Moshe: Succeeding with a Disability By Rabbi Ed Gelb, Director

Moshe Rabbeinu was called by God to be His Prophet and to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  Moshe was afraid he was not up to the task.  This is what he said to God:

But Moshe said to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”  And the Lord said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind?  Is it not I, the Lord?  Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.”  But he said, “Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent.”  The Lord became angry with Moshe, and He said, “there is your brother Aaron the Levite.  He, I know, speaks readily.  Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you.  You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth—I will be with you and with him as you speak, and tell both of you what to do—and he shall speak for you to the people.  Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him, and take with you this rod, with which you shall perform the signs.”

In the late 1960’s, Jewish pioneers named Herb and Barbara Greenberg wanted to create a Jewish camping experience within a typical camp setting for children with disabilities.  They had pitched the idea to many camps to no avail.  Eventually, they came to the Ramah movement.  Again, there was great resistance.  There was worry that the high standards of Jewish education and Hebrew language would have to be lowered to accommodate these children.  There was also worry that parents of typically-developing children would not want their children to be in the same camp as children with special needs.  And, of course, the financial cost would be significant.

Every Ramah camp turned down this initiative except for Camp Ramah in New England.  The director, Donny Adelman, believed that it was our duty to find a place for every Jew who wanted to attend a Jewish summer camp and that we could find a way to accommodate the needs of all children while still maintaining a high-level Jewish educational summer camp.  He also noted, “If we don’t take this on, why should Ramah even exist in the first place.”  Thus, the Tikvah program was born.

My involvement with Ramah began in the summer of 1988 at Ramah California as a counselor.  By that time, California had implemented a Tikvah program as well.  Since the program was established, and I knew no better, I thought it was just a regular part of camp.  In fact, in my second session as a counselor, I was told that they were trying something new and that two Tikvah campers were going to be living in my bunk.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the first attempt at inclusion of this nature.  I don’t remember receiving any special training.  I was supposed to be a good counselor and I was supposed to figure it out.  I have memories of some very tough social situations as we struggled to integrate these campers into our bunk.  Finally, about halfway through the session we decided at Harga’ah (our bedtime activity as a bunk), we would have the two boys talk about their disabilities (with their permission).  An amazing thing happened.  Once the other campers understood the disabilities of these boys, they began to share their own challenges.  One told of dealing with ADD and another explained how he had to overcome depression.  Many tears were shed and many hugs exchanged.  From that point forward, although not perfect, we observed a real change in the bunk dynamics.

A couple of years later I joined Rabbi Mitch Cohen as a division head at Camp Ramah in Canada.  I had met him in California and followed him on this new adventure.  After his first year as director, he established Ramah Canada’s Tikvah program.  I remember him telling me about the parent phone calls he received in protest of the program.  People were not against kids with disabilities of course, they just didn’t feel it was right to have them at camp.  It took exactly one year of the program’s existence for that attitude to change.  After one summer people realized how having children with disabilities at camp changed the culture for the better.  It was not a cure all, but the whole camp became more accepting of each other and a little more patient with each others’ differences.

In 2005 I became the director of Camp Ramah in New England and inherited a great legacy of serving a population that included individuals with disabilities.  I have worked with the director of the Tikvah program, Howard Blas, to keep extending the circle of those we can include in our camp community.

When I arrived in Palmer, we were just piloting an inclusion program where children with disabilities were going to live in typical bunks.  The first year of the program had not gone well.  One of the two campers had to leave early due to social behavior that was deemed inappropriate.  We were getting phone calls from parents saying, “We love the Tikvah program where children live in their own bunks, but to mix them into typical bunks just won’t work.”  There was pressure to cancel the program.  We worked hard, adjusted how we selected and trained our counselors, and we had much greater success the second year.  

We continue to learn and grow to be able to accommodate a wider range of need in our community.  Two quick stories.  On our board was a woman whose son used a wheelchair.  He had gone to another Ramah camp but had to battle every year to be accepted.  Imagine, fighting to have your child included.  He was able to attend that camp for a few summers and a large number of his bunkmates wrote their college essays on the experience of having him live with them.  Sadly, at that time, Ramah programs in Israel were not able to accommodate him and he could not participate in the Ramah trip to Israel.

This board member challenged us to make camp accessible and helped us to retrofit portions of our facility to enable us to include children with physical disabilities.  For the first time, we were able to accommodate a young man with Cerebral Palsy who used a wheelchair, and he was the first camper with this type of disability to complete our entire program through our leadership program.  With great cooperation from National Ramah and Ramah Programs Israel, he was able to spend time in Israel with his camp friends on the Israel Seminar trip.  What had seemed impossible suddenly became possible.

Opening the door to new possibilities isn’t limited to campers.  The vast majority of our typical campers grow up dreaming of being on staff at Camp Ramah.  While our Tikvah program includes a vocational program where we teach life and job skills to participants 18 years and up, we had never officially hired any staff with disabilities.  Then a parent challenged us to find a way to have children with disabilities fulfill the same dream and hire them on staff.  With support, we now hire adults with disabilities to work on staff.  They work side by side with typical staff members, running our guest house, working in the kitchen, in the Gan, and on sports staff. 

Recently, we hired a young man who could not attend camp as a camper.  We didn’t have the inclusion program at that time.  His siblings all went to Ramah, but he could not.  His mother told me after this summer that he told her that he was okay with not going to the same day school as his siblings, and not having all the same experiences his siblings had, but not having the chance to go to Ramah really bothered him.  He was so proud that now he worked at the camp and finally had that experience.  Let me tell you, the job he did this summer was spectacular.  He made a real difference in a camper’s life and we have invited him to return on staff next summer.

We need to do more.  At Camp Ramah, we continue to grow and develop our programs to meet the needs of more Jewish youth.  And we are working hard to raise the funding needed to build a new dining hall that will allow us to provide great job training to our campers and staff that will help them in finding productive work in their lives. 

We also need to do more outside of camp.  Look around.  Children and adults with disabilities are not adequately represented in our synagogues and schools.  There are great efforts to be sure – like Gateways, an organization that provides access to Jewish education for children with disabilities in the Boston area.  Sadly, we lost a wonderful example of inclusion when KSA (Kehillah Schechter Academy, a Jewish Day School located in Norwood MA) had to shut its doors.  However, I am also talking about jobs.  Real jobs.  Adults with disabilities are at a great risk of poverty.  There are simply not enough people willing to hire.

Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest prophet, had a disability.  He stuttered and stammered.  In spite of this perceived weakness, God chose him for an incredibly important job.  God was Moshe’s job coach and his brother Aaron was his job accommodation.  Aaron spoke for Moshe.  Without this accommodation, our greatest prophet would have been silenced.  What a terrible loss that would have been for humanity.  There are so many people with disabilities who are incredibly capable of making an important contribution in the workplace and to society.  In this New Year, let us challenge ourselves and each other to be as inclusive as possible, to challenge our own pre-conceived notions, and welcome everyone into our homes, our institutions, our places of employment, and our communities.