This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
When I was seven years old, I started going to a Jewish overnight camp on the West Coast. I honestly think that had to be the worst experience of my life, but not for the reason you may be thinking. The only reason I didn’t like it was the fact that I have autism. Bottom line, I didn’t fit in. Too bad my family decided we should all go for the next two years. (My mom, who is a rabbi, served on faculty there. Even though they tried their best and my mom was up at camp, things were still really terrible.) However, after moving to Pennsylvania, my family and I learned that there were Jewish camps for kids on the autistic spectrum. My family decided to send me to Round Lake Camp which was also a Jewish sleep-away camp. After going for my first year, each summer was all about camp.
Now, if you have a brother, sister, or child who has autism, you probably know that new experiences cause a lot of anxiety. So, for example, if the simplest bee is scary to them, they might be having a nervous break-down the entire car ride wondering if they’ll be tons of bees at camp. In my case, on the drive up with my dad, he calmed me down by telling me the three main purposes of camp and the importance of each. The first important part of going to a Jewish camp would be that you meet new people and make some friends. Considering my lack of friends, this was a big plus. Also, because this is a Jewish camp, you won’t be the minority anymore which also means that you get to do Jewish activities that aren’t available anywhere else such as Israeli dancing. One of the things I did enjoy at the west coast camp was Israeli dancing and it was something I really missed.
The next big purpose is getting to try new things. This would include new foods such as tomato soup, new activities such as high ropes, and water activities such as the huge water slide. Out of all those things, my favorite wouldn’t be an activity, but the fact that I get to stay in a cabin with all my “camp buddies”. At my first camp, however, because I didn’t fit in, I didn’t feel comfortable in my bunk. While at Round Lake, everyone in my bunk accepted me and helped me when I was feeling sad.
After my first year, Round Lake was combined with another camp called Cedar Lake. It was also a Jewish camp, but was not for kids on the spectrum. That wasn’t really an issue because we really didn’t come into contact with the Cedar Lake kids that often. Except for Color Wars which is a big competition where both camps were combined and split into four groups. After being split, you compete in different activities. Almost every camp does this activity and I never really liked it.
The last and most important purpose of going to a Jewish camp is what my dad told me before my first year at Round Lake. That would be the ability to learn more about yourself. In other words, that means finding new experiences and finding what you are good at such as sports and science. I learned that I am good at a game called Ga Ga. It’s a game played in an octagonal court with a rubber bouncy ball. The objective is to use your fist or open hand to hit the ball towards the other players (knees or below). If the ball does hit them (in the knees or below), they are out.
All in all, going to a Jewish camp is a great experience because of the friends you’ll make, the new experiences you’ll have, and the memories you will have created. As we say at Cedar Lake/Round Lake, this is “A Home Away from Home.”
Judaism has been a part of my life since I was born. My mother snuck Shabbat candles into the hospital in preparation for my birth and I was born on Shabbos afternoon surrounded by my family and future friends, all welcoming Shabbat and my existence. As a child, I was raised primarily by my Jewish, African-American mother, Denise. I am honored to say that she converted to this amazing religion and that I am 100% Jewish.
As soon as I turned five, she signed me up for Hebrew school. For seven years, I studied the Hebrew alphabet and dozens of prayers. By the time my Bat Mitzvah rolled around last year, I had memorized every prayer I had studied, but I was nervous. So I used my Bat Mitzvah folder as a memory tool and looking down helped avoid the stares of the 200 guests! Continue reading here>>
I must confess. When I first started working as a counselor in the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England in 1984, I couldn’t understand how parents of children with disabilities could send their children away for eight weeks each summer. Now, after working in the field of disabilities camping for more than 20 years, I have a hard time understanding why parents of children with disabilities won’t seriously consider sending their children to an overnight Jewish summer camp. Of course I understand that it is scary, often far from home, and that the sessions feel “long.” I understand that children with disabilities often can’t effectively communicate their needs, or advocate for themselves. And I understand just how hard it is for parents to be out of contact for a month or two. So why do it? Here are 5 reasons.
1. Camp offers fun, stimulating activities: Simply put, thousands of Jewish children go to camp each summer—and they have a great time. There is no way any parent can offer that level of programming and stimulation in their backyard or apartment. Camping offers children daily doses of the arts, sports, dance, singing, and swimming—not to mention exposure to such electives as nature, cooking, drama (plays in Hebrew!), sailing, woodworking, the climbing wall and more—all before lunch!
2. Camp offers friends and role modeling: If the camp program is part of a larger camp, your child will spend hours a day interacting with a diverse group of children of all ages—both neurotypical and campers with disabilities. What better way to practice and improve social interaction, speech and language skills and more! Camp is a 24/7 social environment with chances to try out various social behaviors—and receive instant feedback. Through these interactions, campers are scaffolded and grow in so many ways.
