The call came the other day from our son Jonah’s sleep-away summer camp. Registration was almost completed and we hadn’t signed him up yet. Was there a problem? I explained the delay was because our son was on the autism spectrum and there were additional details that had to be worked out – about how long he would be staying, about the availability of a shadow for that time period, about the cost. I was tempted to go on from there to my usual rant about how much more complicated things were when you’re dealing with a child with special needs, but I refrained. You see, after my last blog post called the “The What-if Moment,” about how I sometimes imagine how much easier our lives would be if my son did not have autism, my wife, Cynthia, strongly suggested I might want to be a little less of a grouch in future.
Her request reminded me of an interview I did some years ago with the novelist Richard Ford. He told me that his wife challenged him to write about a happy character for once. The result was Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Ford’s three wonderful but hardly cheery novels, The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and Lay of the Land. I’m guessing the Bascombe trilogy just left his wife shaking her head. “This guy is supposed to be happy?” she was undoubtedly thinking. Even so, Ford tried. And so will I.
In fact, after last month’s blog, I was reminded of an event I did in a library a few years ago. I was discussing my book about Jonah and during the Q&A, an older woman prefaced her question by saying she didn’t mean to be cruel, a sure sign she was going to be. I braced myself, but still her remarks stunned me. Do you ever wonder, she wanted to know, if you would have been better off if your son had not been born? For example, she added, your wife and you would have had more time for each other. Or maybe, she went on, you could have written more books. Like I said, I was stunned and speechless. Which is when the audience, bless them, came to the rescue. After the woman had gone on for a while longer, they basically shouted her down. I never really got to give her a good answer, but I thought about her question later and I wished I’d had the chance to respond.
I could have told her about the little things I’d miss – the fun I have making up crossword puzzles with Jonah, one of our new pastimes, or listening to music with him in the car. Or the way he chooses bedtime to conduct his own Q&A, asking his most profound and challenging questions like this recent one: “Daddy, why does there have to be yuck in real life?”
I could have also mentioned the lessons I’ve learned from Jonah – about being different, about working hard, about living in the moment. Even so, the cliché about my son making me a better person hasn’t turned out to be true. The fact is he’s a role model I will never quite live up to. He constantly amazes me with his imperviousness to embarrassment and the judgment of others, with the sheer delight he takes in everything from meeting a new person to dancing to eating a brownie. And, of course, there’s the big thing I would have missed if Jonah was not my son – fatherhood. I was over forty when Jonah was born and I never expected to have a family of my own. Before Cynthia and Jonah, I was lonely for a lot of my adult life. Since I became a husband and father, I can’t recall what loneliness feels like. There’s no way to say this without sounding utterly sappy – and without being utterly honest – but Jonah gave purpose to my life.
After the recent death of the actor and filmmaker Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day), I came across a small scene he did in Judd Apatow’s movie Knocked Up. Ramis’s work was an early influence on Apatow and Apatow cast him as Seth Rogen’s father, letting Ramis improvise most of his dialogue. While Rogen, who has just gotten a woman he hardly knows pregnant, is practically pleading for his father’s scorn, Ramis can’t contain his delight. “You are the best thing that ever happened to me,” he eventually announces to his slacker son. “Now, I just feel bad for you,” Rogen says, giving the scene its punch line. But it’s Ramis’s unequivocal, automatic declaration that still stays with me. In fact, I wish I could meet that woman from the library again so I could tell her I feel the exact same way about my son.
Teachers, curricula, grades, rulers, pencils, erasers, chalk, markers, handouts, hands up, heads up, mouths shut, black boards, white boards, smart boards, and (all too often bored) students: the ingredients of formal education. If we were to reject these in the name of awaking our children to the joy and splendor of Jewish life, we would be relegated to the realm of informal education. But calling it informal seems too limiting. By calling it informal we are defining this mode of education by what it is not, as compared to defining it by what it is. That is why I prefer to call it experiential education. But, what is experiential education? In general the core of excellent experiential education is plainly put: excellent education. But if experiential education does not follow the recipe of formal education, what is its secret in ingredient?
