Fueled with a grant from two elderly philanthropic sisters, Ramah in the Poconos aims to integrate special needs campers into its regular sessions.
Every August, after the kids and most of the staff at Camp Ramah in the Poconos have headed home, a new group of children with special needs arrives to have their own Jewish camp experience.
Those involved with the Tikvah Family Camp talk about how much they cherish that week at the end of summer. But, Ramah leaders wondered, would the children gain more from a program integrated into the regular camp session?
They are hoping to find out soon. The camp, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, recently received a $250,000 grant from two elderly sisters to build additional cabins and other infrastructure needed to serve up to 25 campers with special needs. The camp is still seeking an additional $150,000 to be able to turn Tikvah into an integrated program that would open either in 2015 or 2016, said Joel Seltzer, the camp director.
“It really presents an inclusive camp where kids with special needs are living alongside typical kids and are participating in the programming and part of the fabric of the community and spending the summer together,” said Seltzer.
Other Ramah camps around the country — including ones in New England, Wisconsin and California — already operate integrated special needs programs. There are also a few Jewish camps associated with the New Jersey YMHA-YWHA camps that serve children from this area with disabilities. These include Camp Shoshanim, an Orthodox camp for girls, and Camp Nesher, an Orthodox camp for boys and girls, where children with special needs have separate bunks and specially trained staff, but also participate in all the usual activities. Round Lake Camp in Milford, Pa., another YMHA-YWHA camp, is geared for children with social communication disorders such as autism who also participate in activities with children at nearby camps.
At the Tikvah program Ramah has run for the last five years, Seltzer said, the staff works to “recreate the camp experience” with activities specifically for campers with special needs, for their siblings and for their parents. Families stay in a cabin together and the special needs campers have a one-to-one counselor ratio.
Seltzer said the camp is establishing a special committee to determine what levels of special needs could be accommodated in the new program.
Lisa Tobin, director of disabilities initiatives at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said there are specific benefits of integrating special needs children.
Such programs allow children to receive “the full joyous experience of a Jewish camp and gain independence and skills and experience Jewish living with their Jewish peers,” Tobin said. “They are having that experience without their families and, in doing so, also giving families a respite.”
The donors behind the Tikvah expansion, sisters Ruth Davidoff and Toby Susskind of Palm Beach, Fla., knew the Seltzer family when Davidoff used to live in the same Philadelphia neighborhood.
“We are elderly women,” said Susskind, 91. “And this is the time to share whatever we have with a worthy cause.”