3. Camp is an all-encompassing Jewish living environment: Campers sing Jewish songs, dance Jewish dances, experience Shabbat, pray through song and movement and interact with a diverse group of Israelis. And Jewish values are alive in Jewish summer camps! Families return to their local synagogues asking if they can incorporate these elements in to their worship services and programming. And campers and staff members return home with understanding and sensitivity toward people with disabilities. And they are life-long ambassadors!
4. Camp is the next step toward independence: Separating is never easy for children and parents. But children almost always adjust to the camp routine quickly. Campers learn to make their beds, keep their shelves neat, sweep, clean the bathroom, and more. They learn to become even more independent with skills of daily living. And they often try lots of new foods in the dining room—simply because they are on the table! Parents are often amazed with what their children can do when they return from camp.The biggest post camp challenge for parents? Continuing to foster this new found independence!
5. Camp is well-deserved and needed respite for parents! One thing I did not understand that first summer as a teenage counselor was that parents work very hard. Parenting a child with a disability is not easy. Parents need and deserve a chance to be together as a couple—to sip wine, to go to the beach, or even go to Europe! And they absolutely deserve and need a chance to spend time with their neuroptypical children who also need time and attention.
As we mark Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month in February, we note that camp starts in four months! Space is filling up fast at Jewish camps all across the country. Decide today to reach out to a camp director and begin a conversation about the possibility of your child attending camp. They and you will grow a great deal from the experience!
Find available Jewish camp options for children with disabilities here.
By Rabbi Jason Miller
Ask any Jewish family that sends their children to both a private Jewish day school and a Jewish summer camp about the affordability of such endeavors and they’ll use words such as “sacrifice,” “hardship” and “priorities.” With the cost of Jewish day school tuition for one child varying from $10,000 all the way up to $40,000 per year, more Jewish families who desire a day-school Jewish education for their children are finding it cost prohibitive even with financial aid.
Add to those rising costs, the additional expense of a month or two at a Jewish summer camp and families are having to just say “no” to their kids. In the new economy, the Jewish middle class has virtually vanished. Many families who once would be considered upper middle class are forking over their tax returns hoping for subsidies to make day school and camp tuition affordable. New organizations like the Affordable Jewish Education Project (AJEP) are sprouting up seeking to imagine alternative solutions to the economic crisis. Plain and simple it’s becoming cost prohibitive to raise a Jewish family according to the values of day school and summer camp.
While Jewish day schools continue to solicit large endowment gifts to offset the tuition costs, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) has announced a new affordability initiative. In an effort to put a Jewish summer camp experience in financial reach for most families, FJC has launched BunkConnect, a new program that matches eligible families with high-quality nonprofit Jewish summer camps at a more affordable price. This philanthropic business venture has been developed in collaboration with forward-thinking business executives and leading philanthropists.
Read the rest of this article on HuffPost Religion
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), which brings a topic that is very important to us at the Foundation for Jewish Camp to the forefront of conversations all over the Jewish community. JDAM is “a unified initiative to raise awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in Jewish communities worldwide.” To further the effort, we are running a series dedicated to discussing disabilities at Jewish camp this month.
Kicking off the series is a round-up of some of the most powerful posts by Joel Yanofsky, one of our resident bloggers and father to Jonah, a great teenager and camper on the autism spectrum.
Stay tuned for posts by camp directors, experts in the field, former campers, and more.
Our friends over at JTA are compiling amusing camp anecdotes for an upcoming special package on Jewish camping. From the strangest thing you ever received in a care package to the most unusual color break out, they want to hear your camp stories.
So head over to JTA and share some camp memories, or just email email@example.com a few detailed, complete sentences. Include your name, the name of the camp and when the anecdote took place. If you have any good photos, e-mail those as well, by Monday, Feb. 10 by 9:30 a.m.
There’s no point pretending this blog post is going to be about camp or summer, especially summer. Montreal in February is no picnic. In the grip of the latest polar vortex, I can’t even remember what a picnic is. This may explain why I sometimes wonder what if I only lived in a warmer climate; if my Russian-born grandparents, who had the foresight to flee the pogroms, also had the foresight to stowaway in steerage until their ship made it to, I don’t know, Miami Beach. In any case, they didn’t and now I stowaway in my house all winter. Even our dog, fluffy as she is, would rather stay in her crate until spring. Like the dog, I’m resigned to enjoying the great indoors. During the winter months, one of those indoor activities is party going. When they’re cold, Montrealers are a particularly sociable bunch; even anti-social types like me can’t duck every invitation.
