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.
By Rabbi Jason Miller
Ask any Jewish family that sends their children to both a private Jewish day school and a Jewish summer camp about the affordability of such endeavors and they’ll use words such as “sacrifice,” “hardship” and “priorities.” With the cost of Jewish day school tuition for one child varying from $10,000 all the way up to $40,000 per year, more Jewish families who desire a day-school Jewish education for their children are finding it cost prohibitive even with financial aid.
Add to those rising costs, the additional expense of a month or two at a Jewish summer camp and families are having to just say “no” to their kids. In the new economy, the Jewish middle class has virtually vanished. Many families who once would be considered upper middle class are forking over their tax returns hoping for subsidies to make day school and camp tuition affordable. New organizations like the Affordable Jewish Education Project (AJEP) are sprouting up seeking to imagine alternative solutions to the economic crisis. Plain and simple it’s becoming cost prohibitive to raise a Jewish family according to the values of day school and summer camp.
While Jewish day schools continue to solicit large endowment gifts to offset the tuition costs, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) has announced a new affordability initiative. In an effort to put a Jewish summer camp experience in financial reach for most families, FJC has launched BunkConnect, a new program that matches eligible families with high-quality nonprofit Jewish summer camps at a more affordable price. This philanthropic business venture has been developed in collaboration with forward-thinking business executives and leading philanthropists.
Read the rest of this article on HuffPost Religion
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.
Stay tuned for posts by camp directors, experts in the field, former campers, and more.
There’s no point pretending this blog post is going to be about camp or summer, especially summer. Montreal in February is no picnic. In the grip of the latest polar vortex, I can’t even remember what a picnic is. This may explain why I sometimes wonder what if I only lived in a warmer climate; if my Russian-born grandparents, who had the foresight to flee the pogroms, also had the foresight to stowaway in steerage until their ship made it to, I don’t know, Miami Beach. In any case, they didn’t and now I stowaway in my house all winter. Even our dog, fluffy as she is, would rather stay in her crate until spring. Like the dog, I’m resigned to enjoying the great indoors. During the winter months, one of those indoor activities is party going. When they’re cold, Montrealers are a particularly sociable bunch; even anti-social types like me can’t duck every invitation.
But parties have their own hazards. At a recent get-together, I found myself making small talk with a woman I’d just met. Inevitably, we got around to discussing our children and discovered we both have fifteen-year-olds. She began describing her son’s efforts to find a good CEGEP – CEGEPs, here, are the equivalent of U.S. junior colleges – once he graduated from high school. I knew, of course, where the conversation was headed and braced myself.
“Your son must be thinking about CEGEP, too,” she said.
“Jonah is on the autism spectrum,” I said. “He attends a special needs school. College isn’t likely to be in the picture.”
A long silence followed; it seemed long anyway. There wasn’t much for her to say. She hadn’t said anything wrong. If anything, I felt a little bad for her. I’ve come to terms with the fact my son has autism, but that doesn’t mean I’m not brought up short, on occasion – reminded all of a sudden that your life, his life is going to be very different from the lives of other people. It’s what I call the “what-if-moment” – the moment you can’t help wondering what if your son didn’t have autism. What would his life, your life be like?
Such questions are at the heart of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism, the memoir I wrote a couple of years ago about my family. In some ways, writing the book brought me a small measure of acceptance. I don’t sweat the big stuff anymore. Wondering what it would be like if Jonah were headed for college makes as much sense as wondering what it would be like if I were heading out the door with my surfboard.
Still, the small stuff lingers. It would be nice, for instance, if Jonah and I shared an interest in sports, in particular watching sports on TV. Yes, I wish I could instill in my son my talent for being a couch potato – especially around now, Super Bowl time.
