Keeping Up With Our Digital Children: Behind the Screens

©Next Exit Photography www.nextexitphotography Parenting in all generations has had its’ challenges, however in today’s digital society it has created a new world of parenting concerns—in addition to offline parenting. It’s back to school, and our children’s digital devices and online access is only going to increase in the coming days.  How do we keep up?  It is all about what happens behind the screens and offline parenting that is important.

It’s a fact, having “the talk” doesn’t only mean about the birds and the bees anymore.  Before any child is handed a keypad of any kind, parents should discuss; digital citizenship, cyber-safety, how to report online abuse and above all your child needs to know that having any type of tech gadget is a privilegenot a right.  If they abuse this privilege, there will be consequences. Having a family Internet safety contract in place is recommended.

Be very clear on your consequences and always follow through.  It is important that your child know that as a parent you will be monitoring them.  This way there are no surprises, it isn’t about not trusting them, it is about their safety and well-being.

Monitoring verses snooping

Your child’s safety is a priority. Monitoring is parenting. When safety trumps privacy, snooping is your last resort.

As I mentioned in an earlier article, many teens don’t tell their parents they are being bullied online for a variety of reasons. This can cause for emotional scarring that is unnecessary if addressed early.

You may notice behavioral changes such as:

  • Secretive and withdrawn
  • Change in appetite
  • Changing friends
  • Failing, underachieving in school
  • Sadness and signs of depression

Keeping up with the latest digital trends

Kids and teens are usually ahead of their parents when it comes to apps and tech trends.  An open dialogue with your kids is better than spying and snooping.  This starts early with a genuine interest in their digital lives.

The truth is monitoring systems and parental controls are only useful to an extent. This is why it is imperative that your child is taught digital awareness offline so that when they are faced with difficult situations online they are better equipped to handle them. This is not to discourage parents from having monitoring programs in place, but you have to face the reality that especially teens are cyber-savvy and will find ways to escape monitoring systems. This is why it is so important they have cyber- skills to make good choices when you are not arounddigitally.

New apps and social media sites

Just ask!  Make it a habit to ask your kids if they have downloaded any new apps lately – or what their favorite sites are.  Learn about their digital lives and where they cyber-surf.  Make this a frequent conversation.

Want to find out more? Ask your child’s friends or your friends kids for the latest app or social media (networking) site they have joined or downloaded lately.  Engage in a conversation of why they like it and what it offers. This will give you an idea of where other kids are hanging online. It’s amazing how much your child’s friend’s love to speak to parent’sother than their own!

After SnapChat the big trend is the disappearing message apps that are saturating online stores and becoming increasingly popular with users of all ages.

It is not about the app, it is about having the knowledge to click-out when you know you are in a dangerous or risky area online or situation. We often hear about websites, such as CreepyPasta, only after there is a tragedy.

The fact is, although the site might not be where we want to have our kids lingering, it’s not the site that harmed the teenager. It’s the choices the teens make. It goes back to offline parenting.

Parenting our children offline is what will give our children online character and social behavioral skills online to make better choices when they are surfing cyberspace on their own. This includes decisions to download appropriate apps and use social media sensibly.

Friends, family and cyber-mentors:  Share and share alike

The best tip for parents for online safety is keeping your offline communications open. Discussing digital safety, cyberbullying, online scams, password security, new apps, new sites and all things tech should be part of your family conversation same as how was your day at school or your summer camp adventures.

It’s a fact, most teens and parents are attached to their technology. I am confident there is something everyone can share at the dinner table about the Internet whether it is new website or app they learned about that day. Become each other’s cyber-mentor.

Let’s not wait for national headlines to have a conversation. Let’s not wait for another youth suicide to talk about the digital world.

Keeping up with technology is almost impossible, but keeping up with our child is not only possible – it’s necessary. It’s all about making it your prioritybe sure you have several family dinners weekly and have those tech talks often, they are important to get behind the screens of your kids!

