Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Camp Yofi

The following D’var Torah was delivered by Anshei Darom’s very own Dr. Gene Sacks on Shabbat Shuvah, October 8, 2005. Its message is one that we thought would be of interest and inspiration to the Men of the South.

Shabbat Shuvah falls each year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Consistent with the theme of the Yomim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, Shabbat Shuvah asks us to look within and to turn from our previous ways, to repent for the things we could have done and did not, for the ways we could have been kinder to our fellow man and were not.

As some of you know, I’ve been actively involved with Ramah Darom, the summer camp, Center for Southern Jewry and Retreat Center in Clayton Georgia, since its inception 9 years ago. Though we have had the privilege of providing a high level of camping for our children and wonderful retreats for our adults of all ages, we have not been responsive to Jewish families with special needs. Each of the Ramah camps across North America, over the past half-century, have instituted Tikvah programs. Tikvah means hope, and these programs have given physically and mentally challenged children and young adults the opportunity to spend part of their summers in programs tailored to their needs and abilities. At Ramah Darom, under the leadership of Rabbi Loren Sykes and a board of wonderfully dedicated men and women, we sought to identify an underserved population of families. After some research, we decided to create a camping experience for families with autistic children. This had never been done before in North America. The challenge was daunting, but the obligation was even greater.

Families with autistic children live in a very isolated world, often requiring them to move only to communities where specialized services are available. And yet, many still feel isolated and alone. Balancing Jewish life with the constant challenges of dealing with one or more autistic children as well as normal children can be a most challenging task. One family was asked to leave a New York synagogue because their child was making gurgling noises during services. Another family tried five synagogues before they found acceptance.

By recognizing that we have not sought out these special needs families until now, and by acting on this realization of doing what we must do, we involve ourselves in an act of teshuvah.

On the opening day of Camp Ramah in 1997, as the first group of campers got off the bus, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I had the same experience six weeks ago at Ramah during shacharit, when an autistic child, the son of Cantor and Dr. Rochvarg of Charlotte, read from the Torah and later corrected his mother’s Torah portion. This service was held at the lakeside prayer pavilion, where the newly built and magnificent Aron ha-Kodesh, commissioned by Anshei Darom, the Men’s Clubs of the Southeast Region, had just been installed. Tethered to a winch to hoist the Ark to the ceiling beams when not in use, and set into wings made of several types of beautiful wood, this wonderfully creative structure could not have been put to better use than by those who participated in this seminal event.

There were 20 families who came to Ramah from all parts of the country. The staff of some 35 chaverim, specialty counselors and coordinators, were trained by a group of special educators from Nova SE Universities’ Division of Autistic Studies. A chaver (typically a college or graduate student) was assigned to each family. Several goals of the program were to give families opportunities to be with other families having similar challenges, to help them grow Jewishly, and to provide some respite from their anything-but-normal lives. This was achieved with parallel scheduling in the morning, where parents spent time learning with Rabbi Shaun Fields Meyer, herself the mother of an autistic child and who runs support groups in the LA area. While parents studied, hiked, climbed the alpine tower or used the lakeside facilities, the children had other learning opportunities. The autistic children were paired with the chaver - a special friend who stayed with them at all times - and together, enjoyed all the activities the camp offered: swimming, arts and crafts, and sports. The siblings had their own groups and participated in similar activities with counselors who helped them to recognize their special place in the family and to learn to develop some coping skills to deal with the unique issues of being siblings to special needs children.

In addition to meals, afternoon was family time when they could take advantage of the lake, pool, hiking, family cooking, art projects, and on Friday, challah braiding. Early evenings included family programs - a carnival one evening, a campfire on another. Making s’mores around the campfire put smiles on the faces or a number of children who just seemed, for a while, to leave their inner, lonely worlds, to join the party and have fun. After the children were put to bed, the counselors came back to baby-sit, while parents enjoyed a wine and cheese party one evening, an Iron Chef competition on another, and game night on Shabbat.

Susan Techtiel, who has run the family camp at Ramah for years and this summer started a taste of Ramah for entering 3rd graders, was director of the program. She describes the program as a series of miracles. The expressions of appreciation by the parents could only bring tears to your eyes. One family said that Camp Yofi was the first time in 7 years we felt like we’ve done something meaningful as a family. Others expressed similar feelings:
“It would have been enough just to create an environment that gave autistic children an opportunity to experience camp. But to additionally structure a program for both parents and siblings is what made Camp Yofi perfect. And to not structure discussions specifically focused on autism, but to give parents a chance to address their day-to-day issues in both spiritual and community contexts is what really pulled the experience together and added so much meaning…”
The Yomim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, are a time of contemplation, repentance, atonement, of taking stock of our lives. According to Maimonides, teshuvah is the road to the healing of the spirit. Having experienced a part of this miraculous happening at Ramah Darom has helped me to focus on the true meaning of the Yomim Nora’im. I hope we will all seek the vision that our real selves are the divine images within us, and that we are all capable of true teshuvah, so that each of our names may be inscribed in the book of life for another year. Shabbat Shalom!


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