Jewish memories are made of this: sneaking out with my bunkmates for a thrilling nighttime swim. Israeli dancing on the lawn in the sunshine before lunch. Singing the birkat hamazon with gusto after dinner, concocting elaborately goofy skits for the talent show, playing friendly pickup games of GaGa, and sending a “Secret Shabbat-O-Gram” to my crush in Tent Gimel. Much more than the hours spent in synagogue or in religious school, I can directly trace my continued connection to Judaism to the unforgettable summers I spent at Camp Ramah in California. As it turns out, Ramah would play an even more crucial role for my son Nathan, who was born 14 years ago with Down syndrome.
Like many parents of children with disabilities, we have long struggled with keeping Nathan connected to our Jewish community. He enrolled in religious school a few times over the years, but it was never very successful. Following the Hebrew lessons was challenging, especially as he was still struggling to read and write English. When he tried to join groups of kids on the playground, they told him to stop following them around. Another year, his class spent months developing a Purim play to be performed for the whole congregation–finally an activity Nathan, an exuberant, natural-born entertainer, could excel in! I waited eagerly in the audience all evening only to discover that his sole role was to silently hold up an “applause” sign at the end–the only work-around his teacher could think of for his perceived inability to memorize lines from a script like the other kids. Reluctantly, we had to conclude that Nathan wasn’t getting much out of the experience, and we stopped sending him.
By the time we attended Ramah California’s five-day special needs family camp, Ohr Lanu, there was an ever-widening gap between Nathan’s Jewish identity and that of his younger brother and sister, day school attendees who are daily immersed in Jewish language, culture, and ritual. I hoped that Ohr Lanu would connect me with other parents who had similar struggles, and I looked forward to showing my family the summer camp that had so many special memories for me. What I didn’t expect was that, in an environment where Nathan’s differences and unique strengths were not only accepted but also embraced and celebrated, his connection to Judaism would immediately start to blossom.
From the very first mincha service we attended an hour after arriving, Nathan was expected to fully participate–not in a token role, but as an integral part of the service. He beamed proudly as he carried the Torah and helped lead the shema. A few days later he was passing the spice box around the Havdalah circle and learning to put on tefillin. The prayer services, enhanced by the full and enthusiastic participation of campers with disabilities, were infused with a joy and ruach (spirit) the likes of which I have rarely experienced.
While Nathan enjoyed the services well enough, he took sheer, absolute delight in the purely fun aspects of camp: racing down the double waterslide with his new friends, scaling new heights on the ropes course, playing hours of basketball, ambushing his sister in a fierce shaving cream war, and bringing down the house with his spirited interpretation of “Gangnam Style” at the talent show. He even wrote his first love note (not a Secret Shabbat-O-Gram, but close!) to a cute counselor.
A few days at Ohr Lanu gave Nathan what he never had before–a Jewish experience filled with adventure, acceptance, friendship, and above all, true, meaningful inclusion and a lifetime of special memories.
This post is part of a three-part series sponsored by the Ramah Camping Movement. The National Ramah Tikvah Network of programs serves children, teens, and young adults with disabilities. All eight North American Ramah overnight camps offer programming for campers with disabilities. Learn more about Camp Ohr Lanu on Facebook or download the camp brochure.