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Posted on September 22, 2014

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Lessons from Camp and the High Holidays

7-11-14-684 cropThe buses have rolled away, the bags are unpacked, the phone calls between your campers and their friends are sending your phone bill sky high, and the countdown until next summer has already begun. As the days and weeks tick by, the Jewish calendar asks us to take pause and evaluate ourselves and account for our deeds. With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur right around the corner we begin the process of looking at what we have done and how we have grown so we can do more and grow more. The High Holidays aren’t just about beating our chests in repentance; they are also about accepting responsibility for our individual and communal actions and learning from our past experiences.

With camp behind us and the holiday season ahead of us, now is the perfect time to talk with your kids about what they learned at camp and how they might grow and change in the months leading up to next summer. This sort of self-reflection isn’t easy for kids (or adults!) to do, but it can be very gratifying because it can make the whole family appreciate just how special camp is even more.

As you dip your apples in your honey (or your fresh fruit in silan and tehina, as in the recipe below) encourage conversation with your kids on what they learned over the summer. Self-reflection and growth is hard for all of us, but it is important to take the lessons from camp and talk about how they can be applied to challenges in the real world. How can the enjoyment of singing during Shabbat translate to finding meaning in Hebrew school? How can the tribulations of sleeping on a top bunk help you deal with a difficult math teacher? How can the creativity needed to design a cheer for color war help you discover what to write for your essay in English class? Discussing these types of situations with your kids can help them put their camp experience into context so that they can adapt, change, and grow into a better person.tehina pic

“Halvah” Fruit dip
Serves 8

½ cup tehina
½ cup silan (date honey)
¼ cup chopped pistachios
Large platter of fresh and dried fruits (strawberries, mango, apples, dried figs, dried apricots)

1. With a tablespoon, scoop alternating spoons of tehina and silan onto a large platter.
2. Using a fork, swirl the tehin and silan together. Sprinkle with pistachios.
3. Serve with fruit platter.

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Posted on September 19, 2014

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The Power of Inclusion, and Lessons for Rosh Hashanah

PWP Studio photographers specialize in corporate event photography, decor, details, incentive travel, conventions, and on-location photography in Atlanta, GeorgiaAfter nine years as a camper and counselor at Massad Bet (of blessed memory), and one year as the Program Director of Camp Mesorah, I thought I knew all I needed to know about sleep-away camps.

There were cool kids and nerdy kids. Fun counselors and those who, well, let’s just say it was the Seventies and call it a day (or night- a very late night).

As a grown up (hah!) and member of the senior management team at OHEL, I have suddenly found myself deeply invested in a movement that I could not have seen coming, but a movement that is nonetheless here to stay- one of great pride and a source of joy for our community.

OHEL’s Camp Kaylie takes the previously unheard of and makes it sparkle. Rather than having one or two specially designated bunks for children with special needs, Kaylie fully integrates these campers into nearly all aspects of camp life.

Sleeping in the same bunk. Eating at the same camp table. Sharing in camp cheers. Figuring out how to make it work in sports, robotics, Jewish learning.

Camp Kaylie is a laboratory for life. We ALL have needs. No one is “normal”. Everywhere we go we need to learn to interact with others who are different than us. Of course Mr. and Mrs. Kaylie are the heroes for their vision, but the participants in this lab for life- the typical and non-typical campers, the staff, and most especially the parents are to be celebrated for their belief in the goodness of the human spirit. And God bless them, there is a waiting list to get in.

I mentioned the previously unheard of fully integrated bunks. Here’s a note written to me by one of our top educators this summer:

“One of the boys that came for Kaylie Kids (the three day trial for younger children) asked me in front of a few special needs kids “where are the special needs kids? My mom told me we would be helping special needs kids.

So I told him that at Camp Kaylie there isn’t a separate bunk labeled “DD”(Developmentally Disabled)” or “Special Needs” . I explained that at Camp Kaylie everybody is equal, everybody can have fun, everybody deserves the same opportunities, and the boy said that since he may not know which kids need that extra love and encouragement he will make sure to be extra nice and encouraging to everybody.”

