikdash and with many songs in between finishes with a special Shabbat story.  This sounds on paper like any other Oneg Shabbat – but what makes this Oneg special are the people that are there.

Our Ezra staff members are remarkable young adults with disabilities who come to camp to feel a part of the larger Jewish community.  This is their Jewish home.  This is where they feel connected to the generations of people who have come before them while leading the way for generations of people coming after.

Nowhere else in their lives can they lead an entire room of peers in song; nowhere else in their lives do they laugh with such emotion as they chant Boom-Chicka-Boom; nowhere else in their lives do they celebrate Shabbat with such unbridled joy.

Camp Ramah in California is the one of the few places in our Jewish community where inclusion of people with disabilities is done right.  From kids aged 10 years old to young adults, all are considered valued and important members of our community.  Our campers in the Amitzim edah and the staff in our Ezra program love being at camp.  They push themselves to try new things, make new friends and take in the delight of Jewish summer camp.  But more than that, their presence at camp pushes the rest of us to be more inclusive and think deeper about what it means to be a whole community.  And without them we wouldn’t be whole.

The larger Jewish community could learn a lot from spending some time at Camp Ramah – to see true inclusion at its best and how it pushes everyone to be better.

And at the Oneg on Friday nights you can see the joy this brings to them and the joy that they bring to us.

Elana Naftalin-Kelman is the Tikvah Director of programs for children with special needs at Camp Ramah in California and the Founding Director of Rosh Pina.  At Camp Ramah she helped start the vocational education program for young adults with special needs and started the Ohr Lanu camp for families that have children with special needs.   She received her MSW from Columbia University and her Masters in Special Education at Bank Street College in New York City.  Elana has helped to create multiple models for supporting different types of learners in varied Jewish Educational settings, including at multiple Synagogue schools in the Los Angeles area.  Elana is the Ruderman Fellow of The Joshua Venture Group. Elana lives in Berkeley, California with her husband Adam and their three boys, Yair, Nevo and Etai.

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