by Kathy Birn
The day I got the email our family’s life changed. The president of our synagogue had forwarded it to me from a member who regularly donated to the Tikvah Family Camp program at Ramah in the Poconos. He thought that there might be families at our synagogue who would be interested in attending the program.
I reached out to Adena Sternthal, the administrator of the program, to find out what it was all about. She explained the camp to me – Natan, my son who is on the autistic spectrum, would have a chaver (a friend), who would hang out with him, guiding him through his camp day, playing, swimming, doing arts & crafts, etc. – all the activities you’d expect kids at camp would do. Our daughters, Shoshi and Emma (Natan’s triplet sisters), would have “regular camp” – a shortened Ramah experience with other siblings at camp. And Marty and I would actually have our own camp, too – meeting and talking with the other parents, learning with Ramah’s Executive Director, Rabbi Joel Seltzer, swimming, rowing on the lake, or just taking a break to read a book. We would also have family activities and meals together. I remember interrupting Adena a few times during the phone call, saying, “You’re making this up, this doesn’t really exist!”
A special needs family doesn’t often get to have those easy going, relaxing experiences that “typical” families do. Natan is high functioning, but there are still many challenges – crowds, noises, etc. – that can be difficult for him. Another thing we didn’t really have, something that I had always regretted, was the ability to have a rich, enjoyable Jewish experience as a family, outside of our home. There wasn’t much for Natan at shul, and he is in a self-contained class at a public school, unlike his sisters who attend Jewish day school. If this camp was anything like Adena described, we were in!
All three kids were thrilled that we had our very own cabin, rustic as it was (Adena had said to me: “Imagine a 5-star hotel, 600 count sheets, expensive toiletries… it’s not that!”). They moved from bunk bed to bunk bed, sleeping in a different one every night. Natan’s chaver was a sweet young man who became his best buddy that week. Each day was better than the previous one – Natan quickly made himself at home and eagerly ran out to meet his chaver each morning when he came by to pick Natan up. We had great meals and danced and sang together, as a family and as a camp family.
For me, family camp was the first time where I felt truly at home. Everyone understood if Natan was going through a rough patch – they’d been through the same things themselves – and I didn’t feel self-conscious or embarrassed. We all shared something unique and could communicate and support each other, often without words. When Rabbi Joel asked: “What would an ideal Jewish community look like for special needs families?” – I knew – it was Tikvah. I’ve often wished we could have a “Tikvah Kibbutz” all year round!
On the last day of camp, we all held each other and cried. Saying good-bye to this incredible experience was so hard. But every day – literally – until the next summer, we talked about Tikvah and how great it was. When I want to help Natan get into a better mood, I talk about it and we share stories of the fun things he did there.
Our girls were so happy there that, last summer, we sent them to Ramah for sleepaway camp. Natan was upset that he couldn’t go, but happily I was able to tell him that Ramah was building – especially for him! – a big new cabin for the following summer. And he would be going! So – this summer, all three of my kids are going to Ramah – Natan for the first time, as the first camper at Ramah’s new Tikvah Residential program. This summer, Ramah in the Poconos will offer summer camp for children with disabilities, and Natan will be one of the first campers in this new program. We talk about it every day, and Natan insists he plans to stay there all year!
Tikvah Family Camp has been the best gift my family ever received. I couldn’t be happier – unless Ramah creates a sleepaway camp for me!