Jewish Camp Gift Guide: Day 3

3. For your camper who LOVES song session

For so many campers, song session is the epitome of Jewish camp. They jump, dance and scream along to all their favorite

Ukulele blog

A Ukulele Starter Pack ($39.99 from Guitar Center)

Check out Day 2

Posted on December 17, 2014

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Jewish Camp Gift Guide: Day 2

2. For your camper who always masters the challenge course

For the kids that loves a good challenge, nothing is better than the opportunity to tackle the ropes course on camp. Why not challenge them at home with a custom camp map puzzle?

br_Map_smaller blog

Custom Camp Map Puzzle ($17.99 from Create Jigsaw Puzzles)

 Check out Day 1.

Posted on December 16, 2014

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Inclusion: A double win for Jewish Camping

FullSizeRender cropInclusion at camp is not about Chesed, it is about Tzedek.  It is not about creating something for “others”; it is about creating the best possible camp community for all.  Hope, Abril and Becca, three fifteen year old campers at Capital Camps in Waynesboro PA shared their insight on how having an inclusion program has been a special part of their camp experience.  As Hope noted “we have grown up with these kids and would not have it any other way”. When an inclusion program becomes a normal part of every day life at camp, everyone benefits.

It is a win-win situation.  As Hope points out, “At Capital Camps it is a double win, for us and those who are in the program because we love having the people with disabilities and they have an incredible time at camp.”  Jewish overnight camping provides numerous opportunities for personal growth and identity building.  Abril, elaborated on how the Atzma’im program* has changed her by adding, “Before camp I had little exposure to kids with special needs. I didn’t know much about them and didn’t understand how they could possibly make connections with other people. This perception completely changed after going to camp. Not only was I exposed to people with special needs, but I made connections with them. I learned that interacting with them isn’t very different from interacting with your other camp friends.” These ideas are echoed as well by Becca: “The special needs program at Camp has taught me so much! It has taught me to accept others differences…. Before going to camp and seeing kids [with disabilities], I didn’t quite realize that even if we look different on the outside we can still be the same on the inside. These kids have given me such a different look at people.”

The counselors at Capital Camps also benefits from being part of an inclusion program.   As Rachel, an Atzma’im counselor states, “I have learned how to have patience for others and to give them the benefit of the doubt…. I have also learned to be much more aware of the significance of inclusivity. The Atzma’im program instills counselors with a can-do attitude. I personally feel prepared to tackle challenges that might seem impossible, but with a little creativity and positivity can be solved. With full sincerity, I can say that being a counselor for the Atzma’im team has genuinely made myself, and fellow Atzma’im counselors, much more caring, considerate and inclusive people.”

Our campers and counselors take what they learn as part of an inclusion program home with them at the end of the summer.  As Abril shared,  “I now participate in best buddies at my school and interact with kids with special needs on a daily basis. They’ve become a part of our society and they need to be treated like any other part of our society would be.” Counselors have gone on to work in the field of special education, educational policy and Jewish camping where they are striving to build more inclusive camp communities.

Heading into its twelfth summer, the Atzam’im program is most remarkable because it has become unremarkable; it is just part of the fabric of camp. Creating these types of programs begins with the can-do attitude Rachel said she learned by being part of an inclusion program. Including campers with disabilities in all Jewish camps will make our camps an even better place for our young people to grow, connect and build Jewish value based identities.

*The Atzma’im (“independence”) program at Capital Camps provides a fully inclusive experience for campers with disabilities.  Enrollment is based on individual campers’ respective skill levels not their disability type or school placement. The Atzma’im campers receive 1:1 or 2:1 support from specially trained counselors under the direction of an experienced special educator live in the same bunks as other campers and are involved in all aspects of camp as fully integrated members of the camp community.

Posted on December 16, 2014

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Jewish Camp Gift Guide: Day 1

When the weather is cold and damp, the camp season seems incredibly far away. That’s why Hanukkah is the perfect time for summer camp inspired gifts. Check back every day for a new camp inspired gift!

