Ramahs special-needs campers learn living, job skills

"It's really a tribute to the Jewish ethos that pervades Camp Ramah that children with special needs are included in the basketball games," said Ken Cohen, a Pleasant Hill resident whose 18-year-old daughter, Alexandra, has attended Ramah in Ojai for the last several years.

"The kids understand that if they want to win the basketball game, then Ali probably isn't the best person to pass the ball to — but they do it anyway, even if the best shooter on the team has an open look at the basket from a few feet away.

"I'm not in the habit of wearing rose-colored glasses, and I'm sure there are some jerks at Ramah, but [the camp] has really developed a wonderful program for kids with special needs. Even if all Ali does is shoot airballs, she still feels accepted and is part of a team."

According to Cohen, who is the president of Lehrhaus Judaica, the Conservative Jewish summer camp is making great strides in other arenas as well. For example, a pilot program called Ezra allows campers with specialized needs to develop both vocational and independent-living skills. The 2-year-old program is under the auspices of Ramah's Tikvah ("hope" in Hebrew) program, which has assisted special-needs campers from ages 11 to 18 for the past 20 years. Graduates of the Tikvah program are then eligible to enter the Ezra program.

Funding for the Ezra program comes from the Jewish Community Endowment Kohn Fund, which provided a $10,000 start-up grant last year. Need-based scholarships are also provided through grants from the JCEF Newhouse Fund and the Albert and Janet Schultz Supporting Foundation.

Phyllis Cook, executive director of the JCEF, said "the Endowment Fund exists as an agent for change," and special education is a particularly important area.

The Ezra program began last year with four participants. This summer, there will be six participants. This year's theme is, preserving the Sabbath. In addition to Alexandra Cohen, another participant in last year's program, Adam Bien of Novato, will also be returning.

"Camp Ramah was and is the Jewish education for my son," said Anne Zishka, Bien's mother.

"Adam was completely delighted with the program," said Zishka. "He sees himself as a very capable young man, and it gave him a huge sense of pride and responsibility to work with the staff and use the staff lounge."

Bien, now 21, who has developmental delays, also celebrated a bar mitzvah in a ceremony that "didn't leave a dry eye in the house," Zishka said.

"That was unfortunately the extent of Adam's Jewish education, because synagogue life is very intellectual and academic-based. So, if you're not on the same page as everyone else, you're left behind. But in Camp Ramah, Adam was welcomed into the fold, and was part of the Jewish community. He feels like there's a place for him there."

According to Tara Reisbaum, Tikvah's director, the Ezra program was formed because special-needs campers who graduated from camper status at age 18 wanted to remain involved with Ramah.

"Teens with special needs are really at a disadvantage once their schooling ends because their job skills are not really well-honed," Reisbaum said. "Very often they end up getting placed in department stores and working all by themselves. It can be a very isolating and depressing experience, and many children are forced into sedentary lives where watching TV becomes their only outlet."

Participants in the Ezra program work at a variety of jobs, ranging from filling out medical charts to sorting mail. This past summer, several of the campers created "Café Ezra," where they prepared a variety of snacks for camp staffers.

Perhaps the ultimate reward for these campers and their parents is that the progress occurs in a Jewish context.

"Forming relationships with the 'mainstream' world and kids can be heartbreaking and frustrating," said Cohen. "What Camp Ramah is doing will hopefully set a great precedent."