But parties have their own hazards. At a recent get-together, I found myself making small talk with a woman I’d just met. Inevitably, we got around to discussing our children and discovered we both have fifteen-year-olds. She began describing her son’s efforts to find a good CEGEP – CEGEPs, here, are the equivalent of U.S. junior colleges – once he graduated from high school. I knew, of course, where the conversation was headed and braced myself.
“Your son must be thinking about CEGEP, too,” she said.
“Jonah is on the autism spectrum,” I said. “He attends a special needs school. College isn’t likely to be in the picture.”
A long silence followed; it seemed long anyway. There wasn’t much for her to say. She hadn’t said anything wrong. If anything, I felt a little bad for her. I’ve come to terms with the fact my son has autism, but that doesn’t mean I’m not brought up short, on occasion – reminded all of a sudden that your life, his life is going to be very different from the lives of other people. It’s what I call the “what-if-moment” – the moment you can’t help wondering what if your son didn’t have autism. What would his life, your life be like?
Such questions are at the heart of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism, the memoir I wrote a couple of years ago about my family. In some ways, writing the book brought me a small measure of acceptance. I don’t sweat the big stuff anymore. Wondering what it would be like if Jonah were headed for college makes as much sense as wondering what it would be like if I were heading out the door with my surfboard.
Still, the small stuff lingers. It would be nice, for instance, if Jonah and I shared an interest in sports, in particular watching sports on TV. Yes, I wish I could instill in my son my talent for being a couch potato – especially around now, Super Bowl time.
The good news is the “what-if” moments don’t linger. It helps, too, that I came up with some trick plays to keep Jonah in front of the big game a little longer than usual this year. Just before kickoff, I made a super-size bowl of popcorn and placed it strategically beside me on the couch. My thinking was: if I could just keep Jonah there until half-time, I knew he’d want to stay for the half-time show. Jonah and I do share a love of music as well as an uncanny knack for knowing the lyrics to popular songs. When he was a toddler I taught him Beatles and Bob Marley lyrics. This past year he’s got me singing along with Pink and Bruno Mars and, on Super Bowl Sunday, I got lucky: the half-time performer was, indeed, Bruno Mars. So, even though the popcorn was finished, Jonah and I sang along with the last song – “Just the Way You Are.” Then after the song was done, I hurried into the kitchen to make more popcorn.
January 28th was one such day.
I live and work in Atlanta during the school year. For months (MONTHS!) I’d been planning an Interfaith Social Action & Social Justice day, with Marist & Davis colleagues, for my 8th graders at the Davis Academy and our friends in the 8th grade at Marist School, a Catholic school just a few minutes away.
I hit roadblocks in planning. Locations, dates, times, school start times, Atlanta traffic concerns (Haha! Foreshadowing!) But then it came together, groups of 50 students each were scheduled to volunteer at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, MedShare, and Books for Africa. They were to be tasked with sorting and packing tons, literally tons, of: food for Atlanta’s hungry; books sorted into class sets for Africa schoolchildren; perfectly usable medical supplies, saved from landfills, and repackaged to be sent around the developing world. 120 kids were scheduled to participate in VolunteerStock at Davis, making turkey sandwiches for donation in midtown Atlanta, decorating a Prayer Canvas for the Boston Marathon, and making cards for Atlanta’s sick, elderly, and those who visit our local food pantries.
In the afternoon, everyone would meet at the MLK Center in Downtown Atlanta for lunch and a program that included the extraordinary speaker Stephon Ferguson.
The night before the program, we heard that we may have to cancel the second half of the program because of a snow storm. I stayed up late, calling and emailing faculty, staff, volunteer locations, and speakers. The plan for the morning? The show must go on! The afternoon? We will play it by ear.
The morning went off without a hitch. Then we said bye to Marist, hugged, and set up for our afternoon at Davis. Beautiful. I could stop there, the blog post would be done, everyone would smile and know that 220 students and many dedicated faculty and volunteer chaperone adults did good all around Atlanta.
Then, the afternoon arrived. Snow started falling. Carpool started early. Mr. Ferguson couldn’t meet us at Davis because of traffic. Atlanta was coated in dreamy white.
700+ sandwiches sat in my car. Google told me that because of the traffic caused by the storm, it would take two hours to get to the food bank, 24 miles away. My colleagues encouraged me to set out – “you should at least try to get there” even while the transit map was beyond foreboding. I was barely driving. I moved two miles in one hour, and this was better than most. I know many people who took upwards of 10 hours to get home. There were over 700 accidents A baby was born in a car on the highway.
