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.
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.
Gilad and I welcomed our baby girl into the world on January 1st. Sivan Amali Shwartz arrived just in time to help us celebrate one of my favorite Jewish holidays, Tu Bishvat, which began last night.
Tu Bishvat is known as the New Year of the trees, or Jewish Arbor Day. It is an opportunity to celebrate trees and all their fruits, as well as the beauty and wonder of Nature. There are many different ways to celebrate Tu Bishvat – planting trees, participating in a Tu Bishvat seder, writing prayers for the trees, decorating trees with personal prayers and/or psalms, or simply eating fruit!
During camp each summer, it feels like a 10 week Tu Bishvat celebration in many ways. It is amazing to see campers arrive to camp and become immersed in the natural world around them. Free of their video games, computers, smart phones, and other technology, campers return to picking up natural materials and playing with them. Many of these materials come from the plethora of ponderosa pine trees that are situated on the Ranch Camp property. Sticks, pine cones, and pieces of bark transform from something that campers may not even take notice of at home to exciting toys and building materials here at camp.
For the last two summers, one of our most popular chuggim (electives) has been Fort Building. Boys and girls eagerly venture out into the forest, collect tree branches and construct natural structures with the help of staff members. I love to walk out and observe campers doing this activity. It never ceases to amaze me how really little it takes to make kids happy when they are given a mission and are turned loose in nature to use their imaginations and make it happen. The children play with and amongst the branches of our forest and in turn, become reconnected with the natural world around them.
Sivan is a little too young this year to truly celebrate Tu B’Shevat but I’m grateful that she will share her birthday roughly with that of the trees each year. Tu Bishvat is a great opportunity for us to get out in nature with our children and share with them the wonders of Creation.
Chag Sameach! Here are some resources to help you celebrate Tu Bishvat with your family this year:
1. Punk Torah’s Tu Bishvat Ideas
2. Make a Fruit Mandela With Your Kids, From Kveller
3. Creative Jewish Mom’s Tu Bishvat Crafts
4. MyJewishLearning’s Tu Bishvat Recipes
I recently saw “Matilda” on Broadway. Let me tell you – the kids in that show are incredible! I was truly in awe of the way they sang and danced with such energy, enthusiasm, and excitement; their talent was almost overwhelming.
Besides the amazing actors, the awesome and colorful sets, and the wildly imaginative staging, I was really touched by the story. (I’m not sure I ever read the bookand it’s been more than a decade since I last saw the fantastic movie version.) From a young age, Matilda is misunderstood, under-appreciated, and shockingly unloved by her parents. In a school with a horrifying headmistress, she is seen for who she really is by a kind, gentle, loving teacher. The friendships and new families that form throughout the story are inspiring and remind us of the incredible power of positive connections.
Along the way, some magic happens and so does some “magic.” If I tell you the first, it might give away too much of the story. The latter, on the other hand, is well worth sharing. In one song that stayed in my head for days, the kids sing what has been clearly drilled into their heads over and over again: that they are “revolting children living in revolting times.” The magic of Matilda is in the realization that nothing could be less true: despite (or, perhaps, because of) the revolting tyranny of the adults around them, these kids really know how to act. Maybe this is the kind of revolting they mean – revolting against a view of the world, and of childhood, that is itself revolting. These kids know how to treat one another, how to celebrate differences, and how to work together for the common good.
After a few weeks of break (or, at least, a change of pace), we recently headed back to school. In the course of our regularly scheduled lives, it can be easy to miss the magic. It’s all too easy to see the revolting times and tell ourselves – and our kids – that we are a product of that kind of a world. But if we look more closely, we know better. We know that there are incredibly talented children out there. We know that they are taught by teachers who are caring, passionate, and creative. We know that they can build communities that will help to make the world a better place. And, even if it’s easy to forget when the lights go back up in the theater, we know that there is magic in the world.
Have you ever felt immediately welcomed in a new place? Well recently, Gilad came back from a recruiting trip to a congregation here in Colorado beaming from his experience. We had never been to this particular synagogue before and therefore, didn’t know what to expect or how we would be received. But as soon as Gilad arrived, he was immediately greeted by a point person for the synagogue who welcomed him and invited him to partake in a lunch they were having. There she introduced him to some of the congregants to help him build connections and then some of the children came out to help him bring his materials from the car into the building so that he could set up for his presentation. Gilad felt so embraced by everyone there, so welcomed and included. This spirit of hospitality extended into his presentation, where the children and adults were actively engaged by participating, asking questions, and showing enthusiasm for the information that he was giving.
It is so fun and warming to enter into new environments where this is the experience you have. And this is exactly the kind of environment that we try to build every day at camp, starting from the moment campers arrive.