So even before I get started I want to say that I believe assessment, evaluation, and accountability are crucial to the educational project, but here I want to explore what positive things happen in the educational kitchen when we take away the grades and remove the perception of judgment. With this move away from presumptive hierarchy, the weight of the education needs to be born out on the shoulders of the relationships. It is only when the educators meet the students’ basic needs and achieve a mutual trust that we get cooking. In an environment where we are giving grades we need to be transparent, otherwise we run the risk of being unethical. How can a student be held accountable for something that they did not know that they were going to be tested on? In experiential education, the deepest learning often happens when educators help students get out of their own way in the service of their learning. We often need to use obfuscation and trickery. Being transparent often destroys that magic. Obviously this manipulation can be misused, but if we maintain that trust, the process will yield future revelations and breakthroughs in learning.
It is interesting to think about this aspect of education in the larger context of revelation. When the People of Israel were about to receive the Torah at Sinai, the Torah says, “And Moshe brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood under the mountain.”(Exodus 19:17) What does it mean “under the Mountain?” On this, in the Talmud Shabbat 88a, Rabbi Avidimi ben Hama ben Hasa said that this teaches us that the Holy One raised the mountain above them like an inverted cask and said, “If you accept the Torah, good; if not, this will be your burial.” So our experience at Sinai was less an intimate moment under the chupah, and more, a carjacking. Rabbi Aha ben Yaakov noted that accepting the Torah under duress presents a strong challenge to the obligatory nature of Jewish law. How can we be held liable for a contract that we were forced into? But Raba said that they accepted it again in the days of Purim, as it says in Megilat Esther, “The Jews fulfilled and they accepted.” (Esther 9:27) Why the doubling of language? This means: they fulfilled what they had already accepted. The fulfillment of the added laws of Purim demonstrated that they accepted the laws of Sinai from thousands of years earlier. The difference being that this time there was no duress. It was not only that there was no God to push them into it, in the entire book of Esther there is no reference to God. God is hidden.
The story, and the holiday of Purim, seems to be a theater in which we are exploring what is hidden and what will be revealed. Esther’s name and identity are hidden. When will they be revealed? We explore this with all of our customs of costumes. The fate of the Jewish people is unknown. When will that be revealed? We explore this with our community gatherings and of course our eating. There would be no story of Purim if all we had was transparency. Purim seems to be a holiday of delayed revelation.
I am not arguing that formal education is bad. I happen to love it and it has a huge role to play in education, but it is clearly not the only way. We need different ingredients to meet the needs of different learners. The delayed revelation of Purim points to a secret ingredient of experiential education. What does the world look like without a judge or judgment? The absence of God made it possible for Esther to be a true heroine. If there was transparency, Esther would have never learned the nature of her commitment to her community. We see many aspects in camping where it is a child centered institution free of judgment because the adults are hidden and there are no grades. The joyous Judaism and the freedom of camp hide the highly organized and intentional program. If we had to be transparent about our intention to make another generation committed to our future we would not be successful. As we read in Megilah, “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16) It is only at the end of the story of Purim that the hidden became clear, but boy were they glad.
The Jewish Funders Network has named the Foundation for Jewish Camp as the inaugural recipient of the Shapiro Prize for Excellence in Philanthropic Collaboration, for being the first funder collaboration to advocate for, promote, and strengthen Jewish camps on a wide scale.
The new prize recognizes alliances of forward-thinking Jewish funders who collaborate to achieve broader impact in their chosen fields of interest. It was presented Sunday at the annual JFN conference in Miami Beach.
Until FJC was founded in1998 by Elisa Spungen Bildner and her husband Robert Bildner, Jewish camps ran independently or within their religious movements. The Bildners envisioned collaborating with other funders, and received support from The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and The Wexner Foundation.
The creation of FJC expanded support for the field and brought long-term vitality to more camps and their programming.
Read the rest of this feature on eJewish Philanthropy.
Purim’s getting close, so we’re sharing some camp-themed costume ideas for you to enjoy!