1. For your camper whose favorite activity is Arts & Crafts

For so many campers, Art & Crafts is the activity they most look forward to. It is always their first choice and their first stop during free time. Keep the spirit of camp in all of their artwork during the year with a set of colored pencils that look like twigs.

colored pencils blog

Branch and Twig Colored Pencils ($3.99 on Amazon)

Posted on December 15, 2014

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8 Days of Hanukkah Challenge: Be the Light You Want to See in the World

handsupIn the camp world, we are more about actions than words. Our days are full of learning and exploring through movement and activity. So, I say this Hanukkah season, let’s bring a little bit of this camp spirit into our lives and our homes and take a Hanukkah challenge. Let’s not just talk about light or use matches to light our Hanukkah candles, let’s get fired up and be the light we want to see in our world! I challenge you to be exceptional, go above and beyond the norm, and embody the number eight.

In Jewish mystical teachings, the number seven symbolizes perfection – the creation of the world happened in seven days, there are seven weeks between the holidays of Pesach and Shavout, there are seven Patriarchs and Matriarchs, there are seven wedding blessings, the menorah that was housed in the Holy Temple had seven branches, and so on. The number eight then symbolizes a higher state, above the natural order. Hanukkah is seeped in a tradition of miracles, where we commemorate exceptional acts of bravery, faith, and heroism. On the eight days of Hanukkah, we should strive to go above and beyond personal limitations and become more than we think we can be.

8-day Hanukkah Challenge

Day 1: Write a letter or postcard to someone in your life that has impacted you in a positive way but may not know it – teacher, religious leader, coach, soldier – tell them why you appreciate them.

Day 2: Serving others for a living is not always easy, leave a big tip for your waiter/waitress.

Day 3: Having three meals a day is not something to be taken for granted, help fight hunger in your area and give a time and/or food donation: .

Day 4: Inspire others to perform random acts of kindness, pick up the tab for the person behind you in line for coffee and ask them to pay it forward for someone else in the coming year.

Day 5: Volunteer to shovel snow for seniors in your area – team up with Volunteers of America and get matched up with seniors who live within two miles of you.

Day 6: Help improve our community by partnering with residents of specific Denver neighborhoods to complete home and neighborhood improvement projects –

Day 7: Become active stewards of Colorado’s natural resources and take part in gardening, landscaping, and trail building and maintenance –

Day 8: Put a smile one someone’s face, bake cookies to share with co-workers and teachers at your child’s school.

Posted on December 11, 2014

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Learning About Judaism Through The Trinity (Yes, That One!)

SBB Dec BlogA big part of my job is working on the interfaith program between my school, The Davis Academy, and a local Catholic school called Marist.  It’s also one of the most interesting and energizing parts of my school responsibilities.  Months of planning go into each meeting, which starts in 7th grade with an introductory program, continues with a second learning meeting the fall of 8th grade, and culminates in service learning together in the winter.  In fact, this is not my first post about Interfaith learning.  In fact, you can read about our volunteering (and snow) day from last January here.

Our most recent event was the 2nd in the cycle – the kids met in the spring at Davis, and we have a chance to do more learning together, this time at Marist in November.  In the midst of a crazy fall, there were oases of awesome – meeting with the Marist partners to plan a really great program for our students. Last year’s Sukkot-based programming wasn’t going to work (but oh, how I wanted them to stand in a rectangle around a football field once more, arms around each other, building their own Interfaith sukkat shalom, shelter of peace…), but Thanksgiving was coming soon and that gave us plenty of material.

My partner at Marist, a teacher named Mrs. Justus, is one of those teachers who is just filled with ideas and excitement.  I am forever toting a Diet Coke, and she’s like a Mentos candy – once we start talking about Interfaith, the ideas are overflowing.  In one meeting, we discovered the commonalities between Birkat HaMazon (the grace after meals) and Eucharist, which is the Mass ceremony, where the host – the unleavened communion wafer – and wine are consumed by Catholic worshippers.  We talked about the language used in worship, and looped in idea for a translation activity.  I went home with Missalettes, which are like Catholic Siddurim, or prayer books.  I loved them.