A few years ago on the first day of Session 2, I remember stepping into our dining hall for the first lunch of the session. The chadar ochel (dining hall) was bustling with ruach (spirit); the air was full of chatter, cheering, and a sense of anticipation for the session ahead. And as I waited in line for my food, a first-time camper approached me and said, “Miriam, I have not even been here a whole day yet, and I already feel like this is my home.” This moment stands out to me as a highlight of my directorship of Ranch Camp because it optimizing our camp mission and what camp is all about really. Ranch Camp has been my home since I was 12 years old and it is always a tremendous thing for me to hear our campers and staff talk about camp in these terms.
We all need a place to belong and thrive. A place to connect, to love, and to be loved. I am so happy to discover new places that make me feel like this in my community, and even happier to provide a camping atmosphere that creates this for the youth that we serve each summer.
*The title of this blog was taken from an Arik Einstein song. Arik was an Israeli music icon who passed away suddenly a few weeks ago, sending the country into a state of mourning. You can listen to this song here.
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More thoughts on giving.
‘Tis the season of thankfulness and giving. Are these words synonymous in meaning when it comes to the holidays? For some the answer is yes and for some no. When I think of the holidays I generally think of family and then quickly think hmmm, what am I going to get everyone this year? Then the thoughts become about me (obviously) and I think, what do I want for the holidays this year? There is so much about this happy exchange, ripping wrapping paper and watching the reaction when exposing the innards of such gifts that make the childish giddiness resurface.
This year when thinking about Hanukkah and gift giving, I am feeling intrigued by the calendar collide. Hanukkah and Thanksgiving join forces forming what is being marketed as Thanksgivukkah. The holiday for which we reflect on what we are thankful for and a holiday that has become a celebration of eight nights of presents. A funny symmetry, receive a gift for one holiday and be thankful for it for another… no, that’s not what this is about? Or is it?
When I was a young girl, part of the requirement towards becoming a Bat Mitzvah was to complete a certain number of hours of community service. I was set up with an organization and once a week after school I went to this office space and stuffed envelopes. I had no idea what I was folding. Not a clue what I was shoving into those white envelopes. And even less of a thought as to whom these envelopes were being sent to. Did I think to ask? Nah. There wasn’t internet at the time and if there was, would I have cared to look up what this organization did? Probably not. I did what was asked of me and earned my necessary community service hours and I am proud to say that I achieved my requirements towards becoming a Bat Mitzvah. Mazel Tov (congrats) to me and anyone else who walked through these motions to meet the requirements of our adolescence.
Flash forward to present day, a time in my life where I use the Hebrew phrases, tikkun olam (heal or repair the world) and tikkun midot (heal from the inside out) almost daily to describe a portion of the Jewish values that we focus on at “my” camp, Passport NYC and at 92Y. Values that help to find meaning in the actions of each day. Meaningful in the way that we reach out to the community within the space we live or the space that surrounds us. Meaningful in the way that helps those around us and the earth beneath our feet. Each and every one of us have the opportunity to find meaningful ways to give, whether it is our time, our money, our leftovers, our unused clothes, our energy, our knowledge, our passion, our friendship, our love – giving lends itself to you, the giver.
Recently I was invited to the 4th birthday party of a close friends son, included in the invite was a link to donate to a charity of the child’s choice in lieu of gifts. I was amazed and impressed. I was thrilled and surprised. I was even more in awe when the child himself told me that he knows there are kids out there that could use the gifts more than him. Yup, 4 years old.
On Tuesday, Dec. 3rd a day has been dedicated to just this, Giving Tuesday (#GivingTuesday). Our modern day has allowed us to turn the days after giving thanks into days in which sales blast stores and the internet, known as ‘Black Friday’ followed by ‘Cyber Monday’ and within these great sales and opportunities for us consumers to consume the day has come where we can give, however you feel empowered to give.
Maybe this holiday season you choose a charity that means something to you and stuff white envelopes or share a link to a charity you connect with for holiday gift donations or indulge in the wrapping paper ripping, but whatever route you take- giving doesn’t only have to take place when we’re saying thanks. There are so many ways we can give and be thankful that don’t need to come wrapped with bows and dreidel printed paper. We can come together with family and friends this holiday season and give with meaning. I hope you can take your Thanksgivukkah moment to be thankful, to give gifts and to give back and feel thankful for the ability to do just that.
We continue our series on giving.
Autumn is definitely my favorite time of year. I love the change in weather, the trees changing color, getting to wear comfy sweaters, and above all, I love the holiday traditions that span the fall months. Thanksgiving has got to be one of the best American holidays ever. Does it get much better than celebrating with friends and family, expressing gratitude, and sharing in a delicious feast? I think not. I also love that leading up to Thanksgiving, I see a lot of people on social media actively thinking and talking about they are grateful for and how they are celebrating the holiday through acts of giving.
