What it Means to Be Essential – During COVID and Beyond
By Howard Blas
While doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, and so many others were working from home and not always feeling very “essential” during the pandemic, Austin, Tiffany, and other people with disabilities were teaching what it means to be and feel truly essential.
When the pandemic hit and it became clear that camp would not take place this summer in the same way it had in previous summers, Ramah campers across North America were deeply disappointed. In the months leading up to summer, campers with and without disabilities enjoyed dozens of quality programs offered by each individual camp and by National Ramah. Even with the availability of these programs, current members of our vocational training programs and alumni—many who found themselves out of work or no longer at in-person internships—expressed concerns that without a summer at camp, they would lose the opportunity to work on important vocational and social skills. We quickly mobilized to create TikvahNet, a series of 75-minute Zoom meetings facilitated by Ramah Tikvah staff, focusing on both job skills and socialization.
We recently kicked off our third 8-week series of TikvahNet programming. To date, over 80 current or former Tikvah voc ed program members have participated. For each session, the program coordinator and four staff members prepare PowerPoint slides, enabling participants with a wide range of intellectual and developmental disabilities and verbal abilities to fully participate in the program. Slides were shared with participants and families prior to each session so they could prepare in advance. We have learned about money management, workplace behavior, the elections and our right to vote, proper precautions to take during the pandemic, resumes, and self-advocacy. We have also cooked, danced, enjoyed a virtual tour of Israel and a Chanukah party, and made cards of appreciation to frontline workers. The level of dedication of the staff members truly led to the success of the program. They developed, individualized, and expanded the concept of TikvahNet so that it will continue even beyond the pandemic.
One of the great benefits of TikvahNet has been watching participants from Toronto socializing with old and new friends from Chicago, Seattle, Washington, Miami, and Los Angeles—across three time zones! Participants enjoy sharing stories of one very special thing they have in common—camp! They compare notes on similarities and differences between camps–special Shabbat foods, whether they have a pool or a lake, and where they pray on Shabbat. They look forward to ending each session with the Ramah-wide nighttime song, Rad Hayom.
Perhaps most inspiring has been listening to Austin and Tiffany tell the group about their jobs. Austin spoke about his job at a hospital in St. Louis, where he delivers food trays to patients in their rooms. “I am an essential worker!” he tells the group. Tiffany of Los Angeles adds, “I’m an essential worker, too! I work in a grocery store.” Austin and Tiffany are performing essential work and more importantly, are feeling like the essential workers that they are.
We hope to continue helping people with disabilities feel more essential and ultimately find meaningful employment. In the current phase of TikvahNet, we are inviting businesses who employ people with disabilities to describe what it takes to be hired by their companies. We have already heard from Blue Star Recyclers (computer and electronic recycling), and will soon hear from Luv Michael, a granola company. Two current TikahNet participants and their parents will soon join to share the story of Shred Support, the DC-area shredding company they started during the pandemic. These two young men with Down Syndrome, Uriel and Jacob, are doing essential work and teaching the community what it feels like to be essential.
Howard Blas is director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network of the National Ramah Commission. He is a social worker and special education teacher by training. He teaches Jewish Studies and bar/bat mitzvah to students with a range of disabilities and “special circumstances, leads disabilities trips to Israel and writes regularly for many Jewish publications. Howard recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with a delegation which included four people with paraplegia. He received the S’fatai Tiftakh Award from Boston Hebrew College’s Center for Jewish Special Education in 2012 and the 2013 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.