When we arrived at Marist, we had quite the day planned.  Icebreakers were planned and enjoyed, and our students tentatively started to re-mingle, having only met for a single school day last April.  They did a blessing activity based on MadLibs (which throws back to my first job out of college – in publishing!), finding similarities between Christian, Catholic, and Jewish blessings for before and after eating food.  Students volunteered to open and close our shared lunch in their cafeteria, and then we continued with a translation activity.

Shema Yisrael is the foundational prayer of Judaism.  Quoted directly from Deuteronomy 6:4, this text is also the basis for Jesus’s teachings.  Marist students memorize it in their 7th grade religion class.  Davis students recite it regularly in school from their very first year.  Students read multiple translations – from the Jewish Publication Society’s to the Christian Good News Translation, and wrote their own translations.  In the end, we constructed this prayer with words submitted by different groups.  Groups sent up all sorts of words, such as calling God “Homie G to the D” (I’m barely paraphrasing) and “Allah”, and calling for attention in Latin!

And then, one group sent up “Trinity” for “Adonai” – the name for God.  We’d asked them to have consensus in their group, making sure that all students were comfortable with the words they chose.  Hearing the Shema translated, stating that the “Trinity is One” was a powerful moment.  To the students, I said, “That is not the usual response a Judaics teacher expects.”  That was our interfaith programming all in one moment.  The understanding of different ideas of God, the acceptance that one person’s Trinity doesn’t line up with your single, formless God, the sharing of these ideas in a non-threatening environment.

After these activities, we learned so much about Catholicism – where another Interfaith partner, Mrs. Calabrese, briefly addressed the concept of the Trinity, and the inherent mystery of having a God who is one and also split into three – and then shared a prayer service.

We gave thanks that we were able to experience this amazing interfaith learning activity, and look forward to having more moments of gratitude and shared understanding.

Posted on December 4, 2014

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Bringing Jews Back Home, Making Room for Diversity


Alexis Kashar at FJC’s Leaders Assembly

I recently had the pleasure of touring the NY School for the Deaf in White Plains, NY with Alexis Kashar, the president of its board.  Alexis is an attorney specializing in special education and disability rights and has dedicated herself to activism and pro bono work on behalf of the deaf.

For a few hours, I had a glimpse into the world of people who are deaf. Alexis is Deaf, she uses sign language and also speaks so I found it relatively easy to communicate with her. I had a few moments at the school where a child was attempting to communicate with me and I had no idea what they were saying. It felt a bit uneasy. If there were words that I didn’t understand I asked Alexis to repeat them and I found it quite helpful when she signed (although I do not speak American Sign Language).

Many of the students at the NY School for the Deaf have moved out of the public school system and into the school because they were not being successfully educated there. Some students found it difficult to learn and to make friends because they were not able to have meaningful dialogue with teachers and students from the hearing world.

For Jewish children who are Deaf the experience is similar but also comes with a few additional layers. When a Jewish child leaves the education system, they find that the Deaf school has very few other Jewish students. Their access to Jewish schools, synagogues and Jewish programming is very limited. If the family is very involved in the Jewish community and if they have access to interpreters, then perhaps their child will be a part of that community. For the majority of Jews who are Deaf, that is not the case. Alexis feels that as a community we need to bring Jews back home.  If we can ensure that Jews who are deaf will have access to Jewish life through accommodations such as sign language interpreters in synagogues, federation events, camp programs then not only will be working to bring them back home but their families will come with them.  It is what Alexis calls the Ripple Effect.

When I asked Alexis to share her thoughts on how we could best serve children who are deaf at camp her answer was, “It is not cut and dry.” Alexis grew up attending public school and summer camp in the hearing world. She understands the benefits of that upbringing for a person who is deaf but Alexis feels that a child can also benefit from being in a world where they relate to other people who are deaf. They will be among role models who understand their deaf background and communicate in their native language.

