While the main purpose of the Ramah Seminar program is to experience Israel, there is also a focus on developing leadership skills.  Students in the Ramah Seminar program are entering their senior year of High School and preparing to enter the world of independence after that.  As such, we participated in some leadership activities at a facility called Neot Kadomim (see: http://www.neot-kedumim.org.il/?CategoryID=156&ArticleID=104).  They focus on Biblical leaders and what we can learn about contemporary leadership from them.  We participated in two main activities.

Drawing Water from a Cistern

With the cistern in the middle, the bucket is hooked up to 4 separate ropes.  The ropes go to the corners of the pavilion through a pulley.  Four people, blindfolded, operate each of the ropes.  A single person, called a conductor, stands in the middle of the pavilion to direct the blindfolded rope operators, but the conductor cannot speak.  Since the conductor cannot speak and the rope operators cannot see, each operator is also given a messenger to relay the visual cues from the conductor to the rope operators.  Together this team of 9 must lift the bucket, lower it into the cistern, and then pull it back up and place it on the stone.  Sol took on the role of the (blindfolded) rope operator, but he obviously did not need the blindfold J

Herding a Flock of Sheep

Since many biblical leaders were shepherds and God is often referred to as the shepherd of the Israelite people, campers get to try their hands at herding a flock of goats/sheep.  The herd is contained in a fence but the campers must move the flock to the first circle and then to three subsequent circles.   (*Note: this is hilarious to watch as a staff member)


I was struck how during the Cistern activity, every member of the team had a limitation, a disability so to speak: one couldn’t speak, one couldn’t see, and one couldn’t do.  Working together was much more challenging, but certainly not impossible.  It required specific, purposeful communication, patience, and focus.  They were not always successful.  The conductor frequently used gestations to mean one thing, which was interpreted by the messengers as a different meaning.  The messengers were not always specific with who they were talking to, causing the rope operators to become confused.  But overall, the group preserved.  One group successfully completed the task.  The other group succeeded in lowering the bucket into the cistern, but celebrated too early and lost focus, causing them to drop the bucket on its ascent out of the cistern.

While the group was successful at the sheep herding activity, managing to move the sheep from circle to circle, was not always seamless or controlled.  The group eventually, haphazardly, moved the herd in the general direction of the next circle.  Usually one sheep would need to take the lead, and the rest of the herd would follow.

Watching these two exercises, I wonder how well we prepare people with disabilities to be leaders.  We work on skills related to following directions, social constructs, vocations, transportation, and academics.  But when do we work on leadership skills with people with disabilities?  Leadership skills, such as expressing ideas, delegating, assessment, accepting feedback, and trying again, are challenging enough to teach to the typical population.  These are skills that are not concrete, that change with each situation and team of people, making it all the more challenging to teach to a population with other handicaps or disabilities.  Not only are people with disabilities often not taught how leadership skills, as a society, we tend to expect people with disabilities to be the followers, not the leaders.  Many of our own leaders throughout history have tried to hide their disability, viewing it as a weakness that the public will not be able to see past.

So while I question as a teacher how I can teach leadership skills to people with disabilities, I think first we need to change how we view someone with a disability and their ability to take control of the reins.  On our way into Jerusalem, our bus stopped at a mall to get some lunch.  Sol decided to get Kosher McDonald’s, on the second floor.  Sol is very experienced at using escalators, a skill that amazes me.  He is quite adept at sensing the beginning/end of the escalator and moving on/off quickly.  As he was transitioning onto the escalator, I noticed a man watching intently.  Sol stepped onto the moving stairs and the man said “no, I’ll help you.  Careful!”  I turned to the man and said “no thank you, we don’t need help.”  The man obviously thought I was crazy in allowing Sol to do this independently, reached out and clutched Sol’s arm.  I began to panic as Sol was pulled backwards by the man while the escalator was taking him forward.  I grabbed the man’s arm and jerk Sol free, screaming “what the hell are you doing?!”  The man looked at me and responded angrily “I was just helping.”  I glare at him before stepping onto the escalator and responded, “He doesn’t need help.  Don’t ever do that again.”

We have a perception that people with disabilities need help, constantly.  Sometimes we ask if they want help, and promptly ignore their answer.  Other times, we don’t ask, we simply assume they cannot.  We don’t give them an opportunity to practice or use their independent skills.  How can we expect someone to become a leader when we don’t even let them order their own food or ride an escalator?

Herding sheep isn’t so different from these tasks.  It requires coordinator, communication, trial and failure and trial again.  For an hour, twenty teenagers tried coaxing, shoving, bribing, and pulling sheep from circle to circle, and Sol was right there with them.  He used his hands to shove and his cane to poke the sheep, attempting to move them in the appropriate direction.  He used the tools he had available to him, in that moment, to lead the herd.  What more can we expect of a leader?