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By Guest Blogger Ralph Schwartz, Director of Special Needs Programming, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin
Several months ago, the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin began a weekly video chat check-in named Shavua Tov. Each week, a staff member gives a D’var Torah and each camper then does a check-in to share how their week has been. We never imagined what we could do with Shavua Tov until our January 7 chat. That day my eyes were filled with tears.
At the beginning of January, the mother of one of our campers suddenly passed away. While speaking to the camper’s father following shiva, I asked if he thought Josh would want to participate in our video chat that week and if we could talk about the death of Josh’s mom. He replied, “Yes, let’s do it.”
I began Shavua Tov by describing the week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, which talks about the deaths of Jacob and Joseph after each had lived long, rich lives. I said, as sad as their deaths were, sometimes people die before their time and that can make the pain even deeper. With a deep breath I continued and told the group about Josh’s mom’s death.
The campers’ reaction was silence. We could tell they were surprised and processing the information. They certainly knew it was serious and did not know how to respond. The Tikvah staff and I then began teaching about the Jewish observance of comforting the mourner. We talked about how to act in the presence of a mourner and what to say. With staff support, Josh’s peers began to express their condolences and support to him. One camper tried to give him a hug over the computer, another talked about his own experiences when a close relative passed away, a third shared how hard it must be and how helpless he felt, and a fourth shared the verse recited to welcome a mourner during Kabbalat Shabbat services or said when leaving a shiva home.
Josh listened to us and said little. Several times during the call, Josh turned to hug his dad. I shared with everyone that often the mourner may not have words to respond back but that was okay. Sometimes in our grief we choose to remain silent. The Jewish way is to provide comfort to the bereaved and not to expect acknowledgement.
The call went longer than normal that night, but no one seemed to notice. In fact it seemed like no one wanted the call to end. The next day Josh’s dad told me that Josh felt tremendous support from his camp friends and they were both very grateful to the Tikvah program.
— Ralph Schwartz