Children who are deaf have joined Jewish camps in the past, but what Alexis is suggesting is that we first focus on what would best meet the needs of the children who are deaf and then go from there. One idea would be to have children who are deaf live in cabins with other campers who are deaf. These cabins could be located on the grounds of any Jewish camp so that the children would still have access to the exact same activities and experiences available at camp. They would be a part of the larger community and attend the same programming. They could be fully included throughout the day.  Alexis further suggested that there could be programs tailor made for the campers who are deaf that the hearing campers would be invited to participate in. A play performance would be a good example. There might even be campers who are hearing involved as actors in the play.

As we have noted in other contexts, the term we are seeking is full inclusion. For a deaf camper, this doesn’t mean being present but unable to communicate, and it must not mean being merely on the same campus as the fuller camping program.  It must be an atmosphere that provides the tools and peers for communication, challenge and exploration like any other camper.

For example, at Camp L’man Achai, one of the camps of the FJC network, there is a one program for boys who are deaf. The program was a great success in 2014. The boys had a Jewish experience in a totally supportive environment that was specially designed with their needs in mind. They also had full access to the hearing community at camp. That was not an issue.

During the school year there are many reasons why a student who is deaf might prefer environments that are less inclusive, but this must not happen at the sacrifice of Jewish involvement. The unique strengths of Jewish summer camping, with its informal educational tools, is a perfect place to break down those barriers and bring Jewish campers who are deaf into the fold. Visiting with Alexis helped me to understand how that may be made possible, and how important, that is.

When I left the school, I felt invigorated and I also felt that I had missed out. I would love to be able to say that I grew up in a world where I had children of all disabilities in my classrooms or in my summer programs and that I had a good friend who also happened to be deaf. There is no doubt that having close ties and experiencing community with a diverse group of people broadens our horizons in so many ways. Our Jewish community is quite diverse though it may not seem so because we have not yet achieved our goal of making it as open an as welcoming as it needs to be so that all Jews will feel that they are always able to come back home.

Posted on December 2, 2014

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“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgiving, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” -William Arthur Ward

One of my most amazing camp moments happened on a beautiful Shabbat afternoon. On this particular Saturday, I was leading a shiur (lesson) for our younger campers where we went on a short hike to one of our upper meadows that overlooks camp. Once we got to the top of the meadow, I asked the campers to find a quiet spot not too far away but far enough away so that they could just be by themselves. Once there, I challenged them to focus in on all their different senses – what did they hear, see, smell, and feel? I asked them all to take in these observations and come up with prayers about things they appreciated. After several minutes, I called everyone back together to reflect on what they noticed during their mini solo experience and gave them an opportunity to share their prayers with the group. After several campers shared some nice observations and prayers with the us, I was feeling pretty satisfied that the kids had really taken something away from this exercise. But then something unexpected happened that totally blew me away. The last camper to offer up a reflection on the solo was a boy from our youngest cabin group. He told us all that during his solo he had written a song about all the wonderful things he noticed and that he was going to share it with us right then and there. And then he did. The boy sang us his prayer song. I can’t remember the tune or the words that he sang that afternoon but what I do remember is that it was simply beautiful and I was so grateful to be a part of and share in that moment.

Gratitude is an incredibly important aspect of living a healthy and fulfilling life. At camp we help children practice this skill on many levels – saying thank you after being served food in the dining hall, appreciating the different campers that make up their cabin group, pointing out all the natural beauty of our campsite during the activity day, taking part in prayer services, and even creating your own prayers. Being grateful and expressing what we are thankful for really elevates everything in our lives and makes what would otherwise be ordinary extraordinary.

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I welcome you to give thought and attention to articulating what you are thankful for on a daily basis and ask your children to do the same. Make your own “family gratitude challenge” and see how this simple practice enriches your life and turns fairly mundane things into blessings.

