“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.
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.
We 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.
For the last four summers, whenever my wife, Cynthia, and I have put our son, Jonah, on the bus to sleepaway camp we have experienced one of those rare moments couples share: we not only find ourselves on the same page, we find ourselves on the exact same line on that page. We see in each other’s expressions an identical mix of anxiety and relief. We are concerned about how our son will fare, of course, but we’re also free. Yes, to turn this into a very bad joke, we are free at last!
Still, our particular sense of emancipation has to do with the fact that Jonah, who has autism, is a constant in our everyday life. As we are in his. (I’m sure Jonah, once he’s on that bus, is equally relieved to be on his own and free of us.) Every member of a special needs family is well-acquainted with the joys and stresses of what is, after all, an extremely heightened kind of inseparability. Call it Togetherness Squared. All of which may explain why when I first talked to Sid Milech, director of Montreal’s YM-YWHA Harry Bronfman Y Country Camp (YCC), about a new program he’s inaugurating this summer called the Special Needs Family Camp, I had my doubts.
The program, one of the first of its kind in Canada, will make the facilities of the YCC, located in Quebec’s scenic Laurentian Mountains, available to special needs families for a long weekend in mid-August, after the camp’s regular summer sessions are done. Every family will have a cabin to themselves and be able to participate, as families, in the camp experience. That includes the special needs kids themselves, who will be accompanied by a “buddy” provided by YCC, the siblings of the special needs kid, who will participate with their peers in a wide range of camp activities, and, finally, their parents. Again I have to confess, this sounded to me, at first hearing, like a remake of The Shining—a family all alone in a cabin the woods. Still, the more Milech explained how the program works the better this kind of family togetherness started to sound.
For one thing, parents will have a lot of time to themselves during the long weekend, time to enjoy the camp’s surrounding and time to spend not worrying, for a change, about what their kids are doing and how to structure their time. Milech is still assembling his staff for the session, hiring “buddies” and counselors. He also has a psychologist and a Montreal rabbi, with a background in special needs, on board. It’s the best of both worlds, Milech explained when we talked. “This is meant to be a family holiday, a supervised holiday, true. But, most of all, it is intended to give everyone a break,” he said.
Milech’s Special Needs Family Camp is closely patterned after Tikvah Family Camp, a program run by Camp Ramah in New York’s Poconos region. Tikvah Family Camp started six years ago and Adena Sternthal has been its director for the last five years. It also takes place in mid-August, after the regular camp session is done. That’s when Sternthal makes room for 15 to 20 families, primarily families with kids, between four and 13, on the autism spectrum. Sternthal has come to appreciate how much Tikvah Family Camp means to its participants.
“Visiting theme parks and other more typical vacations aren’t always easy for families with kids on the spectrum and for a lot of our families this is their only real vacation. The parents are always telling me this is what they talk about all year long,” Sternthal pointed out. “They also tell me how amazed they are to have the chance to see their kids do things they never thought they could do, like being out on the rope course or enjoying the water. For our part, we want the special needs kids to experience things they haven’t experienced before. We will take them out on the water, in a rowboat, for example, and if it takes two hours to do it, to make them comfortable, we’ll wait. We’re not going anywhere.”
One of the unexpected consequences of Tikvah Family Camp, and Milech expects this to be the case in his Special Needs Family Camp too, is the way parents from these families bond, develop their own unique kind of togetherness. “We provide them with connections with other parents who are in the same boat,” Sternthal added.
Then she related a recent anecdote that illustrates the impression Tikvah Family Camp made on one family, in particular. “Last year was their second summer with us and at the end of the weekend, after everyone had said goodbye, this family came to my office and asked if they could speak to me. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what happened that I didn’t know about, am I in trouble? Instead, they handed me an envelope. Inside was cash and a lot of it. They said they wanted me to have this money so another family who can’t afford the camp can come next year. I became a mess at that point. So when you ask me how the families feel about this camp, there’s your answer.
For more information on Montreal’s YCC Special Needs Family Camp, visit their website here.
For more information on the Tikvah Family Camp, visit their website here.
