Thursday, August 9, 2012 | return to: views, opinions


Special-needs kids should be welcomed into Jewish tent

by jennifer gorovitz

Follow j. on   and 

In this time of catchy slogans like “no child left behind,” inclusiveness can seem almost passé. And yet, as recent events show, within the Jewish community a critical need remains to help Jewish organizations include and embrace children with special needs and their families. 

As the main organization focused on ensuring a healthy Jewish community across all sectors of our diverse population, the San Francisco Jewish Federation has made reducing barriers to Jewish life one of our top priorities.

The controversy this summer around Camp Ramah in Canada, in which a blind boy was told the program could not accommodate his needs, is a poignant example of how much work lies ahead. Our community must continue to develop initiatives to ensure that all individuals and families are welcomed and that Jewish communal organizations have the knowledge, sensitivity and tools to meet varying needs.

Vgorovitz_with_nameThe reasons are compelling. Research indicates that nearly 20 percent of the population has some type of disability or special need. This means there are 9,000 Jewish children with special needs or disabilities in our federation’s service area who are at risk of exclusion from specific activities at best, or life-long alienation from the Jewish community at worst. Many of our organizations are doing great work in this arena, but we still have so much more to do.

Attending Jewish summer camp, day school and synagogue religious school plays a key role in forming a strong Jewish identity for our children. When those initial introductions don’t go well, it can be jarring.

Such was the case with my daughter, who has given me permission to share her story. Many years ago, our synagogue’s religious school did not have the resources or the will (things have since changed) to address the needs of an anxious child with dyslexia and ADHD. Her experience was miserable. We had to pull her out of school, with no guidance as to how we could teach her Hebrew and help her feel at home in a synagogue so she could make her bat mitzvah like other Jewish children. Thankfully, we found help through Jewish Milestones, and today my daughter reads Hebrew fluently – and not only became a bat mitzvah but also chants Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur. Our synagogue now feels like a second home.

I am heartened by similar transformative stories, but am still greatly pained by the thousands of children who remain excluded from Jewish life because they require more support, flexibility and resources than many of our organizations can provide.

A child has fun in a Friendship Circle classroom.   photo/courtesy of
A child has fun in a Friendship Circle classroom. photo/courtesy of
Our traditions compel us to ensure these 9,000 children have an opportunity to experience the richness of Jewish life and develop cherished memories. If we are to live up to our Jewish values, and ensure the continuity of the Jewish community in a way that reflects our true diversity, we must expand options for all children. The federation’s goal is to ensure that all local Jewish organizations are willing and able to accommodate children with special needs and their families.  Here are some of the ways we have begun to make a difference with our funding partners and dedicated collaborators:

• Providing financial support: The federation provides over $40,000 in grants to programs like Friendship Circle (South Peninsula) and Celebrations, which provide accessible Jewish learning and worship experiences (see story, 6). Additional funding to the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) supports the director of Special Needs Programs and Services, Dr. David Neufeld.

• Building capacity: We support the BJE and others to build the capacity of synagogues, day schools, and camps through professional development programs, adaptive curricula, and a tool kit designed for special needs learners.

• Fostering dialogue: We promote open and meaningful dialogue through ongoing events. These have included a full-day workshop for parents, educators and community members. In May, more than 80 educators convened to discuss early childhood programs, and the imperative to welcome and nurture children with special needs. The next event will take place this winter.

Camp Ramah is a well-respected institution, but sending home a visually impaired child demonstrated a lack of shared understanding and expectations among the family, camper and camp leadership, as well as a lack of awareness of what that represents to other families with special needs. We at the federation want Jewish families to feel welcome and connected, which is why we will do everything we can to reduce barriers to Jewish life, to convene and collaborate with a diverse community of stakeholders, and to fund programs and organizations that are working to create the type of inclusive community that our families deserve.


Jennifer Gorovitz is the CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, and Marin and Sonoma counties.


Posted by Mitch Cohen
08/13/2012  at  07:41 AM
National Ramah Director

Jennifer, as national director of the Ramah camping movement, I appreciate and echo your message that camps and other Jewish institutions must to strive to be ever more inclusive of people with disabilities. I am particularly proud of the Tikvah programs, which serve children, teens and young adults in all eight of our overnight camps, touching the lives of over 250 young people with exceptionalities. Equally significant is the positive impact their presence in our camps has on the 9,000 staff and campers in all our programs, who often cite Ramah as the first and only place they encountered peers with disabilities.

However, I must take exception to your reference to an incident this summer at Camp Ramah in Canada. Out of privacy concerns, Camp Ramah is unable to comment publicly on individual campers, but I can assure you that your characterization contains inaccuracies. I fear that it may contribute to the online negativity that has been so hurtful especially to those staff members, camp directors and lay volunteers who work so hard to ensure that Camp Ramah in Canada, and all Ramah camps, continue to be leaders in inclusion of children with special needs.

Let’s work together to further the wonderful goals you set out. But please be sensitive to the inaccuracies that often are accepted as fact over the internet, and the speed with which these inaccuracies can harm the very institutions and the very goals you support.

Many thanks for your understanding.

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen
Director, National Ramah Commission, Inc.

Login to reply to this comment or post your own
Posted by Tom FIelds-Meyer
08/13/2012  at  08:41 AM
Inclusion and Ramah

Thanks for this powerful argument for increasing efforts to include Jewish children with disabilities in all of our communities. As the father of a 16-year-old with autism, I have experienced many times the difference between Jewish institutions striving to be inclusive, and those that simply don’t make it a priority.

That said, I must echo Rabbi Cohen’s comment about Camp Ramah. It’s ironic that you mistakenly cite Ramah as the problem, when in all of my family’s experience the Ramah camps are the Jewish community’s greatest examples of making inclusion work. Our son does not attend a “special needs” camp. At Camp Ramah in California, he is integrated each summer into a community where he is appreciated and embraced,  where his challenges are accommodated and his strengths and valued. It’s the one place where his typical peers meet kids like him and consider them integral to the community.

When we include people with disabilities, we shouldn’t see it as doing someone else a favor, but rather enriching ourselves and our communities—adding texture and depth and connection. I haven’t seen that done anywhere better than at Ramah.

Tom Fields-Meyer
author of “Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love from His Extraordinary Son”

Login to reply to this comment or post your own
Posted by Ruth Zive
08/13/2012  at  09:49 AM
As the parent of a

As the parent of a child in the Tikvah program, at Camp Ramah in Canada, I feel strongly that the Ramah camping movement should be heralded for its trailblazing efforts of inclusion. No other Jewish organization has the track record of inclusion and wholehearted support that Ramah has demonstrated for more than two decades to hundreds of children with exceptionalities and their families.

It would be completely counterproductive to focus on misinformation when the Ramah camping movement has asserted itself as a leader in this realm.

I agree with Rabbi Cohen that the conversation needs to be extended to others, who can push the funding envelope and build on the foundation that Camp Ramah has so enthusiastically and effectively established.

Login to reply to this comment or post your own

Leave a Comment

In order to post a comment, you must first log in.
Are you looking for user registration? Or have you forgotten your password?

Auto-login on future visits