Giving is a concept that is very deep-seeded in Jewish tradition (as is celebrating with loved ones and eating lots of food in the process) and one that I’d like to briefly explore with you here. In Judaism, we commonly use the word tzedakah to describe charitable giving. The Hebrew word tzedakah actually means “justice” or “fairness”. This implies that according to Jewish tradition, giving of one’s self to another, whether with money, time, or kindness, is less about going “above and beyond” and more about acting in a righteous way that that is really just expected of us.
At Ranch Camp, we provide opportunities for campers to take part in tikkun olam projects each summer. Our teen travel programs for instance, all have components in which campers go and volunteer in a variety of worthy settings. It is an important part of the trip program experience, giving our teens an opportunity to develop leadership skills, humility, and compassion. Our hope is also that their volunteer experience instills a sense of the importance of tzedakah in our campers and encourages them to undertake such work throughout their lives. After all, giving of yourself to others feels good. Camp is a great setting to develop a love and passion for tzedakah and tikkun olam – it certainly did for me.
The work projects I took part of through my childhood synagogue and at Ranch Camp made me love volunteer work, and in my adult life, I try to take advantage of any opportunities in my community to give back to others in need. In September, certain areas of Colorado were devastated by flash floods. It was heartbreaking to see homes, businesses, and synagogues in Boulder County destroyed knowing that so many in our camp community were being effected by this unprecedented natural disaster. The Denver JCC organized a group of staff to go up in the aftermath of the flood to one of the synagogues to assist in clean up efforts. Seven of us spent the day moving out sludge, taking down dry wall, and trying our best to wipe away the damage that four feet of water had inflicted on the synagogue’s basement. We worked side by side with men and women who call the synagogue home, both figuratively and literally. You see, this synagogue not only is a spiritual home for congregants but also serves as a community homeless shelter. These special workers were giving of themselves to a place and community that had open their doors them in their time of need – they were giving back. It felt incredibly good to be there that day and volunteer my time to this effort. I felt that I was a part of something bigger than myself and that I was making a difference, even if it was small.
During this holiday season, I ask you and your family to consider dedicating part your Thanksgiving celebration to giving. A donation of money, time, or kindness to those in the community that could use support or aid is sure to enhance your own holiday cheer. I have really found that there is something about getting involved in giving to others that is in turn very beneficial for my own sense of well being and psyche. As Maya Angelou noted, “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.”
I wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving and Hanukkah season ahead!
This holiday season, we have giving on our minds and in our hearts. How camp influences what it means to us, how giving is a part of our lives, how we teach our kids about giving, and more. We encourage you to use these blog posts dedicated to the theme of giving to start conversations with friends and loved ones. Happy holidays!
November Director’s Corner
Fall is one of my favorite times of year – the leaves are changing, the weather is crisp and I find myself concentrating my time on some of my favorite things. My mind wanders through wrapping up camp registration, ramping up summer staffing, kicking our annual scholarship campaign into high gear, planning my family vacation and looking forward to my daughter’s first Hanukkah. These things all have the same season in common and they also share one other very important characteristic. They all center around giving.
I think that most people tend to focus on giving this time of year, usually with a focus on giving (and getting) gifts. Admittedly, that is a nice part of this season and I look forward to watching my daughter’s face as we open Hanukkah gifts. However, the giving that I love so much is a bit different…
With registration wrapping up in September, we get to give 700 campers the opportunity to have the best summer of their lives at Beber Camp! We are part of a community that gives Jewish Identity, life skills, friendships, new experiences and memories that will impact our children for years to come.
With staffing ramping up, we get to give dozens of amazing young role models the chance to positively impact the lives of children. These staff members are committed to developing their campers and are also looking to be developed themselves. We often forget that we are in the staff development business as well and this season starts our intense gift giving through selection, training, preparation, development and staff support processes.
With our annual campaign kicking into high gear, we get to directly give all families the ability to send their children to camp through the generosity of our Beber community. We also get to give our annual scholarship campaign investors the opportunity to support something that they believe in passionately.
With my family vacation, I get to give time and love to my family that is separated by distance most of the year. People will be coming from all over the country to spend time together, reminisce, share and create new memories. I also get to give my family amazing quality time with my daughter Micah and in turn, I get to give Micah one of the greatest gifts I have – her loving, supportive family. It is important to note that one of the reasons that my extended family is so strong is that the kids all spend their summers together at Beber Camp.
Finally, I get to give my immediate family our first Hanukkah. I am beyond excited to share in the magic with my wife and daughter, as we continue to create our own Jewish traditions. The magic that I am anticipating isn’t all about gifts, rather it’s about community, family, love, appreciation and giving. These are things that my family learned directly from our Jewish summer camp experiences.