The good news is the “what-if” moments don’t linger. It helps, too, that I came up with some trick plays to keep Jonah in front of the big game a little longer than usual this year. Just before kickoff, I made a super-size bowl of popcorn and placed it strategically beside me on the couch. My thinking was: if I could just keep Jonah there until half-time, I knew he’d want to stay for the half-time show. Jonah and I do share a love of music as well as an uncanny knack for knowing the lyrics to popular songs. When he was a toddler I taught him Beatles and Bob Marley lyrics. This past year he’s got me singing along with Pink and Bruno Mars and, on Super Bowl Sunday, I got lucky: the half-time performer was, indeed, Bruno Mars. So, even though the popcorn was finished, Jonah and I sang along with the last song – “Just the Way You Are.” Then after the song was done, I hurried into the kitchen to make more popcorn.
Jewish camp is everywhere, Terry Gross confirmed on NPR the other day. While interviewing filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, she noted that she’d recently discovered that the Coen Brothers had attended the same Jewish camp – Herzl Camp, in Wisconsin – as folk icon Bob Dylan, albeit not at the same time. An excerpt from the interview follows:
GROSS: So I have to know, is this the kind of summer camp where you sing songs with lyrics about how great the camp is, and then there’s team songs with how great the team is?
GROSS: Aw, shucks. I wanted to think of [Dylan] as singing those songs.
COEN: No, you sang – it was Zionist summer camp, and you sang Zionist songs in Hebrew.
Those of us who attended similar camps recall similar activities. Personally, I can’t even read these lines of the interview without involuntarily breaking into ‘Mi anachnu? Anachnu tziirim! Sharim doo wa diddy diddy dum diddy doo!’ Sad, but true.
That overnight camp comes with a form of indoctrination shouldn’t surprise anyone – but in my experience, both as a Jewish camp camper and a Jewish camp parent, I’ve found that it’s less “indoctrination” and more “immersion.”
Camp is a time for children to be separated from their parents – let’s call them the Indoctrinators-in-Chief – and to be submerged in a world unto themselves for the first time. This is an inherently heady experience. For many children, it’s their first substantial time away from ‘home’ in a place that is not a family member’s home. Campers find themselves in a new place, where things are done differently. And without their parents at hand, they look to other sources – counselors, fellow campers, and the camp itself – as guideposts of authority, and as compasses to provide direction.
The world of each camp is carefully curated in order to convey a particular message and meaning. Some sports camps are known as fostering a spirit of camaraderie and teamwork; others are notorious for being intensely competitive. Performing arts camps fairly vibrate with the sense that there is nowhere more worthwhile than the stage. More general arts camps convey the worthiness of aggressive individuality with their free-to-be-you-and-me, anything-goes wild sense of creativity.
And yes, Jewish camps focus on being Jewish. And whether that is being Jewish as manifested by davening (praying) three times a day, by performing “Ata Ish Tov, Charlie Brown” in Hebrew or by learning about Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, a Jewish camp has as its baseline assumption the validity and continuation of the Jewish people.
So yes, Jewish camps are Zionistic and pro-Israel. Jewish camp teaches different ways of seeing the world – but those ways are through Jewish lenses and perspectives. I attended camps which made me reevaluate who I was in relation to the Jewish people. Questions, whether about kashrut or Israel, were not only tolerated, but welcomed.
Yes, I learned from camp that I was fundamentally, unalterably pro-Israel. But I also learned that ‘Israel’ means ‘to struggle.’ Immersion in a Jewish environment fundamentally differs from indoctrination: Jewish camp, whether through teaching text or history, teaches kids that being Jewish is a struggle, and one to which they should devote their entire lives.
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
On New Year’s Eve, my wife, Cynthia, our son, Jonah, just turned fifteen, our new puppy, Phoebe, five months old, and I gathered around our dining room table to make our resolutions for 2014. The easiest to come up with was Phoebe’s. She resolved to be house-trained by the end of January at the latest. Okay, we came up with that one on her behalf, but I didn’t see much difference between us wanting her to realize her full potential and Cynthia, for instance, wanting to receive more foot massages and back rubs in the coming year. Both are cases of wishful thinking being imposed on others. Both seem, even in the hopeful glow of the New Year, like long shots.