One of the most delicious memories of camp is s’mores roasting over a fire, so why not dress as one? Your toddler will be so yummy in this S’more Costume!
Channel your inner counselor! Get dressed up as your favorite madrich or madricha with these colorful whistles. Bonus: You can use them in place of a grogger during the Megillah reading!
Continuing with the counselor theme, how about adding a backpack to round out the costume? This cool tye-dye Jansport backpack will also be perfect for carrying and delivering mishloach manot, or Purim food gifts.
Round out your counselor costume with this Columbia Bora Bora sun hat. It may not necessarily be sunny this Purim, but it sure will get you in the mood for summer (and of course, summer camp!)
Share your Purim fun with family and friends! Send this Purim gift basket full of kosher hamatashen, adorable masks and other fun activities.
We hope you enjoy our camp-themed Purim picks, and chag sameach!
ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival is the largest festival of its kind in the country. We present films by and about people with disabilities and share the lives, stories and experiences with the broad NY community, featuring in over 30 locations throughout NY and in 14 additional major cities nationwide. The festival was started and is run out of the JCC in Manhattan and supported by UJA Federation, yet it is not specifically a Jewish festival. It presents films from across the spectrum of disabilities and is as inclusive as possible. So why is this festival being supported by the Jewish community?
I feel this festival connects in a few ways. The first and most obvious is the concept of Btzelem Elohim that we were all created in the “image of god,” and therefore, everyone is equal. All humans. But more importantly, over the years I have realized that the festival is part of a social movement. Creating inclusion and equal access for people with disabilities is the new Civil Rights Movement. The Jewish community was so involved with the Civil Rights Movement, because we know what it feels like to not be included.
Jewish camps got their start in order to create a place where Jewish kids can feel included. One of the wonderful qualities of camp is that everyone can find their place in this mini-utopia. There is always the kid who is “different” and does not fit in but in an inclusive environment like camp, being different is acceptable. We are all different and should all be included.
ReelAbilities use great films to foster social change and believe that this will lead to a more inclusive society. We will be including some of our short films (Reel Encounters) in the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s conference. Reel Encounters includes family friendly short films on a diverse selection of disabilities.
ReelAbilities is running in New York from March 6-11 at the JCC in Manhattan and in over 30 locations throughout NY followed by 14 additional cities throughout the year. For more info check out www.NewYork.ReelAbilities.org
Today is Share the Word to End the Word Day. The word “retard” that is.
It was once acceptable to use the words “mental retardation” as a clinical description for people who had below average IQ’s and had delays in adaptive skills. Nowadays, the r-word has a significantly negative connotation as it has often been used on playgrounds and in school hallways as a put-down. Even adults have used it, and still use it, in conversations when referring to something or someone as being an idiot or idiotic. Due to the incredible misuse of this word and the hurt that it causes, we now use “intellectual disability” as a replacement.
One of the purposes of today, is to ask people to pledge to remove the word from their vocabulary and to discourage others from using as well. The r-word must be replaced with RESPECT, respect for people of all abilities. It should also be replaced with what we call “people first language” (a child with autism, a person who is hard of hearing, a person who uses a wheelchair, my brother, my bunkmate, my friend). A person’s disability should never be what defines him or her; it is only a part of who that person is. As we continue to move in the direction of inclusion for children with disabilities at Jewish camp we will break down barriers and allow children and adults at camp to learn what makes us more alike than we are different and why the words that we choose to use even in jest, must always be respectful and must always put people first.
This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
The gates of camp will open in just over 100 days, and our participants from around the country are already counting down to sunny days at their summer home. At Kutz Camp, one aspect of camp we are particularly proud of is our Mitzvah Corps program. With the recent focus on disabilities and inclusion, it makes going into our 23rd summer of special needs camping that much more special. The Mitzvah Corps program at Kutz has grown and evolved into a truly integrated, mainstreamed summer camp program for Jewish teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). There are two aspects of this program that are really remarkable.