Want to bottle that? There’s your holy water right there… we as a people have found a new way to elevate our lives and the lives of others- even during our summer months of rest.

How about this letter from a mother of a “typical” camper?

“As the summer starts coming to a close, we just wanted to let you know what an outstanding experience our son had in Camp Kaylie. Going in, we knew that this would be a special camp, and that he had the right personality and background for it.. But when we came up on Visiting Day and he proudly introduced us to EVERY member of his bunk, making sure to include the special campers with an inside joke or extra smile, then we knew there was something very special going on.

The experience carried beyond the last day of camp: although our son has always been good-natured, when he came home he was just a little more cooperative, a little more thankful for things, a bit kinder to his brother… Camp Kaylie made a difference, and it shows.”

Or this letter, from a counselor who couldn’t believe his eyes- literally:

“I want to share with you two short stories that I observed over the summer which had a great impact on me, and I am sure on other people who were in similar situations.

The first story occurred on the first Friday of the summer during the KFL (Kaylie Football Tournament). From the start my team was looking like a disaster. We had just enough players in order to have a game, and most of them were not so excited to play. I learned that my best wide receiver on my team was extremely homesick and was thinking about missing the game in order to sit and do nothing. Another one of my players had never played a game of football before and had certainly never caught a pass. A third player who happened to be “D.D.” was pretty uncoordinated and didn’t really know how to play the game. Well, I wasn’t going to let any of these obstacles get in the way of them having a good time, so I huddled up everyone on the team and told them that we were definitely going to win – and we were going to have a great time as well. I went over the basic rules with the two boys on my team who didn’t really understand football and with that the game started.

The first game started off a little surprising. We started off with a lead and the campers were getting really into it. I started getting them pumped up and a few minutes into the game – the boy who was homesick forgot about all of his problems and he was really getting into the game. We won the first game and by the end the boys were all smiles. By the end, our team eventually won the entire tournament. However, the fact that we won was not what was amazing. What was amazing was how we won. The quarterback of my team was absolutely not shy about throwing the ball to campers who didn’t look like they could possibly catch. In fact he threw many passes to the boys who had never played football before – typical and “D.D.” alike. By the end of the day, one of the special needs campers on my team who probably never caught a pass in his life finished off the game with a catch in the end zone! Another camper who had just learned to play football that day caught a touchdown giving us the lead in the second game and bringing us to the championship. These boys were not super athletes. However, just a few days into camp they were given the confidence to perform under pressure. And they succeeded more than I could have ever imagined. At first I thought that my quarterback was a righteous Peyton Manning. However, as camp went on I realized that he was just a regular kid who knew that the right thing to do was to pass the ball.

I would like to share with you one final incident. This one occurred during the horseback riding activity early on in the summer. While my campers were taking turns riding on the horses, one of the workers approached me. He wanted to know exactly what Camp Kaylie is all about. I explained to him it’s about integration and I went into a detailed discussion with him about the exact dynamics in camp. I explained to him about the various ratios. One of my typical campers jumped up and said that our bunk did not have that ratio. Then, he remarked, I don’t even know who in our bunk is D.D. The worker was a little bit confused. “How could he not know who has special needs?” he whispered to me. I responded to him that this is exactly what integration was all about. A week and a half into the summer, and my campers could not figure out who in my bunk was “typical” and who was “D.D”

These are lessons to be learned not from our day schools, nor our high schools, nor yeshivot or seminaries in Israel, but from our summer camps.

Now, how wonderful would the world be if all us adults acted that way? Even for a day. I’ll take just one day.

Shana Tova to all.

