“For if they fall…”

In approaching program development, I knew that many of our tasks would be framed by the “existential questions” we needed to answer. These questions cover a broad swath of territory – from defining our target demographic to the nature of our family program to the integration of Judaism into our model and philosophy. Today, I want to focus on one of our many “existential questions.” Will our program be session-based, with a distinct start and end date like Ramah in the Rockies’ summer programming, or will we have continuous enrollment where students join as needed and leave when ready, be that eight weeks or eighteen weeks? Most wilderness therapy programs follow a continuous enrollment model. The reasons for this are varied, but the most common factor centers around crisis moments for families. Families don’t usually plan to send their child to a wilderness therapy program. It is often a need that is identified during crisis, resulting in a fairly fast process from first contact to enrollment.

While there are many arguments favoring the continuous enrollment option, there are equally compelling reasons to consider session-based programming. Speaking with one long-time wilderness therapy guide, he explained that summer was his favorite season in the wilderness therapy program cycle. And, no, it wasn’t because of the weather. It was due to the huge influx of students during the summer which resulted in groups that would largely start and end around the same time, allowing for stronger peer and community development over the course of the program. He continued, explaining that strong peer connections maximize student growth. It is hard to recreate the personal development that happens when students learn and grow side by side, sharing the beginning and ending of their journey together.

As a Jewish people, we understand this concept well. We are Am Yisrael — the people of Israel — and our tradition emphasizes the importance of community in all aspects of life. We see this in Kohelet, where we learn that “two are better than one … for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falls, and does not have another to lift him up.” Research shows that a strong social support network is key to recovery efforts, but so often programs focus only on the personal process, and do not fully consider the positive influence of strong social supports. Emerging adulthood is a time when one’s peer group can have a strong impact, both for the good and the not so good. Understanding the role that this group can play in positive decision-making is an important part of the journey. At BaMidbar, we understand that success isn’t achieved alone.

BaMidbar might face challenges with a session-based program. However, we are ready to do the work necessary to ensure that we succeed. Because we view community and connection as central to whole health wellness and our program values, having a session-based program will enable us to fully utilize peer groups as catalysts for personal change, helping students understand the importance of both independence and interdependence. We hope that at the end of the program, participants are not only asking what they can do to help themselves, but what their community can do to help them continue in a positive direction. When students are asking these two questions, the next logical step is for them to consider what they can do to help their community. When these three questions become integral to their identity, then we have truly set our students up for success.

Ultimately, BaMidbar’s goal is to serve a distinct need within the Jewish community. If a session-based program limits us from providing services to those who need it most, then we will reevaluate. We welcome your thoughts, concerns, and ideas regarding session-based model versus continuous enrollment, and invite you to email us at joryh@ramahoutdoors.org.