The Mitzvah Corps program itself has been designed to meet the unique needs and characteristics of each participant in the program, creating individualized accommodations and modifications which allow each camper to succeed. These teens enjoy every aspect of camp life, and are able to build independence and resilience by having real choices in their daily activities. They are welcomed into the community with open arms, into an environment which fosters reciprocal learning, empathy, and understanding. In this open, friendly and supportive camp community, our teens with ASD are able to create friendships, explore their identity, gain independence, and grow in many ways. Perhaps the greatest outgrowth of this program is meeting with the parents of these teens, who are often overcome with gratitude and emotion for making a normative summer camp experience available to their child.
One of our campers, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, loves learning about Judaism and is particularly interested in prayer. She finds it difficult to fit in with her peers at school and in her home congregation. At camp, she participated in the Torah Corps Major, where teens gather for three hours each morning to study Jewish text, Jewish history, and engage in meaningful discussion and debate about a variety of topics relating to Judaism. Throughout the day she chose classes to attend on the subjects of Israeli culture and Jewish ethics, and participated in a variety of other activities and experiences. On the last night of camp, during a closing circle with the all of camp, she, who is generally very quiet and prefers not to be around large groups of people, stood up and addressed the group. She thanked everyone for helping create a place where she felt that she could “unwind.”
A few days after returning home from camp, her mother shared, “My daughter came home with enormously enthusiastic reports about her time at camp. She said she loved the Torah study and Israeli culture sessions and the singing and services. I really couldn’t be happier. Her older sister commented tonight that she was so much more outgoing and engaged this evening than she was before she left. We all think this is because she got accustomed to the much higher level of social demand at camp and it really strengthened her ability and desire to engage. I can’t tell you what a giant step forward this experience is for her. We are excited about how it has enriched her life and the possibilities it opens up for her future.”
In addition to the incredibly talented and dedicated staff who help make this program a reality, what gives the program its sparkle are the Chaverim. At Kutz each teen chooses a Major, a leadership learning area that is their primary focus during the session. The Mitzvah Corps Major is comprised of neurotypical teens that learn the skills of special needs inclusion, and are able to work as peer-engagers, helping with the integration of our special needs population into mainstream camp culture.
Not only are we able to provide a safe, nurturing, camp experience for our teens with ASD, we are also able to train the next generation of compassionate young people who will choose to continue this valuable work of accessibility for special needs populations as they move through college and into the work world. Fostering the next generation of advocates who will stand on the shoulders of all of those doing remarkable work around disabilities and inclusion today is one example of our commitment to a vibrant and just Jewish future. We are so proud of our hundreds of alumni of this remarkable program.
Find out more about URJ programs designed for special needs populations here.
This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
Each year the most talented dancers and performers at Cedar Lake Camp would audition to compete for first place in a lip-syncing contest in their annual talent show. Kids would plan in the off season, and work all summer to be the best. Last year, however, the camp was challenged to change the show. Cedar Lake had recently welcomed the oldest campers from Round Lake Camp, another NJY camp for children with learning differences and social communication disorders, in a model of inclusion – and these new campers were encouraged to participate as well.
Some of the staff was afraid of what would happen. The new campers could not do the complex dance moves and choreography which was the hallmark of this event every summer. How would the other campers react to them on stage? Would the campers with disabilities feel successful and have a positive experience?
The group was placed in the middle of the show, amidst all of the other competing teams. One by one the acts performed – rock, pop, and hip hop. Each of the competing acts was amazing and received enthusiastic applause from their bunks and fellow campers. Behind the scenes the tension mounted awkwardly as the new group lined up to take the stage.
As these campers with disabilities walked up the stairs, their counselors cheered them on enthusiastically, and the 700 onlookers watched quietly. The group took their positions. What followed was magical.
Each camper made his moves in his own way. Each lip-synced with enthusiasm and joy. Some body motions were exaggerated. Some facial looks or ticks were clear. The rock anthem, “I want it that way” blared over the speakers and the crowd began to cheer. Teenagers who didn’t know how to feel when they took the stage couldn’t help but get swept up in the pride of the moment. By the end of the song, 700 campers roared to their feet as one. It was the only standing ovation of the day. Those campers were super stars.