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Posted on September 17, 2014

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Tikkun Olam: “Doing Stuff”

I’ll start with a confession. After writing these monthly blogs about summer camp for almost two years now, I still occasionally feel like a creature from outer space who’s landed on earth and has to have baseball or the Kardashians explained to him. You see, my parents never sent me to camp and, frankly, I never wanted to be sent. As a result, the experience is, indeed, alien to me. All to say that everything I know about camp I’ve been learning, vicariously, through my son Jonah.

jyHe’s been attending CBB (Camp B’nai Brith) for the last three summers. And when my wife, Cynthia, and I picked him up a few weeks ago from his record 23 days and 22 nights away in The Laurentians, a picturesque setting about 90 minutes north of Montreal, I found it easier than ever to put myself in his shoes. Sure, I felt the predictable paternal mix of relief and joy at seeing him again, but I also noticed something in his expression that revealed how much camp had meant to him. He looked, in other words, a little lost, fawned over by his mother and me. It was as if he was thinking: should I be here or with my bunkmates in the woods? Even, the rash of fierce bug bites around his ankles and calves were quickly acknowledged and then dismissed as if they were a kind of team insignia, a badge of honour. His disorientation faded, though, as we prompted him to say good-bye to his counselors and more important, as his fellow campers sought him out for a hug or a high-five.

This is, as I’ve said before in this blog, a big deal for Jonah. He has autism and making and maintaining friendships remains his greatest challenge. I can only guess at what he was feeling when he heard his name shouted out by a peer in that crowded parking lot, but I can tell you what I felt: proud and hopeful.

For this feeling Cynthia and I have CBB, their entire staff, and especially their executive director Josh Pepin to thank for taking a chance on Jonah three summers ago (when he stayed a week with a shadow) and for continuing to increase their hopes for and expectations of him. CBB has always seen meeting my son’s special needs as an opportunity. In this respect, the camp has, in my mind, lived up to the best sense of the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam or “repairing the world.”

I also confess to having to be reminded repeatedly that as daunting as that imperative may sound, it is invariably accomplished when we recognize those needs we are best able to address and then act. In short, when we do what we can to help. The Sam Lazarus Fund is an inspiring example of just such an approach to repairing the world. It started, tragically, when Sam Lazarus, a 25-year-old Montrealer working with children in an orphanage in Ghana, died of cerebral malaria in 2004. His mother Janet Torge, a Montreal broadcaster and writer, and his older brother Riel Lazarus, an archivist and researcher for film and TV, also based in Montreal, wanted “to do something” to commemorate Sam’s life. The result was a fund that would give kids who couldn’t otherwise afford to go to camp the opportunity to spend their summer at the YMCA’s Camp Kanawana, also located in The Laurentians.

It was a perfect fit since Sam loved working with kids – he was a camper and a staff member at Camp Kanawana for most of his childhood. The fit became even more perfect when a family friend suggested they also have an annual fundraiser every August, featuring a street hockey tournament. Sam was, according to his brother, a legendary street hockey goalie, albeit with a penchant for letting the occasional goal slip between his legs, the space otherwise known in hockey parlance as the five-hole.” Nine months after Sam Lazarus’s death, The Five-Hole Sam Street Hockey Jamboree or Sam Jam was born. Now in its 11th year, Sam Jam has raised around $230,000 and sent more than fifty kids to camp. The kids’ sponsorship or “campership” is kept anonymous so they are not singled out at camp. There is also a special effort made to send recipients back who want to go. “If they’ve had a great experience there, we don’t want to leave them out the next year for financial reasons,” Riel Lazarus said.

The street hockey tournament, which started with two teams, now has eight and the event has expanded every year. “We didn’t start all this with much of a motive. We were in a bit of a haze in that time after Sam’s death. We were just doing stuff,” Riel added.

Which is, come to think of it, a pretty good definition of tikkun olam: “doing stuff” that recognizes and addresses a need in the world.

For more information about the latest hockey tournament and the Sam Lazarus Fund you can go to the Facebook page: Or visit the Camp Kanawana website at:

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Posted on September 8, 2014

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The OTHER Nadiv Educator

As the summer drew to a close, I took a picture with the other Nadiv Educator at my camp.  He’s a 6th grader now, and he spends his whole year with me.  He’s a full-summer camper at Coleman, a camp with mostly 4-weekers, and he’s a student at Davis.


