February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. Join us as we share stories that highlight the impact of inclusion in our camp communities.
“Making Jewish life accessible for all” is an important community responsibility, and schools, camps and synagogues across North America are working to ensure that inclusion becomes every child’s normative experience.
What would it look like if Jewish organizations partner together to create an approach to inclusion that lasts beyond an academic school year or a 4 week session at camp? What can we all do to help make inclusion successful for each child 365 days a year?
The truth is that the camps, schools and synagogues that our children attend all have different levels of understanding and ability to make inclusion a possibility. Some don’t know enough in general about what is happening in the inclusion field. Some are willing, but don’t have the trained staff and volunteers necessary for the job. And sometimes the families don’t fully share information when their child moves to a new environment.
Sharing of expertise, information and experiences among agencies has to be encouraged and improved if new partnerships are to develop and bring all of our strengths to bear.
At Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), we are working to open the lines of communication and give appropriate tools to all those that have the opportunity to impact our campers, not just those involved in inclusion programming at camp.
In the Spring of 2016, I traveled to Israel to work with JAFI and Shutaf to open a conversation about inclusion and acceptance with 1200 schlichim (Israeli staff members) who went on to spend the summer at our camps. Additionally, in partnership with the Davidson School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, FJC manages an Inclusion Coordinators Community of Practice (CoP). This program encourages partnerships between camps and agencies to provide resources and expertise to help these professionals in their support of children with disabilities.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Communication and partnership is the key.
A child’s school, synagogue and camp all get to know the child intimately over prolonged periods of time. But they seldom get the whole picture of the child’s 24/7 life, and of the opportunities and challenges that the child is negotiating when he/she is not with them. We must all get the “big picture” of each of the children that we serve within the larger Jewish communities and share our expertise to create a fully inclusive community where children with disabilities can have positive experiences and their families do not have to opt-out.
I encourage camps to invite teachers from the nearby Jewish day schools, rabbis, and federation professionals to visit camp during the summer so that they can be a part of the experience.
How often does a child learn to lead services at camp, but his/her rabbi doesn’t know it, so the child is never encouraged to continue that ability during the year? How often does a child excel in math or science during the year, but the camp doesn’t see that because of a disability that takes a lot of their time and focus? And how often does a school not know a child’s creative or spiritual enthusiasm, due to purely academic focus on an IEP?
How wonderful would it be if a child who has been leading Adon Olam or reading Torah at camp can shine and be included in his home community because the camp calls the rabbi to share those skills and to suggest that the child be allowed to continue to be engaged in this way?
We need to build partnerships together. We must build systems that allow schools, camps and synagogues to talk with each other and with parents about each child. The personal nature of each camper is their own story, but synagogues, camps and schools are each chapters in the book.
Lisa Tobin is the Director of InclusionInitiatives at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Prior to working at FJC, Lisa worked at NJY Camps as the Director of Round Lake Camp where she helped to move the camp from being a self-contained camp serving children with disabilities to an inclusion camp. Lisa began her work in the field of special needs and camping at Camp Ramapo where she was first introduced to residential camping and all that it entails. Her work at Ramapo inspired her to move forward in pursuing an M.A. in Special Education (NYU), an MSW (University of Maryland) and an MA in Jewish Studies (Baltimore Hebrew University). Lisa is a licensed school social worker and a FEREP scholar and has worked at Jewish Federations in Baltimore and in Stamford, CT. She also spent time as a classroom special education teacher and as a bilingual (Spanish) educational evaluator for AHRC. Lisa lives in West Orange, NJ with her husband Rob and their four children Maya, Yossi, Ezra and Avi.