Last week, the Foundation for Jewish Camp hosted our biennial conference, Leaders Assembly, in New Jersey. The topic of inclusion was high on the agenda and I engaged in so many invigorating conversations with colleagues about the topic and what each camp hopes to achieve within their own camp communities. Alexis Kashar, a civil rights and special education attorney, spoke to attendees about how growing up deaf impacted her access to the Jewish community. I was particularly struck by Alexis’ description of the effect that living in a home with a family with two parents and a sibling who were all deaf had on her sister who is hearing. Because synagogue life and supplemental school were inaccessible to the family, her sister was never introduced into it. Alexis stressed to us how inclusion has a ”ripple effect” and can profoundly affect the lives of the family of the person with disability.
Just one day after the close of the conference, I read the report that had just been released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announcing that the escalating numbers of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis continued to rise. According to the report, one in 68 children are now believed to be diagnosed with ASD, a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. It reaffirmed for me the important work that our camps can do to engage children with disabilities and their families and continuing to evolve in order to embrace them in the best way possible.
People with ASD are common and prevalent members of any group of youth or adults. The drive towards inclusion is recognition of the new normal in our lives. In the past, specialists were sought to address the particular needs of individuals who “didn’t fit,” in a hope to “help them succeed.” But the numbers tell us that this is not a fringe issue. As camps continue to accept more and more children with a variety of disabilities, I hope that staff training focused on caring for children with disabilities will be offered to all staff so that everyone can better understand and interact seamlessly with a variety of capabilities and needs. Sports specialists, swim instructors, and other recreational specialists will likely be challenged to use techniques that will engage children who are not naturally drawn to activities such as sports and who need to be coached differently in order to acquire certain skills. Visual directions, visual schedules, sensory considerations and flexibility in choice of activities will likely become a part of necessary accommodations so that camp programs can become naturally inclusive. I can say that in all of the conversations and sessions in which I participated in at Leaders Assembly last week, I was happy to see that the field of Jewish camping is moving toward a more inclusive society where all campers will be able to experience success.
Today is Share the Word to End the Word Day. The word “retard” that is.
It was once acceptable to use the words “mental retardation” as a clinical description for people who had below average IQ’s and had delays in adaptive skills. Nowadays, the r-word has a significantly negative connotation as it has often been used on playgrounds and in school hallways as a put-down. Even adults have used it, and still use it, in conversations when referring to something or someone as being an idiot or idiotic. Due to the incredible misuse of this word and the hurt that it causes, we now use “intellectual disability” as a replacement.
One of the purposes of today, is to ask people to pledge to remove the word from their vocabulary and to discourage others from using as well. The r-word must be replaced with RESPECT, respect for people of all abilities. It should also be replaced with what we call “people first language” (a child with autism, a person who is hard of hearing, a person who uses a wheelchair, my brother, my bunkmate, my friend). A person’s disability should never be what defines him or her; it is only a part of who that person is. As we continue to move in the direction of inclusion for children with disabilities at Jewish camp we will break down barriers and allow children and adults at camp to learn what makes us more alike than we are different and why the words that we choose to use even in jest, must always be respectful and must always put people first.
This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
The gates of camp will open in just over 100 days, and our participants from around the country are already counting down to sunny days at their summer home. At Kutz Camp, one aspect of camp we are particularly proud of is our Mitzvah Corps program. With the recent focus on disabilities and inclusion, it makes going into our 23rd summer of special needs camping that much more special. The Mitzvah Corps program at Kutz has grown and evolved into a truly integrated, mainstreamed summer camp program for Jewish teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). There are two aspects of this program that are really remarkable.
The Mitzvah Corps program itself has been designed to meet the unique needs and characteristics of each participant in the program, creating individualized accommodations and modifications which allow each camper to succeed. These teens enjoy every aspect of camp life, and are able to build independence and resilience by having real choices in their daily activities. They are welcomed into the community with open arms, into an environment which fosters reciprocal learning, empathy, and understanding. In this open, friendly and supportive camp community, our teens with ASD are able to create friendships, explore their identity, gain independence, and grow in many ways. Perhaps the greatest outgrowth of this program is meeting with the parents of these teens, who are often overcome with gratitude and emotion for making a normative summer camp experience available to their child.
