Summer camp for all

Like many children and teenagers, Michael Rosenbaum of Los Feliz sees going to summer camp as a highlight of his year.

He relishes the outdoor activities, cooking classes, swimming, dancing and games at Camp Ramah in Ojai. He enjoys connecting with his Jewish heritage through daily celebrations and songs, and he especially loves seeing his camp friends from previous years. And, since last summer, the 18-year-old has been thrilled at the opportunity to work at the camp as a cooking teacher’s assistant.

Rosenbaum’s trajectory from camp participant to camp helper is typical of many teenagers as they reach adulthood, but for him, the transition is particularly auspicious. Rosenbaum has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that makes it difficult for him to participate in many of the activities other children at summer camp take for granted. Yet, according to his mother, Rony Rosenbaum, he has been able to fully take part thanks to Camp Ramah’s programs for special needs youth.

“It’s really one of the most incredible programs that you can possibly imagine for these kids,” she said. “The kids are not just integrated into everything that the whole rest of the camp does, they’re rock stars. Kids in the rest of the camp actually fight to be their buddies.”

Camp Ramah (ramah.org) runs an umbrella initiative called Tikvah for children and youth with special needs, under which three programs are available: Ohr Lanu, a weeklong family camp in early June for special needs children, their parents and siblings; Amitzim, where special needs children ages 11 to 17 participate alongside regular attendees in Camp Ramah; and Ezra, a seven-week vocational training program for young adults. The goal is to make summer camp something that youth of all abilities can enjoy, and where they can find a welcome place as members of the Jewish community, Tikvah director Elana Naftalin-Kelman said. About 80 children with a wide range of disabilities attend the programs each year, mostly from the Los Angeles area, she said.

The Ezra vocational program takes the participation of special needs teenagers and young adults to a new level. The program grew out of recognition at Camp Ramah that there needed to be opportunities for young people with disabilities to continue their camp experience after they turned 18, even though they are unable to become counselors, Naftalin-Kelman said.

Under the Ezra program, youth ages 17 to 23 live at the camp in Ojai and are given jobs, either within the camp or at businesses in town. Tasks at the camp include setting up and clearing tables in the dining hall, helping staff run the sports programs, working in the mail and supply rooms or running the staff store, where they make smoothies and sandwiches. Jobs in Ojai have included work at the local library, a grocery store, a senior living facility and an animal shelter.

In addition, participants receive daily life-skills lessons to help them become more independent, such as cooking healthy meals, setting up a bank account and using public transportation. Three times a week they attend classes on Jewish holidays, keeping kosher, what it means to be a Jewish adult and other aspects of Jewish life.

Naftalin-Kelman said the experience helps youth develop independence, self-confidence and a sense of belonging. She said many families have struggled to find acceptance in the communities they live in because of their child’s disability and often do not belong to a synagogue.

“These families are more often than not feeling like they’ve been rejected from the Jewish community,” she said. “Camp Ramah is their Jewish community.”

That’s not the case for Rosenbaum, an Ezra program participant who is keenly devout and involved at Temple Israel of Hollywood, his mother said.

“The Jewish aspect of Ramah is key to how much he loves it there,” she said. “[Jewish traditions] are really, really important to him, and for that reason it’s really important to us.”

For his part, Rosenbaum said he’s looking forward to attending Camp Ramah again this summer. The reason is simple: “It’s my favorite place.”