“And what’s your resolution?” Cynthia asked me, as if she really had to. In fact, she and Jonah could both guess mine correctly. “I resolve to be less crabby,” I announced. Even Phoebe looked skeptical.
“A lot less, man,” Jonah added.
Jonah’s new habit of referring to everyone as “man” – that includes his mother and the dog – is, I confess, one of the things making me crabby these days. Jonah is on the autism spectrum and, as a result, he’s always been more likely to pick up verbal tics (or stims, as they’re called in the world of autism) and sustain them for longer than most other kids would. I should be used to this sort of thing by now, but being called “man,” instead of daddy or dad, is driving me a little crazy. It’s like sharing the house with Jack Kerouac. I mean if Jonah has to talk like a 1950s beatnik, can’t he at least call me daddy-o?
Cynthia doesn’t like this new term of endearment much either, mainly because it doesn’t sound that endearing. Still, she reminds me to let Jonah express himself the way he chooses to. Self-expression is hard for a kid with autism so you take it where you can find it. In fact, we take it as a sign of the thing we want most for him nowadays – independence.
His mother and I were terrified the first time we sent Jonah to sleep-away summer camp three years ago, but the main reason we did it was so we wouldn’t always be around to do things for him. To a surprising extent, this plan worked. He became resolved to do more things on his own; we became determined to let him. We remain grateful to his experiences at camp for allowing him and us to see our interconnected resolutions through.
Lately, Jonah insists on going to the corner grocery store on his own whenever we are out of milk or orange juice or green beans. (What can I say? The kid is different; he loves green beans.) The first few times he left for the store I followed him, ducking behind parked cars and recycling bins, as if I were a private detective trailing a criminal suspect. Now, I still worry, but I manage to stay in the house. By the time I finally decide I must head out and find him, he’s invariably on his way back, happily swinging the plastic bag of green beans he just bought.
The other day I also let him take the dog out for a short walk as far as the grocery store. I watched anxiously from the window as Phoebe, still very puppyish, jumped all over him, but eventually they did some walking. Phoebe also did what she was supposed to – some peeing. As for Jonah, he brought her back safe and sound. I couldn’t have been prouder of both of them. When my son got back into the house, I asked him how it went as if I hadn’t been watching him every single moment. “No problem, man,” he said.
I am not quite sure when I first started to understand the notion of homosexuality. When Billie Jean King was forced to come out, I distinctly recall asking my parents about it and them telling me that she was “with another woman” and that woman was telling her secrets to the world. I remember having this strong reaction about how unfair it was for someone to tell another’s secrets. As I grew older, most of what I learned about LGBT issues was tied to the AIDS crisis of the 80s. And then, as time passed, it became less of a “thing” I knew about and more of a reality in my life. There was a cousin, who was gay, and died from AIDS. A friend from high school who came out and we all accepted. A close girlfriend from Jewish sleepaway camp who came to me struggling with coming out and wanted my acceptance. In the course of 25 years, there has been a transformation from when being gay was this abstract thing in my life to being just a way of life. I am pretty sure that the planet around me has grown with me in this area too. I mean: same-sex marriage 25 years ago? People would never have even understood why it was a civil rights situation.
I am a pretty liberal person, probably more liberal than most. So it is not a real shock that much of this is totally a “non-issue” for me. However, I am always shocked by how much I have to learn and how completely encompassed I am in my own little world. When that friend from sleepaway camp came out to me when I was 22, I was surprised. She wanted my approval so badly and I was not sure why. And I didn’t know how to explain that my surprise was just surprise, not disappointment or judgment. It took us a few weeks and then everything was back to normal between us. Today I am still friends with her as well as and her partner who she has been living very happily with for over ten years.
When I got my Masters in Social Work and Jewish Communal Service, there were plenty of LGBT people there and also plenty of people who thought this was wrong. I was shocked by the ignorance of those who thought this was a moral decision. I considered myself an advocate of anyone who needed me to speak up. That being said, I was still pretty separate from the LGBT world.