One of our campers, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, loves learning about Judaism and is particularly interested in prayer. She finds it difficult to fit in with her peers at school and in her home congregation. At camp, she participated in the Torah Corps Major, where teens gather for three hours each morning to study Jewish text, Jewish history, and engage in meaningful discussion and debate about a variety of topics relating to Judaism. Throughout the day she chose classes to attend on the subjects of Israeli culture and Jewish ethics, and participated in a variety of other activities and experiences. On the last night of camp, during a closing circle with the all of camp, she, who is generally very quiet and prefers not to be around large groups of people, stood up and addressed the group. She thanked everyone for helping create a place where she felt that she could “unwind.”
A few days after returning home from camp, her mother shared, “My daughter came home with enormously enthusiastic reports about her time at camp. She said she loved the Torah study and Israeli culture sessions and the singing and services. I really couldn’t be happier. Her older sister commented tonight that she was so much more outgoing and engaged this evening than she was before she left. We all think this is because she got accustomed to the much higher level of social demand at camp and it really strengthened her ability and desire to engage. I can’t tell you what a giant step forward this experience is for her. We are excited about how it has enriched her life and the possibilities it opens up for her future.”
In addition to the incredibly talented and dedicated staff who help make this program a reality, what gives the program its sparkle are the Chaverim. At Kutz each teen chooses a Major, a leadership learning area that is their primary focus during the session. The Mitzvah Corps Major is comprised of neurotypical teens that learn the skills of special needs inclusion, and are able to work as peer-engagers, helping with the integration of our special needs population into mainstream camp culture.
Not only are we able to provide a safe, nurturing, camp experience for our teens with ASD, we are also able to train the next generation of compassionate young people who will choose to continue this valuable work of accessibility for special needs populations as they move through college and into the work world. Fostering the next generation of advocates who will stand on the shoulders of all of those doing remarkable work around disabilities and inclusion today is one example of our commitment to a vibrant and just Jewish future. We are so proud of our hundreds of alumni of this remarkable program.
Find out more about URJ programs designed for special needs populations here.
This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
Each year the most talented dancers and performers at Cedar Lake Camp would audition to compete for first place in a lip-syncing contest in their annual talent show. Kids would plan in the off season, and work all summer to be the best. Last year, however, the camp was challenged to change the show. Cedar Lake had recently welcomed the oldest campers from Round Lake Camp, another NJY camp for children with learning differences and social communication disorders, in a model of inclusion – and these new campers were encouraged to participate as well.
Some of the staff was afraid of what would happen. The new campers could not do the complex dance moves and choreography which was the hallmark of this event every summer. How would the other campers react to them on stage? Would the campers with disabilities feel successful and have a positive experience?
The group was placed in the middle of the show, amidst all of the other competing teams. One by one the acts performed – rock, pop, and hip hop. Each of the competing acts was amazing and received enthusiastic applause from their bunks and fellow campers. Behind the scenes the tension mounted awkwardly as the new group lined up to take the stage.
As these campers with disabilities walked up the stairs, their counselors cheered them on enthusiastically, and the 700 onlookers watched quietly. The group took their positions. What followed was magical.
Each camper made his moves in his own way. Each lip-synced with enthusiasm and joy. Some body motions were exaggerated. Some facial looks or ticks were clear. The rock anthem, “I want it that way” blared over the speakers and the crowd began to cheer. Teenagers who didn’t know how to feel when they took the stage couldn’t help but get swept up in the pride of the moment. By the end of the song, 700 campers roared to their feet as one. It was the only standing ovation of the day. Those campers were super stars.
No, they didn’t “win” first place. But yes, they won the day. And for that moment, everything we want in a camp came true for every single camper who was there.
This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
For me, it was in third grade.
I was in the bathroom and there was screaming that was not really words, but utterances, from behind another stall door. I could hear crying and knew something was not going well. I asked if someone needed help and there was just banging on the door. I was (and still am) a short person, so I crawled under the stall … and there was Sylvia.
Sylvia was in the self-contained special education classroom in my elementary school. In 1978, this was the way schools were set up and mainstream kids like me had very little interaction with kids in the self-contained classes. Sylvia was what we now would refer to as moderately developmentally delayed; she had some verbal skills but no real connections and no ability to make a sentence. There she was … just standing there … all ready to get out of the bathroom stall, but she had accidentally locked herself in. I unlocked it. We went to wash our hands and then it dawned on me that I should walk her back to her classroom to let the teacher know what had happened, since she was so distressed just moments earlier. I walked her to the classroom, told the teacher what happened and went to leave. As I did, Sylvia ran up and hugged me. I felt great about what had happened and moved on with my day.