When I told him he was also a Nadiv Educator, the conversation went like this:

SBB:  A, did you notice that you’re a Nadiv Educator, also?

A:  What do you mean?

SBB:  You spend your whole year with me.  You’re at camp all summer and at Davis all year long!

A:  Yes, but I don’t *work* at Davis.

SBB:  I’m not going to tell your teachers that!



This partnership is fun, and kind of funny.

Fun, because I’m surrounded by dedicated educators, clergy and staff – and delightful children – all year long.

Fun, because I get to do cool things like take the whole 8th grade up to camp for two full days.

Fun AND funny, because people tend to listen when I refer to the Torah as “Our Very Best Friend the Torah” (a nickname for the 5 Books of Moses that I got from a co-staff member at a camp in Wisconsin).

Funny, because I can compare a 6th grader to myself.

Funny, because when you’re the campy person at school, you tend to write lines like this in emails: “I’m totally coming at this from a place of campy ruach in song session (as opposed to Tefillah) which is nearly deafening in terms of exuberance and joy.”  May I present to you:  the combination of academic nerdery and experiential education.

This job is extremely fast-paced, sometimes excruciatingly so.  But as long as I’m working on stuff like Tefillahpalooza, Interfaith Volunteering, and innovative, large-scale educational experiences like Yom Partisans, I’m up to the challenge.  I can’t wait to see what kind of cool stuff I’ll get to learn and teach this year!

Posted on August 29, 2014

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Reflecting to Look Forward


The summer Torah portion, Matot, opens with Moses giving the following instructions to the Israelite tribal heads: “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do.” In other words, keep your promises and do not break your word.

Our words and promises carry great weight. Not only should we think carefully about what we say and how we say it but we should also carefully consider promises that we make before giving our word in order to make sure that we can fulfill these obligations.

At camp, children have an incredible opportunity to learn these lessons. Living in close quarters, having to make and keep friendships, and having to communicate with peers and staff without the help of parents can be challenging. Our campers must gain self-awareness and develop and understanding and tolerance for all kinds of people. This is not always easy of course.

On the first day of this session, I joined a cabin group while they were creating their cabin brit (agreement) and got to participate in a process by which the cabin created a shared code of ethics to live by during the session. Everyone contributed items that they felt were important to make the cabin harmonious and have a fun time during camp. I’m always impressed by how well campers can articulate what kind of cabin environment they hope to have and how well they understand what they must do individually and as a group to achieve this end; this cabin was no exception. As I walked around camp with a visitor later in the session, I saw that the cabin I had worked with on that first day of camp was awarded the degel yarok (green flag), signaling that they were the cleanest cabin in the village. This is a great indication that the cabin was functioning well and living up to the promises that they made on the first day of camp.

It’s hard to believe that our summer season is quickly coming to an end. However, it is exciting to think about all the valuable skills and lessons that our campers have learned during their time at camp, and the opportunities they have had to reflect on and keep the promises that they made in their cabin brit to create a fun, safe, and inclusive environment over the course of their session here. And hopefully this will better inform how they build friendships and community as they enter into their coming school year.

Posted on August 28, 2014

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Teens & Screens Part 3: Who Sees What Online

The following is the third in a three-part series on how to help safely navigate the world of social media with your kids from Sue Scheff, a mother, author, parent advocate, and expert in internet safety education.

Summer camp is not only a time to meet new friends and people, your children will have memories and experiences for a lifetime.  Many will want to capture them in photos and videos – especially in today’s digital world.

Sharing your summer experiences with friends and family is expected, however when it comes to the World Wide Web, precautions need to be taken.

Over-sharing is a common mistake that many people of all ages make on social media.

Prior to posting videos, talk to your child about things they need to consider before posting each photo and video:

  • Setting-up a private group for their camp group viewing only
  • Double checking their privacy settings
  • Thinking about who is in the photos/videos?  Will they mind their picture on a social media site?
  • Sharing selectively
  • Creating an online photo album entitled 2014 summer camp

The Teens and Screens survey revealed that many young people are still over-sharing personal information.  This is a very serious concern that parents need to discuss with their tweens and teens.  For example:

  • 50% posted their email address
  • 30% posted their phone number
  • 14% (which is 14% too many) posted their home address

Although 77% said they understand that what is posted online is public and permanent, they are still risking their keystrokes by sharing personal information.

