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.
I didn’t expect to cry when I picked my kid up from camp.
When I dropped him off at the bus? Totally. I skulked past the more experienced parents doing the hora in the parking lot as the bus pulled away, got into the front seat, shut the door and started crying.
But when I picked him up, I expected it to be all sunshine and happiness.
And it was.
But there was another component to it.
See, I mistakenly expected to get back the same kid I sent to camp. And I didn’t. And that made me cry tears of happiness.
This kid was taller. His hair was longer. He was definitely dirtier (“This IS my clean shirt!” he said as I pointed out that the shirt he was wearing looked a lot like he had cleaned the bunk floor with it before putting it on.). But I don’t sweat the small stuff, and that is all small stuff.
My son had changed for the better.
When he took my husband and I to see his favorite spot at camp, he wasn’t quite sure he was going the right way. Without any prodding, this nine year old went over to a teenager and her family—people he’d never seen before—and politely asked them for directions. That was maturity. That was impressive.
But in addition to the maturity, there was something else that I couldn’t quite pinpoint at first. As we kept talking, though, it made itself evident bit by bit. It was in the Hebrew words, naturally sprinkled through his speech. It was in the joy with which he demonstrated the hand signals that corresponded to the Hebrew song they sang every day before lights out. It was in his questions about what is going on in Israel now, and what we can do to support the Jewish state. And it was in his descriptions of the camp gathering for Kabbalat Shabbat by the lakefront, and when he spent part of the car ride home demonstrating that he now knew Birkat Hamazon by heart.
My son was happily, joyfully proud to be Jewish.
I’m not saying this was a sudden change—I like to think he was already proud of the identity we built for him at home. But it was different: going away to a Jewish camp had given him the opportunity to make Judaism his own—a key and critical part of himself, who he is and who he will become. At camp, he could grow, physically and emotionally, and as a Jewish individual—the person he will be and develop for the rest of his life.
My son came home from Jewish camp a taller, more mature, joyful Jew. And I couldn’t be happier.
Jewish overnight camp is about so much more than campfires and color war. At camp, kids get the chance to explore who they are—and who they want to become—in an active, inspiring, fun-filled environment. (Marshmallows included.) But paying for camp can be difficult. We get it—we are parents too.
We have some easy ways to make the dream of overnight summer camp a reality for your child. We can even help you find the perfect camp—no matter what your background, you will find a place your child will have fun, be comfortable, learn more about themselves, and explore their Jewish identity.
If your family lives in the northeast, check out BunkConnect, a new program that offers introductory rates at 40-60% off to first time campers. Finding out if you qualify is quick and confidential—answer six questions at BunkConnect.org. Then start browsing for the right summer experience for your child for this summer! The website will connect you right to the camp director to learn more about the experience.
One Happy Camper
BunkConnect doesn’t work for your family? One Happy Camper offers first time campers up to $1000 off. With over 155 Jewish camps on Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Find a Camp tool – search out the perfect one. You can narrow down your search by choosing preferred session length, specialty activities, denomination, and more. Once you choose a camp visit OneHappyCamper.org to see if you are eligible for a need-blind grant.
While you are on our website, visit our scholarship database. Don’t forget to talk to your synagogue, local federation, JCC or other Jewish organizations. Many have scholarships available to make summers at Jewish camp a reality
At Jewish camp, ruach (spirit) is part of every activity—from dancing to hitting a home run—allowing campers to explore their connection to Judaism in a meaningful way while having the summer of their lives. Clearly, we are a little passionate about this. You will see the difference in your child the minute they return home. The impact of overnight Jewish camp is immediate. At camp, kids hang out with amazing role models, who inspire confidence and independence, guiding your child to hone their skills, build self-esteem, and discover interests and talents they never knew they had.
We can’t wait for your child to have the summer of a lifetime. (And you get a bit of a break from the logistics of the daily grind, not bad…)
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.
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.
Judaism has been a part of my life since I was born. My mother snuck Shabbat candles into the hospital in preparation for my birth and I was born on Shabbos afternoon surrounded by my family and future friends, all welcoming Shabbat and my existence. As a child, I was raised primarily by my Jewish, African-American mother, Denise. I am honored to say that she converted to this amazing religion and that I am 100% Jewish.
As soon as I turned five, she signed me up for Hebrew school. For seven years, I studied the Hebrew alphabet and dozens of prayers. By the time my Bat Mitzvah rolled around last year, I had memorized every prayer I had studied, but I was nervous. So I used my Bat Mitzvah folder as a memory tool and looking down helped avoid the stares of the 200 guests! Continue reading here>>