When I was younger, I remember anxiously awaiting the few weekends each year that I got to spend with my camp friends. Since my camp friends lived across the Midwest, Northeast, and Canada, these weekends were special and helped me make it through the long 10 months between my summers as a camper at Camp Ramah in Canada. To this day, my camp friends continue to be lifelong friends with whom I will always share the special bond of sleepaway camp. As a staff member I have a new perspective on the importance of summer camp friendships through the eyes of my campers, participants in the Tikvah program for teens and young adults with disabilities at Camp Ramah.
Last week, campers, staff, and parents from the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England joined together with college students from LIST, Columbia and Barnard to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish Disability Awareness Month. As the room filled with the familiar melodies of Kabbalat Shabbat, I looked around at the faces of Tikvah campers thrilled to be united with their friends from camp, thrilled to be in an inclusive Jewish environment.
At the end of our Shabbat services, organized by KOACH, the Columbia/Barnard Conservative, egalitarian Jewish student group, Tiki Lipton stood up to speak. Tiki is a 25-year-old participant in Camp Ramah New England’s vocational program for young adults with disabilities and has been a camper at Ramah for many summers. The theme of Tiki’s talk was “Tikkun Olam,” repairing the world. Tiki wishes to share her experiences as a teen with a disability in the hopes of inspiring social change that will benefit future teens with disabilities. Tiki shared with the group her experiences as a high school student in a segregated setting and provided suggestions on how to reach out to teens with disabilities to establish and build relationships. Her sentiment is summed up in the following comment. “I think inclusion is a very important keyword. I think everyone should be included whether you have a disability or not. I am proud of who I am! Everyone should spread the word.”
Tiki is an extremely friendly and social young woman who craves relationships with peers. Camp is a place where Tiki leans a lot about developing strong friendships with peers and these relationships are extremely important to her. She is an avid user of social media and connects with camp friends on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to keep in touch in the off-season. At Camp Ramah in New England we work hard to help our campers – many of whom struggle to maintain appropriate peer relationships – stay in touch in the off-season. We organize annual reunion events in Maryland, New York and Boston and run a weekly group video chat, “Shabbos is Calling,” where campers and staff catch up, sing songs, discuss holidays and other current events and share news of important life milestones.
We hear from so many of our campers’ parents that camp is the only place where their children feel fully included in the Jewish community, with strong connections to Jewish peers. While it is wonderful that they are able to find this at camp, we are committed to expanding these opportunities into the off-season and hope that one day camp will be just one of the many places where our campers find meaningful friendships and connections to a vibrant, inclusive Jewish community.
Tali Cohen is the Director of Tikvah Vocational Services for Camp Ramah in New England. She has also worked with Tikvah at Camp Ramah in Canada and Camp Ramah in California. She is a recent graduate of Pitzer College, where she studied International Education, focusing on developmental disabilities in developing countries.