Listen up, 80% of teens and tweens have had conversations with their parents about online safety.

So where are we losing cyber-ground?

We have to lead by example. 

Studies have revealed that parents are the number one influence on their children.  You may think they aren’t listening to you; they are and more importantly they are watching you.

Many parents are over-sharing.

As parents monitor their children online, kids are snooping on their parents – virtually. Have you thought before posting your pictures and comments?

What some parents share online:

  • Party pictures that you would caution your kid’s not to post
  • Swimsuit pictures that may not be appropriate for public viewing
  • Personal family conflicts that could be embarrassing to your child
  • Online contention with a friend (when threads turn ugly, and a parent engages in it)
  • Mixed messages or quotes such as, “If Box Tops for Education were on wine labels, my kid’s school would be rich!”
  • Sexual innuendos, profanity and content that simply is not what parents should be modeling as digital behavior
  • Dating escapades of single parents

Using the excuse that you are an adult is not good enough. First and foremost, you are a parent.  Your keystrokes matter.  Your actions speak louder than words.  Watch this important video:

Raising smart cyber-citizens start with parents.  As I’ve said before, digital citizenship is a priority in today’s cyber-world.  It will determine your child’s future, from their college to their employment and possibly their relationships.

For a final thought, keep in mind, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Takeaway tips:

  • Clean-up your friends list on your social networking sites
  • Keep an open digital dialogue open with your child
  • Less is more. If a photo seems questionable, don’t risk it. The 15-minutes of views is not worth years of humiliation – convey this to your child and remember it for yourself
  • Think about how your children will view what you post before you post it

Posted on August 27, 2014

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Hot ShoTz and Tefillahpalooza, Part Deux

Back in October, we tried something new at the day school half of my job: Tefillahpalooza. You can read the post I wrote about it on the Canteen.

In conversations about how best to 
#nadiviate (it’s a thing!), bridging my work between camp and school, my Coleman colleagues became enamored with the idea of having our own Coleman Tefillahpalooza. Another conversation about revitalizing tefillah at camp led us to creating a program called Hot ShoTz (a Sho”Tz is short for Shaliach Tzibur, the title of a service leader who represents the community by shepherding people through the prayer process.).

Our Assistant Program Director Scott Gellman, an HUC Rabbinical student and a Coleman person for decades, helped to develop all of the answers, and he had his work cut out for him. First, what was Hot ShoTz going to be about? Who would do it? How would we develop skills, not just as a ShoTz, but as an emerging leader in camp? What kind of materials would we present to our Hot ShoTz?  And, what would be their final project?

Hot ShoTz consisted of our programming staff, songleading staff, and assorted volunteers. All were interested in developing prayer and leadership skills. Some had just arrived at camp for the first time in May, many were seasoned NFTY/youth group/camp graduates, and some have been counselors and programmers for years. Formulated and led by different clergy, under the watchful eye of Scott, Hot ShoTz sessions on Shabbat helped teach skills and examine the meaning and intention behind our services at camp.

As summer was drawing to a close, we knew the Hot ShoTz were ready to shine.  Each participant was asked to choose a buddy and to prepare a Tefillah experience to be offered to a small group of campers, in their final project: Tefillahpalooza.  In addition to 6 faculty offerings, there were 9 Hot ShoTz services to choose from at camp that morning!

The logistical challenges of sending the 650 members of our community to 15 different services were many: Campers are always supervised by staff at camp, even on a simple walk to another location. Locations were strewn all around camp. Campers needing to get to the lake or the pool after being out in the ropes course.  What if it rains?  But with careful work by Scott, and with the help of sign-ups with “Concert Stickets” (ticket stickers with name of service, location, unit and bunk number), everybody distributed with ease.

