Tag Archives: JDAM

23 Years of Mitzvah Corps

This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

MC1The 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.

 

Posted on February 26, 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

Born Superstars

This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

©Next Exit Photography www.nextexitphotographyEach 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.

 

Posted on February 25, 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

The Childhood Friendship That Set My Life’s Course

This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

Copy of 110707.CampJRF.-114Everyone has a passion and a calling. Some people find this when they are in college; others not until they have retired from a career that they enjoyed (but didn’t love).

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.

 

Posted on February 25, 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

Reflections by a Camper with Down Syndrome

This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

0441_130813-FJC_x_xIn the fall of 2013, the Foundation for Jewish Camp was matched with Devorah Lieberman, a young woman with Down Syndrome, through The Yachad/NJCD Vocational Services program.  We are thrilled and excited to have Devorah working here.  She has quickly become an asset to our organization and a part of our family. 

At FJC we are committed to ensuring that everyone in our community has the opportunity to participate in Jewish life.  We look forward to a bright future with Devorah as a colleague and enabling far more young Jews to participate in Jewish life including Jewish camp.

We wanted Devorah to have a voice in this series, so I’m pleased to share the piece she wrote below with you.

 – Abby Knopp, Vice President, Program and Strategy at Foundation for Jewish Camp

Here at the Foundation for Jewish Camp I file and alphabetize charts and checks, I stuff envelopes and I stamp envelopes using a machine. What I love about working at FJC is seeing different co-workers and talking to them at lunch. I have a really nice job coach that helps me do my job correctly, makes sure I understand what I am doing and that I am focused. I think it is important for me to work because I am mature, capable, responsible and efficient. I like that work keeps me busy and allows me to interact with other people. I am happy I work here and I think FJC is an important organization because I think camp is important. I have been going to Camp Morasha since I was 16 years old and have really enjoyed it. I was a camper for 4 years and a staff for 9 years. I really enjoy going to camp every summer. As a camper, I enjoyed doing activities like swimming, climbing walls and baking.  As a staff member, I enjoyed working in the baking room because I could eat the stuff that I make, the art room because I am an artist like my sister and I love doing the art projects and I enjoyed working in the office doing data entry. This summer I am starting a new camp called Camp Mesorah with Yachad and I am very excited and looking forward to going.

Posted on February 21, 2014

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

The Importance of Going to a Jewish Camp

This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

0096_130813-FJC_x_xWhen I was seven years old, I started going to a Jewish overnight camp on the West Coast. I honestly think that had to be the worst experience of my life, but not for the reason you may be thinking. The only reason I didn’t like it was the fact that I have autism. Bottom line, I didn’t fit in. Too bad my family decided we should all go for the next two years. (My mom, who is a rabbi, served on faculty there. Even though they tried their best and my mom was up at camp, things were still really terrible.) However, after moving to Pennsylvania, my family and I learned that there were Jewish camps for kids on the autistic spectrum. My family decided to send me to Round Lake Camp which was also a Jewish sleep-away camp. After going for my first year, each summer was all about camp.

Now, if you have a brother, sister, or child who has autism, you probably know that new experiences cause a lot of anxiety. So, for example, if the simplest bee is scary to them, they might be having a nervous break-down the entire car ride wondering if they’ll be tons of bees at camp. In my case, on the drive up with my dad, he calmed me down by telling me the three main purposes of camp and the importance of each. The first important part of going to a Jewish camp would be that you meet new people and make some friends. Considering my lack of friends, this was a big plus. Also, because this is a Jewish camp, you won’t be the minority anymore which also means that you get to do Jewish activities that aren’t available anywhere else such as Israeli dancing. One of the things I did enjoy at the west coast camp was Israeli dancing and it was something I really missed.

The next big purpose is getting to try new things. This would include new foods such as tomato soup, new activities such as high ropes, and water activities such as the huge water slide. Out of all those things, my favorite wouldn’t be an activity, but the fact that I get to stay in a cabin with all my “camp buddies”. At my first camp, however, because I didn’t fit in, I didn’t feel comfortable in my bunk.  While at Round Lake, everyone in my bunk accepted me and helped me when I was feeling sad.

After my first year, Round Lake was combined with another camp called Cedar Lake. It was also a Jewish camp, but was not for kids on the spectrum. That wasn’t really an issue because we really didn’t come into contact with the Cedar Lake kids that often. Except for Color Wars which is a big competition where both camps were combined and split into four groups. After being split, you compete in different activities. Almost every camp does this activity and I never really liked it.

The last and most important purpose of going to a Jewish camp is what my dad told me before my first year at Round Lake. That would be the ability to learn more about yourself. In other words, that means finding new experiences and finding what you are good at such as sports and science. I learned that I am good at a game called Ga Ga. It’s a game played in an octagonal court with a rubber bouncy ball. The objective is to use your fist or open hand to hit the ball towards the other players (knees or below). If the ball does hit them (in the knees or below), they are out.

All in all, going to a Jewish camp is a great experience because of the friends you’ll make, the new experiences you’ll have, and the memories you will have created. As we say at Cedar Lake/Round Lake, this is “A Home Away from Home.”

 

Posted on February 19, 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

5 Reasons Parents Should Send Their Children With Disabilities to Jewish Camp

Copy of WelcomeThis post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

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.

Posted on February 13, 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

Jewish Disability Awareness Month

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), which brings a topic that is very important to us at the Foundation for Jewish Camp to the forefront of conversations all over the Jewish community.  JDAM is “a unified initiative to raise awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in Jewish communities worldwide.”  To further the effort, we are running a series dedicated to discussing disabilities at Jewish camp this month.

Kicking off the series is a round-up of some of the most powerful posts by Joel Yanofsky, one of our resident bloggers and father to Jonah, a great teenager and camper on the autism spectrum.

The Plain Old Normal

Saying Yes

It Takes a Village, Like it or Not

Camp Turned My Son Into a Teenager

October Blues

The Truth About Pink

Stay tuned for posts by camp directors, experts in the field, former campers, and more.

Like this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on February 6, 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