Today’s “guest blogger” is my younger son, Ari. Since the summer of 2007, just before he turned 13, he has attended Camp Ramah, a Jewish overnight camp under the aegis of the Conservative Movement, in Conover, WI. He went to Ramah Wisconsin rather than to the Camp Ramah in the Poconos because the Tikvah (“Hope”) special needs unit in Wisconsin is geared specifically for children and young adults on the Autism Spectrum. For the past two summers (2011 and 2012), he has been in the Atzmaim (“Independence”) unit, for high school graduates. The program’s participants work at jobs in the nearby town of Eagle River while participating in camp activities as members of the staff, living and eating with staff, and learning valuable life skills.
A few weeks ago, we made the trek to camp for visiting day (Philadelphia to Detroit to Green Bay by plane, followed by a 3-hour drive to our motel in Eagle River, and then another 20 minutes to the camp – basically, arrive in the Middle-of-Nowhere, North Woods, WI, turn left, and keep driving). Many staff members, including the camp director and the former director, who is still involved in the camp, visited the parents waiting to enter the camp property. Both the current and former directors came separately to our car and told us the same story:
The previous Friday night, Tikvah and Atzmaim campers led Shabbat evening services, and Ari had been asked by the staff to speak during services about his experiences at camp. (We had known about the honor, as Ari had mentioned it when he had called us the previous Wednesday.) A thunder storm was approaching, so the services were moved from the lake front to an indoor community room. It was crowded and hot, not exactly ideal conditions for speaking without a microphone. During Ari’s remarks, not a sound could be heard in the room. When he finished, 650 people, many with tears in their eyes, gave him a standing ovation.
Here is a copy of his speech. (When necessary, I have translated the Hebrew terms in brackets.
Shabbat Shalom [Peaceful Sabbath].
Tikvah. This common Hebrew word, meaning “Hope,” has been used all throughout Jewish history. It can be found in so many places that the Israeli national anthem takes the word for its title: HaTikvah. The word has also meant a lot to me in my own life. Six years ago, I came to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin with almost no hope. I had struggled at other summer camps and was pessimistic about my chances for success. In 2007, my father told me that he wanted to send me to an environment that was friendly for people like me. He found the Tikvah program here and as they say: Vizohi Rak Hahatchalah – This was only the beginning.
When I first started Tikvah I was the only person standing in my circle. But during my summers here I began to see myself growing and changing in positive ways. Tikvah helped me make these changes – not by forcing a new perspective on me, but by helping me realize my own potential. It took a growing circle of people here to guide me to that conclusion. The Tikvah tzevet [staff] I had over the years -Ralph Schwartz, Barak Lanes, Joseph Eskin, and especially Daniel Olson -struggled with me in some areas. But for every hard time there was a learning experience for me, and possibly even for them.
The circle gets bigger with all of the friends who supported me too. They were my Tikvah aidah [unit] mates, of course. They shaped my summers by sharing brilliant ideas for Tikvah Lunch Theaters, and filling my free time with fun antics. They are my friends for life.
The circle is completed by all the Machon aidot [units] that spent their summers with Tikvah. Without Machon ’07, ’08, ’09 and ’10, many fun things like the plays we did, the sports we played, and chaver [friendship] time in particular would not have been nearly as fun.I would like to ask anyone who has ever been in that circle – Tikvah campers, Tikvah staff, and Machon chaverim, past and present – to rise. Na Lakum [Please stand.] *PAUSE* Look how big this circle is! I realize now, six years later, because of all of you, that my time in Tikvah was one of the best times of my life. Na Lashevet. [Please sit.]*PAUSE*
If Tikvah was designed to help me feel comfortable in my own skin, Atzmayim is helping me discover an even bigger circle: the adult world. I was nervous to begin this program because I was so comfortable as a Tikvah camper. After much encouragement from Ralph Schwartz and Margaret Silberman, however, I was willing to give it a shot. I now work at the Olson Memorial Library in EagleRiver, which has friendly staff and provides an easy-going environment. Working at the library really has been a benefit to me, and it helped me get a job at a radio station back home.
My work at the library would not have been as successful without the daily social and job skills class we have led by Scott Rosen. Scott is a very helpful individual who is full of insight and knowledge, and he has helped to fuel my summers in Atzmayim even when I was having a difficult time. Indeed, in both Tikvah and Atzmayim, the tzevet [staff] have been truly exceptional.
On behalf of all members of the Tikvah program – past, present, and future – I would like to conclude by saying that Camp Ramah in Wisconsin has become a large part of all of our lives. The members of this community here have encouraged all of us to make a name for ourselves in the world. I am so proud of my affiliation with CampRamah and have so many moments and memories that I am excited to share with an even bigger audience. Of course, the most important audience is already sitting right in front of me. Todah Rabah L’Kulam Sh’Yoshvim Po [Many thanks to all of you who are sitting here], for making us the people we are today, as well as the people we may become in the future.