For 50 minutes after breakfast on Thursday morning, our Hot ShoTz (and our faculty) showed their stuff, and offered equally engaging experiential Tefillah programs in areas as diverse as playdough prayer, writing their own stories prayer, Cold-Pray (a Coldplay service), Improv, and “The Theatre is Our Temple,” where campers had a chance to examine and discuss movie and TV clips that portrayed Judaism.

After a summer of hard work and learning, everybody in the Coleman community got to see just how hot our Hot ShoTz are. And we can’t wait to have another Tefillahpalooza next summer!

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Posted on August 18, 2014

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Please Consider My Case

joel“You’ll see, he won’t want to leave in the end,” my wife, Cynthia, said. “He’s going to have the time of his life.”

“Not if his soon-to-be bunkmates see him crying?” I replied. Cynthia and I were in the process of putting our son, Jonah, on the bus to Camp B’nai Brith (CBB). CBB is a little more than an hour drive north of our home in Montreal and the plan was for Jonah to be there, if everything went according to plan, for three weeks. It would be, by far, the longest he’d ever been away. All we could do was speculate—and we figured to do a lot of speculating in the next twenty-one days—on how he would fare.

Incidentally, Jonah wasn’t the crying boy. In fact, our son headed straight for a seat at the back of the bus as soon as we arrived at the drop-off point. I didn’t even have a chance to hug him. I had to mouth my “have a great time!” through the tinted glass of the closed window. In return, I received the most cursory of acknowledgements. As if he was saying: “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Cynthia, however, boarded the bus in order to get a proper good-bye. She insisted Jonah hug her. I got on the bus, too, to watch and glimpsed something I don’t think I’ve ever seen on my fifteen-year-old son’s face—the hint of a blush. Jonah is on the autism spectrum and one of that complicated disorder’s mixed blessings, in Jonah’s case anyway, is obliviousness to embarrassment. This has served to make Jonah a uniquely sweet, open-hearted individual; it also means he can miss signals from others, emotional signals he’d be well-served to pick up on. In fact, this was one of the main reasons we were sending him to sleep-away camp. We hoped he’d learn to understand other people a little better, pick up on their cues.

Meanwhile, the crying boy, who was twelve or so, was also oblivious—to the pleading of others. And a lot of pleading was going on. You could barely make the poor kid out from behind a gesticulating crowd of relatives. Still, I could see his head shaking vehemently and hear his spluttering voice. He was repeating the words: “I’m not getting on the bus.” The more he cried the more relatives seemed to gather around him, all trying out different, often conflicting strategies, to reassure him. Eventually, a SWAT-like team of CBB counselors appeared and did an impressive job of liberating the reluctant camper from all that overwhelming love and concern. Their mission was clear: they were going to get the show on the road.

We’re “helicopter parents,” research studies and thinky magazine articles are always reminding us. When it comes to the parents of special needs kids, like Cynthia and me, this is an especially tone deaf judgment, but it’s kind of a slam at most parents when you think about it. In the case of summer camp, in particular, who can blame us for projecting onto our kids a little of our own childhood experiences? For Cynthia, this usually means remembering how “interesting” (the quotes are hers) summer camp was. For me, it means wondering how I would have fared at camp seeing as how I never went. My guess is I would have cried myself to sleep nightly. Then again, maybe not. Fortunately, the camp cliché persists, especially for worried parents, about how the kids who make the biggest fuss about going end up not wanting to leave. But that doesn’t make those childhood complaints any less real or any less eloquent. I have a friend who came across an old letter she sent to her parents from summer camp when she was probably seven or eight. It began with a description of her day and proceeded to a detailed list of grievances. She signed off with this lawyerly appeal: “Please consider my case.”

Camps nowadays are good at considering the concerns of parents, at least. CBB does a wonderful job with its daily online postings of dozens and dozens of photos. I search for Jonah, first, of course, relieved to find him hanging out with his fellow campers in the pool or playing basketball or out in a canoe with one of his counselors. But after I’ve assured myself that it looks like my son is having a good time, I can’t help looking at all the photos. There are kids waving, hamming it up for the camera, others lost in play. The photos convey camaraderie and mischievousness and, most of all, a spirit of fun. So much so I wish I knew more about each of their personal stories.