Later that week, we were on the playground at recess and this boy, Marcus, came up and hugged me and told me that I was his friend now since I was Sylvia’s friend. Marcus was nearly six feet tall in fifth grade and also had developmental challenges, but he was able to communicate more effectively than Sylvia. Marcus just hugged me … every single day on the playground for that entire year. And every single day on the playground the year after, until he graduated and went to the junior high.
Maybe it was because I have some connection with people who want to be understood, maybe it was because I love to communicate with people in any way and felt like Sylvia must really need someone to help her to communicate, maybe it was because I liked it when I felt important by helping another person. Whatever the reason, there it was … my love for people with learning challenges and developmental differences. As clear as day, in third grade.
I continued this path as I grew older: I volunteered for kids with special needs in my town, befriended the kids in camp that no one else really wanted to hang out with, and even got a scholarship in senior year of high school for pursuing a career in special education. I went off to college and thought I would be a teacher, but once there decided that social work was more my style. All through college I coached five different sports in the Special Olympics (where one athlete asked me if I knew that, even though I did not have special needs, I was the worst player on our basketball team … and I was the coach), was head of the Students for Special Needs program, and did other volunteer work. I found an AMAZING Jewish camp to work at for children who had challenges, and found a mentor there that was inspiring. Ten years later, when he left, I got his job running the camp and continued to do so for about a decade. Now I am blessed to be working in another camp that is all about inclusion, and special needs inclusion is one part of this.
I would guess that I have worked with over a thousand young people and adults with special needs – all types of special needs – in a camping setting and I must tell you that it NEVER once dawned on me that this was a big deal. I mean, my sister loved to work with clothing and went into fashion, my brother loved to make deals and became an attorney, and I loved to help people so I went into social work with a focus on special needs. I know this will sound cliché, but I learn more from someone with challenges than they will ever learn from me. I get to be there for a family when they think no one is going to “get them” and their situation. I learn about acceptance of people’s strengths and weaknesses and that it is ok to have both. I gain an appreciation for things that are going well and a tolerance for things when they are not.
I know one thing for sure: no matter what I do for my entire career, the most important thing I ever did was crawl under a bathroom stall and unlock a door for my friend Sylvia.
Nostalgia about summer traditions notwithstanding, Jewish camps have changed dramatically from a generation ago.
Camp’s value for Jewish education and identity-building is now a major focus of communal attention. Major Jewish foundations, federations and organizations are investing heavily in the sector.
Many camps have become more intentional about incorporating Jewish learning, Shabbat and Israel into their programming. They’ve also evolved to meet families’ changing expectations and demands: offering a wider range of choices of all kinds (from food to activity to session length); providing more frequent updates and communications to parents; accommodating numerous medical requirements and allergies;and placing greater emphasis on safety and security.
At the same time, the Jewish camping field is becoming more professionalized. The job of camp director has been shifting from a seasonal gig to year-round career, and counselors are receiving more intensive training.
With all this change in the Jewish camp world, here are 10 specific trends we have noticed:
1) Shorter sessions: Once upon a time, summer camp meant the entire summer, with the majority of campers attending for seven, eight or even 10 weeks. Now it is the rare child or teen who spends the full summer at camp (or at one camp), and most programs offer multiple sessions, ranging in length from just six days to seven weeks. “Our three-week session has always sold out more quickly than the four-week, and our new two-week session has been a quick hit as well,” said Vivian Stadlin, co-director of Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, N.Y.
2) Specialized programs: Whether a child’s passion is sports, the environment, outdoor adventure or science and technology, there’s a Jewish camp for that. An incubator under the auspices of the Foundation for Jewish Camp spurred the creation of five specialty camps in 2010 (including Eden Village, which is focused on the environment) and another four that will open this summer. The idea is to attract kids who might not otherwise consider a Jewish camp and to show them they can combine their passion with Judaism. Increasingly, established general-interest Jewish camps are adding specialty tracks and electives. For example, the New Jersey Y camps offer a science program and various sports programs, while Ramah in the Poconos has run basketball clinics and a tennis academy.
