All Things Are Possible
by Lori Kass, camp parent
On a wet, rainy day in the camp gym, my son Zev stood in front of some antsy campers and staff, held a microphone, looked straight into the crowd and told a few jokes, after which everyone laughed. This is only remarkable when you consider that my child is on the autism spectrum. This includes challenges with social skills and communication, accompanied by anxiety, inattention and self-regulatory issues, especially when routines are changed—like when it rains at camp and he can’t go to his usual activities. If it were any place but Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, I would be sure that a stunt double had been used that day. Except it was Camp Ramah and, as I now know, Ramah makes all things possible.
At Zev’s first Zimriyah, when he was only 6 years old, he stood tall and proud, uncharacteristically alert and attentive, unfazed by the big crowd. Zev’s shadow counselor supported and guided him as he belted out the words to every single song. White kippot were handed out that night and he wore that kippah all year, as if to remind himself and others, “I can do anything.” But Camp Ramah already knew that he could do anything.
There was the summer that Zev, with all his fine motor difficulties, sewed a pillow all by himself. During that school year he had trouble holding a pencil, but at Ramah he labored over a pillow with a sewing needle for weeks. He never gave up on the project and the omanut (arts and crafts) staff person never gave up on him. She knew that all things were possible.
Zev knows every single migrash dance by heart. During the year he watches migrash videos on Vimeo and practices the dances in our kitchen so he’s all ready for Migrash Magic when camp starts. (The dancing is also used as a calming strategy for dealing with his anxieties year round.) He and his neurotypical twin sister, who goes to Ramah Berkshires, have dance-offs to see whose camp dances are better. His social struggles usually preclude typical play with her but Camp Ramah gave them the common language to connect. Yet again, Ramah brought something momentous within reach.
I can tell you about his first successful sleepover with friends, which happened at camp of course. Or the day at Rye Playland when he rode roller coasters for the first time along with all the other kids. Or how he did a week-long cooking specialty, following detailed cooking instructions. I can also tell you how unlikely it was that he would do any of those things because of his atypical social engagement and difficulty participating in age-appropriate activities—hallmarks of his disability. Each summer my husband and I watch in awe as Zev thrives and matures in ways we never thought possible. However, the extraordinary, talented and dedicated tzevet make it completely possible by understanding, accepting and valuing Zev for exactly who he is, fostering a strong sense of belonging and celebrating his unique strengths. This is inclusion. This is Ramah.
It should come as no surprise that in August of 2022, Zev’s bar mitzvah will be during tefilah at camp on a regular camp day, something Rabbi Ami Hersh, Ramah Nyack’s camp director, agreed to without reservation or hesitation.
Ramah is not only Zev’s summer home but it’s also his Jewish home. His love for Judaism emanates not from our own family Shabbat table but from the way he is embraced at Ramah. While the rest of us in our family have synagogues and schools and community centers that make us feel like we belong somewhere Jewish, Camp Ramah is the Jewish community Zev can call his very own. During our preliminary planning for the bar mitzvah, Ami asked my husband and me, “What do you think will be Zev’s level of participation during tefilah and torah reading?” I contemplated our son’s social, communication and learning abilities and said “Maybe he’ll be okay to have an aliyah. Not sure if he’ll do more than that.” But then I paused and accepted what Zev and Ramah Day Camp in Nyack have been telling me for years: All things are possible.
*** In addition to being a proud Ramah Day Camp in Nyack family, our daughter attends Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, and we attend the Tikvah Family Camp at Poconos at the end of every summer.