Posted on November 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Tribe of One’s Own

Watching the final outs of the seventh game of the World Series last month, I couldn’t help wondering whether the San Francisco Giants’ left-handed pitching star, Madison Bumgarner, was Jewish. I texted a friend to ask what he thought. This is a silly, parochial little game of mine, one pretty much ruined these days by Google. Bumgarner is not Jewish. You can indeed look it up, as Casey Stengel might have said. Still, it’s the kind of speculation I’ve been indulging in since I was a kid; since another left-handed ace, Sandy Koufax, refused to pitch in a World Series game because it was Yom Kippur. I remember being inexplicably proud back then, feeling the curious sense of allegiance that comes with discovering you’re part of a tribe and, better yet, you have your very own champion. The feeling is ancient, even primitive, and has its dark side, of course. But its appeal is hard to deny.

For instance, when my son Jonah returned from Camp B’nai Brith last summer, we learned he had been on the green team for various activities. We knew this because he wore his green t-shirt to bed the first few nights he was home. This is an unusual sort of attachment to others for Jonah, who is on the autism spectrum, and one we are grateful he had the chance to experience at camp.

Last month, I chronicled some of the more isolating treatment my wife, Cynthia, and I have endured over the years when we’re out with Jonah. But there was another story I wanted to share about receiving a very different kind of treatment. It didn’t seem to fit in the previous blog. It fits here, though.

In September, Jonah and I went to the bakery on a mission. We were to buy a dessert that was nut-free, a dessert we could then bring to a house where people suffered from severe nut allergies. As a result, I was being extra careful, studying the display case where the cakes and pastries were kept. In the meantime, Jonah was standing at the counter, in front of the clerk, who had shown up to serve us. Jonah was involved in his own kind of study, which is to say he was staring at the brownies directly behind the clerk.

This was, coincidentally, the same moment I decided I needed some help making my choice and I called out to the clerk. “Does the chocolate cake contain nuts?” I asked, once I’d caught his eye.

But he ignored me. The clerk, a tall, handsome young man, seemed not especially interested in doing his job. So I asked my question again. This time he looked right at me, glared actually, with an expression full of unconcealed contempt. When he looked away it was to turn to Jonah and ask my son if he could help him. Jonah didn’t say anything. No doubt, he was thinking of what strategy he could use to convince me to buy him a brownie.

“We’re together,” I finally said, patting Jonah on the shoulder. The clerk’s dark expression lightened gradually. He told me all the cakes were nut-free and I could choose whichever one I wanted. When I was paying, he apologized for his dirty look. He also explained the reason for it. As far as he was concerned, he had been waiting on Jonah and I was pushing in line in front of him.

“I have an older sister who has special needs and I don’t like to see people like her taken advantage of,” he said. “I have seen it way too many times.” I knew exactly what he was talking about and immediately felt a kinship with this young man I’d just met. I think I saw his eyes well up; I know my mine had.

Then as we were leaving the bakery, the clerk called Jonah over and handed him a small brown bag. It had a brownie inside. “It’s on the house,” he said. It was a tiny, touching gesture. And it also felt like more than that. Like we had discovered we were on the same team, part of the same tribe.  Most of all, I was proud of him for defending his sister and my son – for being his champion. I felt a little like I was watching Sandy Koufax take to the mound all over again.

In his prize-winning book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon writes about kids with a wide variety of disabilities and specials needs, including autism. The book took Solomon 11 years to write and what started out as the story of the differences that have so often divided and isolated us ended up being the story of how “difference unites us.” So many more of us than ever.