No, they didn’t “win” first place. But yes, they won the day. And for that moment, everything we want in a camp came true for every single camper who was there.
This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
For me, it was in third grade.
I was in the bathroom and there was screaming that was not really words, but utterances, from behind another stall door. I could hear crying and knew something was not going well. I asked if someone needed help and there was just banging on the door. I was (and still am) a short person, so I crawled under the stall … and there was Sylvia.
Sylvia was in the self-contained special education classroom in my elementary school. In 1978, this was the way schools were set up and mainstream kids like me had very little interaction with kids in the self-contained classes. Sylvia was what we now would refer to as moderately developmentally delayed; she had some verbal skills but no real connections and no ability to make a sentence. There she was … just standing there … all ready to get out of the bathroom stall, but she had accidentally locked herself in. I unlocked it. We went to wash our hands and then it dawned on me that I should walk her back to her classroom to let the teacher know what had happened, since she was so distressed just moments earlier. I walked her to the classroom, told the teacher what happened and went to leave. As I did, Sylvia ran up and hugged me. I felt great about what had happened and moved on with my day.
Later that week, we were on the playground at recess and this boy, Marcus, came up and hugged me and told me that I was his friend now since I was Sylvia’s friend. Marcus was nearly six feet tall in fifth grade and also had developmental challenges, but he was able to communicate more effectively than Sylvia. Marcus just hugged me … every single day on the playground for that entire year. And every single day on the playground the year after, until he graduated and went to the junior high.
Maybe it was because I have some connection with people who want to be understood, maybe it was because I love to communicate with people in any way and felt like Sylvia must really need someone to help her to communicate, maybe it was because I liked it when I felt important by helping another person. Whatever the reason, there it was … my love for people with learning challenges and developmental differences. As clear as day, in third grade.
I continued this path as I grew older: I volunteered for kids with special needs in my town, befriended the kids in camp that no one else really wanted to hang out with, and even got a scholarship in senior year of high school for pursuing a career in special education. I went off to college and thought I would be a teacher, but once there decided that social work was more my style. All through college I coached five different sports in the Special Olympics (where one athlete asked me if I knew that, even though I did not have special needs, I was the worst player on our basketball team … and I was the coach), was head of the Students for Special Needs program, and did other volunteer work. I found an AMAZING Jewish camp to work at for children who had challenges, and found a mentor there that was inspiring. Ten years later, when he left, I got his job running the camp and continued to do so for about a decade. Now I am blessed to be working in another camp that is all about inclusion, and special needs inclusion is one part of this.
I would guess that I have worked with over a thousand young people and adults with special needs – all types of special needs – in a camping setting and I must tell you that it NEVER once dawned on me that this was a big deal. I mean, my sister loved to work with clothing and went into fashion, my brother loved to make deals and became an attorney, and I loved to help people so I went into social work with a focus on special needs. I know this will sound cliché, but I learn more from someone with challenges than they will ever learn from me. I get to be there for a family when they think no one is going to “get them” and their situation. I learn about acceptance of people’s strengths and weaknesses and that it is ok to have both. I gain an appreciation for things that are going well and a tolerance for things when they are not.
I know one thing for sure: no matter what I do for my entire career, the most important thing I ever did was crawl under a bathroom stall and unlock a door for my friend Sylvia.
Our friends at JTA have rounded up some of their readers’ most amusing camp stores.
From New York’s Eden Village Camp:
Craziest thing confiscated: A mom who knew that we don’t allow candy at camp wanted to give her kids a special treat, so she packed some Snickers bars in a tampon box! While we applaud the creativity, it didn’t change our “no candy at camp” rule.
Most extreme example of helicopter parenting: We had a parent who actually flew over in a helicopter! (He was a pilot, but still! He took an amazing aerial photo of camp.)
Most amusing crisis weathered: The freezer broke on the hottest day of the summer, and the campers were forced to eat all of our homemade ice cream.
And find JTA’s complete 2014 Jewish camp package, full of articles and fun features here.