|Adam Berzin, right, celebrates bowing with Joseph Eskin, head of the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah Wisconsin.|
For the past five years, 20-year-old Adam Berzin of Ramsey has spent his summers at Camp Ramah Wisconsin, at the camp’s Tikvah program.
Created more than 40 years ago and offered at nine Ramah camps in the United States and Canada, Tikvah welcomes children, teens, and young adults with a wide range of learning, developmental, cognitive, and social disabilities, “enhancing Jewish identity and teaching Jewish values in a supportive, inclusive, fun environment,” according to its website.
Parents Rita and Mitch Berzin clearly believe that the program more than fulfills this commitment.
“We make the effort to send Adam to this program, which is so far away, because the effects on his self-esteem, independence, and identification with the Jewish community have been so powerful,” Ms. Berzin said. While other Ramah camps have programs of this kind, “what made this one unique for us was that it was more inclusive.”
Adam has high-functioning autism, she said. “He’s not so below his peers that he needs a tremendous amount of support, but he needs more than his typical peers and he needs to be challenged. This program included him so he didn’t feel he was in a parallel camp,” but rather one that fully included him, where he did not feel “separate.” The Berzins also chose the Wisconsin camp because it offers the program to people in Adam’s age group.
“He loves it,” she said, recalling that one year she put Adam in a camp that was geographically closer but not as inclusive. “It didn’t group kids according to their abilities,” she said. “It put them all together.” After that summer, “Adam was lobbying to go back” to Ramah, despite the fact that usually “he’s not a self-advocate. He really wanted to do it.”
Adam lives for his summers, she said, telling people that “his summer home is at Camp Ramah Wisconsin.”
The camp “plays to the kids’ strengths. At school, he never quite felt like he quite fit in; he was used to being told what he couldn’t do, not what he could do” she said, noting however that Adam, who plays saxophone, participated in the Ramsey High School marching band. At camp, “they had him play the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ before a big baseball game. They picked out what he likes and let him excel at it.
“There are programs for children with disabilities in this area, but few if any that include the children with their typical peers,” she continued. “Generally they are segregated programs, but that’s not what the real world is like. Finding inclusive experiences for children is difficult, especially for teens and young adults who are not greatly impaired. Inclusion is what I think Ramah Wisconsin does well. The children are so well integrated that they really feel as if there are no differences. And the typical peers start to see that the Tikvah campers have strengths and good qualities.”
Over the Martin Luther King weekend, Adam and two other campers from New York and New Jersey went to Chicago to attend a Tikvah/Atzmayim Shabbaton. (Atzmayim is the vocational arm of the special needs program.)
“The excitement in my home was palpable for weeks,” Ms. Berzin said. “He had a great time, and it was an experience that has energized him to return to camp for the Atzmayim vocational program this summer.”
The Shabbaton was special, among other reasons, because “he got to fly on a plane back and forth. [Kids] need to separate from their parents. We may coddle them too much. This was a great opportunity for him.”
Getting to the airport too late to meet the other campers and counselors outside, Adam’s parents took him to the security gate. He navigated through security by himself and found his friends at the gate waiting for him to board.
“He did it,” his mom said.
Ms. Berzin said Adam, who graduated from Ramsey High School – “where we fought to have him mainstreamed” – now attends a transition program. She hopes that he will attend college next year.
“Camp has been good preparation for that,” she said, adding that he’s learned to ask for help when he needs it.
People with Adam’s disability “tend to have a lot of anxiety,” she said. “They’re afraid of trying, afraid of failing.” But when Adam comes home from camp, he brings with him a growing sense of independence.
“Things he would not attempt at home, he had to do at camp,” she said. “He had to work in the kitchen packing lunches, so I told him if you could do it there, you can do it here. They also had to clean their cabin.”
Adam comes home from camp with more self-esteem,” she said. “You could just see that he was more of his own person. He didn’t seem to need as much prompting and encouragement.”
On the Jewish front, although Adam had a bar mitzvah, “and did well, there was not much to connect him” to the Jewish community after that, said his mother. “At Ramah he put on tefillin and did morning prayers. He loves Shabbat. You can see a greater sense of [Jewish] identification.”
Ms. Berzin said that because “kids with learning and emotional differences have trouble with change,” it is particularly helpful that Adam generally can look forward to seeing the same campers and counselors year after year. “It provides continuity,” she said. His move to the vocational program will also be smooth since last year’s Tikvah program was “pre-vocational,” and Adam spent one day a week in the camp office, distributing mail.
“It will be an easier transition,” his mother said, noting that he will be living with other campers in an arrangement that resembles a college dorm. The group will be responsible for planning and making meals and will be “treated as staff more than as campers.”
Ms. Berzin believes this will help Adam when he goes to college.
“We’re looking for a program with a focus on work skills,” she said. “This will help prepare him for that.” His camp living arrangements also will help him prepare for living in a dorm.
It also helps that throughout the year, Tikvah campers “get together weekly on Sunday evenings for an online Shavua Tov talk,” she said. “It’s run by the counselors who usually have a theme they discuss and relate to the campers’ daily lives. Then they all speak regarding their week. It’s something that keeps them all connected, since they are from different states.”
Adam also participates in community activities. He plays with teen jazz groups at the music school at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly “to keep his skills up,” Ms. Berzin said. That’s because there aren’t enough people with musical abilities in his transition program.
“He has also discovered the Chabad Friendship Circle and has a student come visit him once a week,” she said. And while he’s not a good fit for the group’s community events, he volunteers with Chabad of Woodcliff Lake’s sports league. In addition, he volunteers one day a month at the Mahwah Center for Food Action.