Then I had the chance to go to a Keshet training. WOW. I was one ignorant person. I was the only “straight” person and I was completely lost in the conversation a lot of the time. I needed to know what letters stood for what, that there were issues like why getting married was a political and financial choice as opposed to just some loving decision, why parenting was different when everything was showing your child that your family was not the “norm.” I was able to learn that people were struggling with such simple issues that I gave no thought to: what to tell their grandparents about their partner, when to come out to certain people, what companies were innately against the family they loved, how going to a public restroom was filled with angst for people who felt trapped in another body. All of this was just stuff I did … and took for granted.
I felt out of place. But I am a question-asker, and ask I did. It became apparent to me that being an ally of others required more than my mere acceptance. It required me to stand up, speak out, say something, look at the world through someone else’s eyes.
That was five years ago, and I now consider myself an advocate for LGBT issues. It has changed what I let people say in front of me and how I parent. It has let me know that there are people struggling with issues that are so deep and so involved for them that I cannot understand, but that doesn’t mean I can’t listen and let them know that my world is a place where I will not only accept who they are but celebrate it. I will not allow people to be anything less than welcoming in my presence. I will cheer the camper who needs to figure out how to come out to the bunk and I will gladly explain to a parent about the transgender staff member we have working for us.
I am so proud that the LGBT community answered my questions and gave me a safe place to ask them. I am even prouder that as the counselors and other staff at our camp talk about these things, it is almost a “non-issue.” I learn so much from these 19- and 20-year-olds who just see this as the most normal part of life. Many of them have no idea who Billie Jean King is and they certainly can’t see why sharing someone’s secret would be on the news. They are infuriated by homophobia and champion marriage equality. They give my daughter a chance to see things from such a different perspective that she truly has no idea that there are people who think it is wrong for some people to be married or have children. As she grows, I am thrilled to share my anger and disbelief at those people’s stupidity with her.
I know that many people say they are accepting or tolerant, but I want more from all of us. I want celebration of differences. I want people to be comfortable to ask and answer questions about differences. I want to be a person who lives and works in a place where friends and strangers know that I am supportive of all people. I am working toward this each and every day. Don’t get me wrong: some days I mess up on a pronoun or I say something that is completely heterosexist. But as time passes, I can feel the difference happening and I am so lucky to be in such an accepting community like Camp JRF where I can ask and have questions answered, where I am made to feel comfortable even in my ignorance, and where I am celebrating people who love and care for each other and themselves.
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Last August, when my son, Jonah, returned from sleepaway camp with a sunburn, an array of nasty-looking mosquito bites, and a desire to water ski again (though this time for longer than a nanosecond), he also had a deepening connection to ritual. At camp, he’d taken to the morning flag-raising ceremonies, the campfire singalongs, as well as the Friday evening Shabbat dinners. I’m guessing that’s what inspired him to insist, this fall, on fasting on Yom Kippur; it was a carryover from his summer of Jewish education. His effort not to eat was, for a 14-year-old with an enormous appetite, remarkable: he made it until lunch.
But then Jonah, who was diagnosed with autism a little more than a decade ago, has always had an affinity for ritual. In fact, one of the early signs of his autism, for me at least, was his habit of lining up his toys single-file from one end of his bedroom to the other. He would have done this for hours if we let him. He could always tell, too, when I switched one toy’s place with another in the line. And, under no circumstances would he tolerate the chaos of double-file or a semi-circle. Eventually, it became clear that Jonah was a lot less interested in engaging in imaginative play with his tiny trucks and alphabet blocks and stuffed animals than he was in giving them an orderly world in which to exist. Which is, come to think of it, the whole point of ritual.