These days, Solomon adds, “The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”

Posted on November 21, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Planning Ahead for a Special Summer

Camp_0428It’s only November, but I am already hearing the buzz of kids at Kiddush lunch talking about their plans for the summer. One particular young lady spent about a half an hour with me asking  all of her most pressing questions as she mentally prepares for her first summer at Jewish sleep away camp. She wants to know what she should pack, what she can wear, will the girls be open to having a new person in their bunk, do the boys have payos –Hebrew for sidelocks or sidecurls, and will there also be other kids at camp who attend public school.  What she was really getting at was the following: Will I fit in? Will the other campers and counselors look like me? Will I be at a disadvantage? Will I have fun? Fortunately, this 6th grader is very articulate. She is aware of her feelings and can ask for help in preparing for this big step in her childhood. She has already asked for some time to sit down with me again in the spring to further prepare and she has asked me to speak to her mom to provide any information I think would be important for them to know.

On another Shabbat, I had a conversation with a parent who has never experienced Jewish camping at all. His child has never attended a Jewish day camp and the family has never visited a sleep away camp. What this parent does know, is that every summer almost all of the children over the age of eight disappear from the halls and the sanctuary of the synagogue.  They all go away for four to eight weeks to Jewish summer camp. And he knows when they return they are taller, they are happy and they have stories to share about their summer at camp.  This is the experience that he wants for his child as well, and there are many questions to be asked about the different options available that will meet the family’s desires. What makes this conversation unique is that this parent has a child with a disability. That changes the nature of the conversation.

As the conversation progresses, the family expresses their desires (level of Judaism, types of activities, lake vs. pool, proximity to home) and the child also expresses their desires (activities that they like, food served at camp), but there are many more questions that are not expressed by the child. Unlike the girl I mentioned above, this child is not able to articulate her needs in the same way. For this family there is an awareness that they will need to make some compromises in order to find a place that will be the best place for their child. The non-negotiables: counselors who will know how to work with their child’s particular disability, their child will have fun, and their child will make a friend. While these desires are no different from the desires of other parents they may not make the top three on the list on non-negotiables.

Yes, finding the right summer home for a Jewish child to spend the summer is not an easy feat. For families of campers with disabilities the search may be a bit more extensive. Where to start? The Foundation for Jewish camp has a Find a Camp feature which enables users to search for camps throughout the country. You can also speak to your synagogue rabbi or other parents in your community to learn about the camps their children attend.  The number of camps offering programs for children with disability continues to increase. Parents now have options across every Jewish denomination and movement, including non-denominational camps. Options also include general or specialty camps that exist in many parts of the country.

There are Jewish camps that offer programs for children with disabilities including, but not limited to: Deafness, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual and Developmental disabilities as well as physical disabilities. I want to share a few examples of such programs. The Foundation for Jewish Camp welcomed Aryeh Adventures, its newest summer program for teens with disabilities in 2014. It is a teen travel program where participants travel across the West Coast. In the summer of 2014, Camp L’man Achai opened a program for Deaf boys and has plans for an even larger group this summer. Round Lake Camp of NJY Camps offers specialty camps with a variety of options including fine arts, sports and the sciences. Camp Moshava Malibu opened its doors in the summer of 2014 and already experienced much success with its inclusion program. Camp Yavneh in partnership with Yachad will open an inclusion program in the summer of 2015 and Camp Ramah Darom which runs a family camp, Camp Yofi, at the end of each summer, will now offer summer sessions for children with disabilities.  Camp HASC is another such program which is focused on serving the social, therapeutic, academic, recreational, and medical needs of campers with intellectual and physical disabilities.

As you prepare for summer camp, I encourage you to meet with a senior member of the camp staff so that you can get a better sense of whether a particular camp would be a good fit for your child.  You should also feel comfortable sharing as much information as possible about your child with the staff at your camp so they can begin to prepare for a successful summer for your child.  Feel free to share things that make your child happy, their interests, their fears, their favorite bedtime rituals, their triggers and strategies that work well for you at home or for the teachers at home. Let the staff know how they can support your child and what tools they can use to help to make for a meaningful and fun summer at Jewish camp.

The number and variety of options will continue to expand as the Foundation for Jewish Camp continues to work towards our goal of meeting the needs of a diverse community and ensuring that every Jewish child experiences the joy of Jewish camp.

Posted on November 20, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy