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My Journey Back to Jewish Summer Camp

All of the major signposts of my life are linked to my attending Jewish residential camp at Camp Ramah, in Ojai, California. My career working with individuals with disabilities started at Ramah. Ramah is where I met my dearest friends. Ramah friends introduced me to my husband, so it was fitting that two years later we were married there.

Each summer I returned to camp – the one place I felt comfortable to be myself. As I grew older, serving as a counselor for campers with disabilities spurred my passion for supporting people swept aside in their school and local community. For five years, through college and beyond, I worked with these children and adults to help them find joy in camp just as I had.

When a marginalized person first feels a part of a community, it changes their life forever, opening them to a world of possibility. I loved watching their friendships grow, and each new unfolding chapter of their growth taught me the value of bringing all of the parts of our community together.

I earned a Master’s degree in psychology, and began working with people with disabilities outside of camp, for a local school district. But I was massively unhappy. Even though I was working hard, I spent too much time with lawyers and administrators fighting over how many hours of services a child needed. My job was focused on meeting quantifiable behavioral goals, not helping people have fun and grow.

I yearned for camp again. Late one night, I saw a job posting for the position of Inclusion Coordinator at Camp JCA Shalom, and I applied for the job immediately. But it had been nine years since I attended residential Jewish summer camp. In that time, I had moved home to Los Angeles, started a career, fell in love, and got married. How was this going to work out?

My husband knew how important camp was to my life. He encouraged me to take the job even though it would mean us spending a lot of time separated over the summer.

Last summer at camp was hard work, but it felt like a homecoming of sorts. I was able to work with a group of people that fully supported including individuals with disabilities, whether they were campers or counselors. There were fires to put out and behavior plans to implement, but helping people experience the magic of camp again made confronting every challenge worth it.

I’ve already seen growth and maturation in several campers and staff members with whom I’ve had the privilege to work. One camper stands out in my mind. It was his first summer at camp. When he arrived, he immediately wanted to go home. He begged to go home. Homesick and nervous, he had a history of being bullied in school because he was “different” than his peers without disabilities. However, with the support of his inclusion counselor, he found his “groove” after a couple of days. He now considers camp his home away from home, and he is an integral part of the Camp JCA family.

He returned for winter session, where he met a fellow pre-teen. They started talking and spending a lot of time together. In song session, the staff saw them put their arms around each other, and we all wondered if a romance was blooming.

It’s this kind of success story that fills me with anticipation every time I drive the winding road through the Santa Monica Mountains on my way to Camp JCA. Whose life will we impact today? Who will make a new friend? Who will discover strength they didn’t know they had? Who will feel the joy of making another person feel more whole? Every day our campers spend together, a world of possibility opens up to them.

Rachel Adler is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who currently serves as the Inclusion Coordinator for Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, California.

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