A point, I confess, I’m missing these days. After all, this was the year I deliberately passed on the apple slices dipped in honey on offer at my mother-in-law’s Rosh Hashanah celebration. It was also the first year, since my Bar Mitzvah, that I did not fast on Yom Kippur. My reasons were simple and admittedly childish: I was angry with God. The reason for that was simple, too. My beloved sister died this past August after contracting a mysterious illness and suffering for an excruciating six weeks in the hospital (Jonah came home from camp the day of her funeral) and I was determined to blame God. Childish, like I said, but once my initial anger subsided I had no need to see the world as an orderly place. I’d experienced this kind of thing before, decades earlier, when my mother and father died within two years of each other. When my sister died, I discovered the instinct to be vindictive was – like riding a bicycle – impossible to forget.
But now, it’s Hanukkah and Jonah is all in for the holiday, for the gifts, the candle-lighting, the dreidel spinning and the latkes; and I am doing my best to play along. Still, Hanukkah may be a good way for me to get back on the ritual bandwagon. As Jewish holidays go, it’s innocuous and undemanding. The emphasis is mainly on fun; the mood mainly lighthearted. No great physical, emotional or intellectual demands are going to be made on me. I also can’t help remembering that my late sister loved Hanukkah. She made mouth-watering latkes and, along with my other sister, devoted herself to finding and meticulously wrapping eight special presents for Jonah. It was just one of the many small ways she demonstrated her love for her nephew and also her acceptance of him, which was, from the moment he was born as well as the moment we learned he had autism, absolute and unconditional. So, for the sake of my son and my sister, I’ll put my holiday boycott on hold. The truth is I’ll be doing it for my own sake, too. And while I recognize it’s a lot to ask of any ritual to make the world seem less random, less cruel, it’s probably not the worst place to start.
Recently, my daughter was asked to write about a small moment for school. Not just any small moment – one that she realized later was important. She came home at a loss. What was she going to write about? She was not just confused, she was actually annoyed. She said: “What if I don’t want to share a small moment? What if I want to keep it to myself?” I laughed … not just for the simplicity of her question, but because if you know me at all you know there has never been a thought I have chosen to keep to myself. The notion that she revels so much in her own privacy is like a foreign language to me.
I often look at my daughter and think: “We (my husband and I) have done a pretty decent job at this parenting thing so far!” She does well in school, mostly listens, respects people, is great at sports, feels safe in the planet, and has self-esteem that I marvel at. Listening to her tell me all the moments from the past summer that seemed small but meant so much to her and her friends was bittersweet. I love that she has funny personal jokes with other nine year old girls, she sings Hebrew songs as though Katy Perry wrote them, and I am thrilled when she says: “my counselor said…” or “at camp we learned about….”As we were talking about ideas for her small moments project, it became VERY apparent that most of the moments in her life that she found so pivotal, I was not there for. So many of them happened at camp when she was being herself with her friends and role models and I was not engineering her growth and development.
Well, mostly I am thrilled. Sometimes I am sad. I can’t believe how much effect this experience is having on her becoming the person she will eventually be. I am so blessed that this place exists. A place where my daughter is learning to love herself, her traditions, her version of Jewish life; truly she is becoming a young person with strong ideals and opinions. That part I was ready for. I wasn’t ready for the other stuff. You know, her realizing who is “cool” and who is not as “cool,” her understanding of her own body image, being able to comprehend where she fits into a social structure. Understanding relationships that will one day lead to marriages of all sorts. Learning about her connection to the earth, what she is willing to give up and not give up for the sake of others. Figuring out when to give in and when to stand up. I mean all the small moment stuff; the stuff that DEFINES who you will be.
What I realize is that residential camp gives her a secure place to learn this without me (and her father) being there. That alone may be why it is so incredible to her. She gets to be her own version of herself – what she wants to present and share. I am not sure people who have not experienced residential camp can truly comprehend the value of this. I am sure that if this one summer is any indication of the future, I am going to be in for an interesting ride. One where my daughter is in a roller coaster cart on her own and at times lets me in to see the small moment but, overall, creates her own reality, learns her own lessons, and celebrates her own triumphs.