Hopefully, you are looking forward to this season as well and you are personally excited about giving. Please make sure to take a minute to think about all of the different ways that you can give this season. Maybe it will be the gift of family time or the gift of a summer at camp for your child. Maybe it will be a directed gift to the Jewish summer camp or the gift of encouraging your college-age child to return to camp as a staff. Maybe it is the gift of support, compassion and community…..or maybe it is the gift of another pair of dress socks for the first night of Hanukkah. Thanks in advance, mom!
We are told very early on in our Jewish history of the importance of ruling over our lands responsibly, of tilling and tending to them as shomrei adamah, guardians of the land. It is also something on our minds now more than ever as we endeavor to use events outside our control as a catalyst for responsible growth and stewardship.
On August 17, less than one week after the last of our summer campers went home, the Rim Fire ignited in the Stanislaus National Forest, mere miles from Camp Tawonga. A hunter’s illegal campfire caught the surrounding brush on fire and for the next month a wildfire, that spread over 400 square miles, would become the third largest in California state history, destroying landscape, livelihoods and property.
Through the heroic efforts of firefighting personnel and our own fire suppression practices, Camp Tawonga was spared the worst of the damage, losing three of our 71 buildings and suffering (repairable) damage to some of our program areas. You can see some of that impact in these photos and this video we shared with our community.
It is easy to rush into decisions when a new building or programming space is needed. It is easy to listen to the loudest voice in the room, the voice promising the quickest results or the cheapest options. But we know from years of experiences across all aspects of camp operations that “people support the things they help create.” Knowing that, we take this opportunity to bring people together from across our community to hear their vision not only for what camp will look like next summer but in ten summers.
When constructing something new on land that we were gifted and on which we will ultimately be only passing visitors it is important to consider many factors. These factors include, but are not limited to money, aesthetics, our mission and ethics, green practices, safety, legacy and stewardship. Aligning these vectors may be a time consuming process but will yield results that are lasting and loved.
The four following spiritual reflections lie for us at the heart of all land use decision making:
- We are grateful for all that has been given.
- We are mindful that we are only temporary stewards of this land, holding it for those to come.
- We accept the mitzvah (commandment) to tikkun olam (repair the world).
- We believe it is idolatry to worship the things of our own creation.
By keeping these reflections in mind we harken back to that initial God-given charge to our ancestors, protect and guard the earth.
A camp professional in my adult life, I have always been a camper at heart. I have the deepest, most meaningful relationship with my camp experiences, memories and friends. So much so that five of my friends from my summers away at sleepaway camp and I took a weekend away from our lives—leaving behind significant others and children to escape to the place where time has no meaning. A place where six, 30-something year old women can play, dance, relax and, most of all, laugh like not a moment of time or space has kept us apart. It was a camp weekend away together in the traditional camp setting of sports, arts, waterfront activities, buffet meals and awkward encounters with perfect strangers that rejuvenated my love for why I do what I do.
Much of this year I have spent questioning myself as to why do I do what I do? If I told you this past summer was sunshine, rainbows and easy breeziness I wouldn’t just be lying to you but I’d be lying to myself. This past summer, like the previous in my camp professional career, was hard work. It wasn’t fun. I didn’t laugh uncontrollably or appreciate moments like I did in the days when I was a camper I pushed through, sometimes counting down portions of the day or week just to have time goals to achieve. Was it harder than usual? Maybe. Was it different? Possibly. Was I still doing something I love? Yes. But did I want to cry? If you know me then you know the answer is yes and some days I did (in the privacy of my own moment—although these are few and far between in a summer camp day). Do I want to go through this again? Absolutely… and the reason is because of the long lasting benefit of what this time (these times) can and will stimulate for my camp community. The community we create over the course of 3 weeks of a summer, twice a summer.
On my recent weekend away, one of my dear friends poetically captioned a posted photo “time is meaningless,” actually it was #timeismeaningless. I have spent days reflecting and reusing this simple yet completely complex statement. If you were to replace the word ‘time’ with any other word, this statement would carry a completely different feeling. Try it… Right? But when it comes to time, when it comes to the distance, the space, the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years…when it comes to your camp friends, time really is meaningless. You can pick up from the exact moment you are in and nothing has changed. Even if everything has changed, that friendship in that time has gone unscathed. The time between the two has no meaning but the friendship has all the meaning in the world.
It is times like these that I hope cultivate each camp season. It is this meaningless sense of time that acts as the gift I can provide to my camp community and in turn, the reward for me is the reminder how these times have shaped me. As hard as a day feels, as frustrating or difficult as a conversation can be, the times that we create at camp and the friendships that create those times are the definition to why I do what I do and why I will always remain the camper at heart.