3) Healthier food: Serving healthy, locally sourced food is a part of the mission of some specialty camps like the new health-and-wellness-focused Camp Zeke and was a component of Ramah Outdoor Adventure from its beginnings in 2010. In addition, many established Jewish camps have been redoing their menus to make them more nutritious and environmentally friendly: adding salad bars, replacing “bug juice” with water, offering more vegetarian fare and even planting their own organic vegetable gardens.
4) More affordable options: The Foundation for Jewish Camp recently introduced a new program called BunkConnect that enables first-time campers from middle- and lower-income families to search for a variety of discounted Jewish summer camp options. While BunkConnect is currently only available in the Northeast, New England and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States, the foundation hopes to expand it in future years. In addition, most Jewish overnight camps offer financial aid and the One Happy Camper Program, initiated in 2006, offers grants for all first-time campers regardless of need. So far 50,000 children have received One Happy Camper grants.
5) Broadening definition of camp: While rural settings and rustic accommodations are still the norm, two specialty camps — the Union for Reform Judaism’s Six Points Sports Academy and Six Points Science & Technology — are located on boarding school campuses, and another, the 92nd Street Y’s Passport NYC, is in the middle of Manhattan. Passport NYC, in which participants do internships and live in air-conditioned dorms, and Six Points Science blur the boundary between “camp” and “summer program,” while programs like USY on Wheels and Adamah Adventures, which operate under the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s umbrella, blur the boundary between “camp” and “teen travel.”
Read the rest of this feature on JTA.
I must confess. When I first started working as a counselor in the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England in 1984, I couldn’t understand how parents of children with disabilities could send their children away for eight weeks each summer. Now, after working in the field of disabilities camping for more than 20 years, I have a hard time understanding why parents of children with disabilities won’t seriously consider sending their children to an overnight Jewish summer camp. Of course I understand that it is scary, often far from home, and that the sessions feel “long.” I understand that children with disabilities often can’t effectively communicate their needs, or advocate for themselves. And I understand just how hard it is for parents to be out of contact for a month or two. So why do it? Here are 5 reasons.
1. Camp offers fun, stimulating activities: Simply put, thousands of Jewish children go to camp each summer—and they have a great time. There is no way any parent can offer that level of programming and stimulation in their backyard or apartment. Camping offers children daily doses of the arts, sports, dance, singing, and swimming—not to mention exposure to such electives as nature, cooking, drama (plays in Hebrew!), sailing, woodworking, the climbing wall and more—all before lunch!
2. Camp offers friends and role modeling: If the camp program is part of a larger camp, your child will spend hours a day interacting with a diverse group of children of all ages—both neurotypical and campers with disabilities. What better way to practice and improve social interaction, speech and language skills and more! Camp is a 24/7 social environment with chances to try out various social behaviors—and receive instant feedback. Through these interactions, campers are scaffolded and grow in so many ways.
3. Camp is an all-encompassing Jewish living environment: Campers sing Jewish songs, dance Jewish dances, experience Shabbat, pray through song and movement and interact with a diverse group of Israelis. And Jewish values are alive in Jewish summer camps! Families return to their local synagogues asking if they can incorporate these elements in to their worship services and programming. And campers and staff members return home with understanding and sensitivity toward people with disabilities. And they are life-long ambassadors!
4. Camp is the next step toward independence: Separating is never easy for children and parents. But children almost always adjust to the camp routine quickly. Campers learn to make their beds, keep their shelves neat, sweep, clean the bathroom, and more. They learn to become even more independent with skills of daily living. And they often try lots of new foods in the dining room—simply because they are on the table! Parents are often amazed with what their children can do when they return from camp.The biggest post camp challenge for parents? Continuing to foster this new found independence!
5. Camp is well-deserved and needed respite for parents! One thing I did not understand that first summer as a teenage counselor was that parents work very hard. Parenting a child with a disability is not easy. Parents need and deserve a chance to be together as a couple—to sip wine, to go to the beach, or even go to Europe! And they absolutely deserve and need a chance to spend time with their neuroptypical children who also need time and attention.
As we mark Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month in February, we note that camp starts in four months! Space is filling up fast at Jewish camps all across the country. Decide today to reach out to a camp director and begin a conversation about the possibility of your child attending camp. They and you will grow a great deal from the experience!
Find available Jewish camp options for children with disabilities here.