Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Lot Can Happen in 40 Years!

History buffs might be able to recall a few key events from the year 1970. For example, U.S. troops invaded Cambodia, four students were killed at Kent State, the Beatles broke up, both Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin died, Monday Night Football debuted on ABC and a first class stamp was just 6 cents. In the Jewish world, Israel was still excited three years after winning the Six Day War, Golda Meir was the Prime Minister, and Israel was engaged in a War of Attrition. In Long Island, New York, two special education teachers, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, had a vision. They were dreaming of opening a Jewish summer camp program for children with special needs.

As the Greenbergs tell the story, various Jewish camps had already rejected this proposal. In early 1970, their plan was presented to the National Ramah Commission. Ramah camps and directors expressed fears that the presence of a mentally and/or emotionally handicapped group in the camp community would disrupt the structure of the camp. Greenberg further reports, “The leaders of Ramah felt that a program that introduced children with disabilities into the camp would create anxiety, both among the other campers and among the staff They also worried that some parents might be afraid to send their children to camp if THESE children were there…”

Donald Adelman (z”l), the Director of Camp Ramah in Glen Spey, New York, “was the lone dissenter, the only Ramah director who really wanted this program. He took an enormous risk, and he staked his whole career on it…He saw it as a moral responsibility toward those with special needs.” Adelman had insisted that if there was no room at Ramah for Tikvah, then the whole point of the camp would be lost. “This is what Ramah should be, and I insist on having it,” said Adelman boldly.

Eight campers participated in the Tikvah Program in 1970. In 2010, fifty campers ages 13-35 participate in the various components of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England. And nearly 200 campers participate in Ramah special needs camp programs each summer, from Wisconsin to Canada to California.

This past Sunday, 125 former campers, staff members, parents and friends of Tikvah participated in the “Tikvah at 40” Celebration and Reunion at Camp Ramah in Palmer, MA. Dana, now 37, flew alone to spend Shabbat at Ramah, where she was a Tikvah camper, member of the vocational training program, and employee. Matthew, a camper from my 1985 bunk, came with his girlfriend--armed with old yearbooks, newspapers, and enlarged photos of yours truly—with much longer, curlier hair! Counselors came to be photographed in front of their old bunks, with their old co-counselors and campers. All in attendance toured the fully accessible Tikvah Village and the Greenberg Tikvah Guest House, built to honor the pioneering efforts of the Greenbergs. They helped make a “Tikvah at 40” quilt, played in the 6th Annual Shapell Classic Softball Game (in memory of a camper who died several years ago), and they schmoozed over burgers and dogs.

I have never been much of a reunion guy. But today was different. As the last car pulled out of camp Sunday evening, I looked back on my 16 years with Tikvah, and reflected on just how far we have come. I had a smile on my face and a tear in my eye. Can’t wait for Tikvah at 50, 60 even 70!

Friday, July 9, 2010

The most difficult Mitzvah – Rav Yehudah Amital zt"l

I would like to say a few words in memory of Rav Yehudah Amital, master educator and founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, where I studied for a number of years.

Much can and will be written about Rav Amital who succeeded in living a life of apparent contradictions, largely because he did not consider them to be contradictory at all.

  • A Holocaust survivor, he was an eternal optimist.

  • A student of Rav Kook and founder of Yeshivat Har Eztion in the West Bank, he was a political moderate.

  • A staunch traditionalist in the Talmudic mode, he was open to modern movements and spearheaded contemporary Bible study from a literary perspective in the Orthodox world.

  • Having succeeded as an Israeli educator he founded of a yeshiva in the Judean Hills in the wake of the Six-day War. Soon after, he invited an American to join him at the helm of the yeshiva where the two different personalities worked harmoniously to build one of the most significant Hesder Yeshivot in Israel.

While others have already been writing about his life and work, I would like to share a story that I heard him tell about himself as an educator:

Once, when his daughter was in fourth grade, Rav Amital was asked by her teacher to speak to the class. Rav Amital, described how he was unsure what to do, as he had no experience in elementary school education. So he entered the room and asked a simple question:

What do you find is the most difficult mitzvah to fulfill?

The girls in the class enthusiastically raised their hands and made suggestions. After a time they agreed that the most "difficult mitzvah" was how to deal with a situation where they were on a tiyul – a hike – and there was no water with which to wash their hands before eating their sandwiches.

Rav Amital agreed that that was, indeed, a difficult situation, and then proceeded to tell the girls what he found to be the most difficult mitzvah to keep.

"Sometimes," he said, "I am in a group and everyone is talking. I hear someone say something and I know that I have a really good response. If I say it, everyone will think that I am really sharp, and will laugh at the other person. But I hold myself back and don't say it, since it will embarrass him."

The girls' looked at him. "But that isn't a mitzvah!" they said.

"But it is," Rav Amital responded. "A very difficult one."

יהי זכרו ברוך