When we speak of inclusion in a spiritual community, the prophet Isaiah’s aspiration that “God’s house shall be a place for all people” is often mentioned. While Isaiah challenges us to be welcoming, it is not always clear how we can create a community where everyone feels seen, respected, included, and loved.
Working towards this goal each and every year, members of the Park Avenue Synagogue education team journeyed this summer to the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah New England for an inclusion site visit. The oldest of the Ramah Tikvah programs, New England’s multifaceted approach to inclusion has bunks for campers with special needs, integrated bunks, and vocational training for older participants.
Our first stop was the mail room to meet participants in the vocational education (voc-ed) program. Truthfully I just expected to see people sorting mail, but there was much more going on there.
Explaining the importance of their work in the mail room, one of the participants asserted, “Every letter you receive when you’re away at camp is an expression of love from someone. We are not just sorting and handing out mail. These letters and packages are really love bundles, and we get to give them out.”
What was most inspiring about Ramah’s voc-ed program is how participants with special needs are thoughtfully placed in key centers of camp life. In addition to the mail room, other hubs with vocational training are the canteen and the bakery. The same pride and spirit we had heard in the mail room were expressed at these other job sites. The bakery’s products were in high demand evidenced by the multiple requests for birthday cakes and treats for Shabbat. It became clear during our visit that the voc-ed program, which includes job coaching and mentoring, gives participants the satisfaction of creating their own “love bundles” that are enjoyed by the entire camp.
While campers with special needs have their own well-designed programs, they interact daily with neurotypical campers in countless aspects of camp life. Ramah is explicitly clear that interaction with campers with special needs is not considered a mitzvah or community service project. Rather time together constitutes an opportunity to make a friend and build a community.
Perhaps the most important model we experienced during our visit was the integrated one, for it wasn’t clear which campers have special needs and which are neurotypical. As we toured the camp there was no way of telling which campers have IEP’s or receive extra attention. Every camper and staff member we saw appeared to be accepted for who they are, embraced as being created “in the image of God.”
We went to Ramah New England because their inclusion model is considered to be one of the best in the field. At the same time, it was important for us to hear from their director how they, too, keep learning every year. With every new challenge, they find opportunities to be an even more inclusive community. This honest message reinforced that inclusion is not an annual program, but rather an ongoing priority.
Jewish tradition teaches us that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred. By contrast, Rav Cook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, once said that if the Temple was destroyed due to irrational hatred, then it can only be rebuilt with ahavat chinam, limitless love.
As the Jewish holidays wind down and the school year commences in earnest, the Tikvah program’s exemplary inclusion practices serve as an inspiration that we can actualize Isaiah’s aspiration. Respect, awareness, patience, and generosity of spirit constitute “love bundles” that can transform our spiritual communities and society as a whole.