285 minutes, an average of 11 mph, innumerable reroutes, countless others nearly skidding into my car, a giant headache, one stop for gas/bathroom/candy/medicine, and one guy who parked in front of me for a good 20 minutes, trying to turn left, transpired. Close to home, I FINALLY maneuvered my trusty all-wheel drive Subaru Outback into the driveway of the organization that was awaiting our sandwich delivery, hours after their usual closing time. Someone pointed out to me that I could’ve given those sandwiches out to my compatriots stranded on highways, but I’m stubborn and focused. I was a woman on a mission.
How’d I pass the time? I rolled down my window to thank emergency workers, and tried to add levity to the gridlock by making faces at my fellow stranded. I Tweeted and Facebooked while I was in park (which I was, most of the time). One of my colleagues, who took three hours to drive the three blocks between Davis and home, took this picture of two of our 8th graders, serving hot coffee to those stuck in traffic outside of their homes.
The day of service didn’t end at noon, 1:30, 2:30, or even 7:30. It marched into the night. I’m warm now, but every time I look at that picture of our 8th graders serving coffee, my heart melts yet again, as they lived out what it said on our Prayer Canvas “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.”
Jewish camp is everywhere, Terry Gross confirmed on NPR the other day. While interviewing filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, she noted that she’d recently discovered that the Coen Brothers had attended the same Jewish camp – Herzl Camp, in Wisconsin – as folk icon Bob Dylan, albeit not at the same time. An excerpt from the interview follows:
GROSS: So I have to know, is this the kind of summer camp where you sing songs with lyrics about how great the camp is, and then there’s team songs with how great the team is?
GROSS: Aw, shucks. I wanted to think of [Dylan] as singing those songs.
COEN: No, you sang – it was Zionist summer camp, and you sang Zionist songs in Hebrew.
Those of us who attended similar camps recall similar activities. Personally, I can’t even read these lines of the interview without involuntarily breaking into ‘Mi anachnu? Anachnu tziirim! Sharim doo wa diddy diddy dum diddy doo!’ Sad, but true.
That overnight camp comes with a form of indoctrination shouldn’t surprise anyone – but in my experience, both as a Jewish camp camper and a Jewish camp parent, I’ve found that it’s less “indoctrination” and more “immersion.”
Camp is a time for children to be separated from their parents – let’s call them the Indoctrinators-in-Chief – and to be submerged in a world unto themselves for the first time. This is an inherently heady experience. For many children, it’s their first substantial time away from ‘home’ in a place that is not a family member’s home. Campers find themselves in a new place, where things are done differently. And without their parents at hand, they look to other sources – counselors, fellow campers, and the camp itself – as guideposts of authority, and as compasses to provide direction.
The world of each camp is carefully curated in order to convey a particular message and meaning. Some sports camps are known as fostering a spirit of camaraderie and teamwork; others are notorious for being intensely competitive. Performing arts camps fairly vibrate with the sense that there is nowhere more worthwhile than the stage. More general arts camps convey the worthiness of aggressive individuality with their free-to-be-you-and-me, anything-goes wild sense of creativity.
And yes, Jewish camps focus on being Jewish. And whether that is being Jewish as manifested by davening (praying) three times a day, by performing “Ata Ish Tov, Charlie Brown” in Hebrew or by learning about Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, a Jewish camp has as its baseline assumption the validity and continuation of the Jewish people.
So yes, Jewish camps are Zionistic and pro-Israel. Jewish camp teaches different ways of seeing the world – but those ways are through Jewish lenses and perspectives. I attended camps which made me reevaluate who I was in relation to the Jewish people. Questions, whether about kashrut or Israel, were not only tolerated, but welcomed.
Yes, I learned from camp that I was fundamentally, unalterably pro-Israel. But I also learned that ‘Israel’ means ‘to struggle.’ Immersion in a Jewish environment fundamentally differs from indoctrination: Jewish camp, whether through teaching text or history, teaches kids that being Jewish is a struggle, and one to which they should devote their entire lives.
Every summer “my camp” posts their Top 10 song session songs. And each year I look at it in great anticipation and then amazement that eight out of 10 are on my list of ultimate camps songs. The others, I have come to know and love from my camp visits every summer.
Each song – whether it by written by Pete Seeger, James Taylor, Debbie Friedman, or long forgotten color war generals – has a special spot on the soundtrack of my youth. It never fails to bring me back to a dining hall song session, standing on a bench, or a campfire belting it out, arms around my besties.
At 9, 10, 11 years old I didn’t understand the politics behind “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” or “If I Had a Hammer.” All I knew, was I just couldn’t get enough of them. Well, Pete Seeger, thanks for the memories for me, my bunkmates, and Jewish campers wishing everyday ended with a campfire, a guitar, and s’mores.
To everything there is a season – except maybe for the soundtrack of my youth, I’ll keep that in heavy rotation all year round.