“That’s him?” Cynthia said the other day, glancing over my shoulder at the super-slow slide-show I was watching on my computer. I looked for the latest picture of Jonah but didn’t see it. “No,” Cynthia added, “the boy who refused to get on the bus.”

She was right. It was him: in his floor hockey gear, smiling widely in one shot; with a wide circle of new friends surrounding him in another shot. He was the happy camp cliché personified: he looked like he never wanted to leave.

Posted on August 4, 2014

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Summer Camp, Life Skills and Confidence

In partnership with The Jewish Week’s “The New Normal” blog, FJC is pleased to present a series of blog posts featuring a range of different voices sharing the power and benefits of Jewish camp for those in our community who have disabilities.

disabilities series - marciaWe have all heard that Jewish summer camp is one of the most valuable experiences a parent can give their child to ensure a strong Jewish foundation. If you think of it as a construction project, the footings beneath the foundation is community and together, this community builds the foundation they share. As each child grows into an adult, the shared experience of community-building in a Jewish context continues to strengthen his or her Jewish foundation.

But the Jewish child with disabilities who cannot have a summer camp experience is left with an unstable foundation or worse; no Jewish foundation. As the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I live with the fear shared by all parents of children with disabilities:  Who will be my child’s community when I am no longer here to provide it?

At age 11, we began sending our son to overnight Jewish summer camp with his younger sister.   A condition of his acceptance, we contracted with the camp for a one-on-one aide who slept in the cabin with our son and shadowed him as he moved with the mainstream campers. Each year it became more apparent that our son lacked the social and life skills his cabin-mates had developed and lacking these skills in a mainstream environment, our son would not be perceived as a full participant in this community.

Though we had resisted the model of separating campers with special needs from mainstream campers by cabin, at the urging of our rabbi, I contacted the director of Ramah Wisconsin’s Tikvah program when our son was 14. In describing the program, the director explained that every year since his arrival, the Tikvah program had become more integrated with the greater Ramah community. To my surprise, he suggested we keep our son in his current camp for another 2-3 years, at which time he believed Ramah would be ready for him.

After much discussion that included Ramah staff traveling from Chicago to our home in Minneapolis, our son left for his first summer as a Tikvah camper when he was 17. Tikvah campers are connected to Machon (campers entering 10th grade) from which a select group are chosen by staff to be paired with each Tikvah participant as their chaver (friend). Four weeks later at visitor’s day, I observed that the culture of the camp was one of acceptance, regardless of ability, with staff and campers embracing everyone in the Ramah community. With his chaver, our son participated in both typical camp activities and special programs for the Tikvah-Machon group.

After two years, our son moved into the Atzmayim (vocational) program where campers live in dormitory-style housing and focus on social skills and life skills development. Ramah staff trained our son for his job in town and also provided a job coach, ensuring he always felt like a productive member of a professional team. Five days a week, he had to prepare himself for his work day, beginning with prompt attendance at morning services, dressed for his job in town.

As a guest last summer on a non-visitors day, I witnessed my son as a full participant in the rhythm of Ramah, comfortably engaging with campers and staff and taking responsibility for his personal care with a conscientious focus on his summer job at the local grocery store. I also saw my son embracing Torah study and discussion about a myriad of Jewish topics, which made him feel so proud to be part of this Jewish community.

Now 21, our son is completing his final summer as a Tikvah/Atzmayim camper. Looking back, I can honestly say that each summer we witnessed significant social and emotional growth, along with life skills development; all of which has contributed greatly to his self-confidence. Through these programs, our son was given a safe, nurturing Jewish environment in which to grow and develop on all levels. Through Ramah and its culture of acceptance, our son was able to experience community-building in a Jewish context and after five years, he leaves with a solid Jewish foundation.

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Posted on July 31, 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