By Jeremy J. Fingerman
There’s no denying the rich, joyous, and stimulating experience of Jewish summer camp; research proves it contributes to Jewish identity, strengthens the Jewish community and fosters Jewish leadership.
At Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), we believe camp must also reflect the diversity of today’s Jewish community and be accessible for everyone.
Jewish camps should strive to create an environment which fosters growth for its campers and college aged counselors. Everyone benefits from an inclusive camp community, which has a culture that embraces and recognizes diversity.
We encourage camp environments where each camper, regardless of whether or not they have a disability, is given what they need to succeed at camp, in an environment in which everyone can learn from each other. Camp offers a place where every child has the opportunity to learn how to live in a diverse community, how to face and overcome challenges, and how to accept that being different is okay. An inclusive camp environment gives everyone the opportunity to be curious, to ask questions, and to learn how to be flexible and tolerant. These skills help build a stronger future Jewish community.
Part of what makes camp so unique is how integrated it is into nature and the ruach that comes along with it. The unpaved greenery, the steps up to the bunks, the hills that lead to the dining hall, the loud cheering after Shabbat dinner on Friday night. But what about the camper with cerebral palsy who can’t walk herself up that hill to the dining hall? Or the boy who covers his ears during song session because he has autism and the loud cheering is overwhelming? For the 15-20% of kids with a disability, whether that is cognitive, emotional, physical, intellectual or sensory, camp can present many obstacles. We feel an obligation to increase the availability of camp options for them.
After our study conducted in 2012-13 found that children with disabilities are significantly underserved by Jewish camp, FJC issued a vision statement for a major disabilities initiative. The overarching goal is to ensure that campers with disabilities and their families experience camp as fully and completely as their typical peers. In 2014, we began securing funding to enhance services at nonprofit Jewish camps across North America for campers with disabilities. One of the major areas identified by the study was the need for trained inclusion specialists and for counselor training focused on serving children with a variety of needs.
One major step in this direction is our new partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, the FJC Ruderman Inclusion Initiative. Four camps have been selected as part of the pilot. Each camp will have a new, dedicated Inclusion Coordinator on staff to intentionally and meaningfully increase their camp’s capacity to serve campers with disabilities. These inclusion coordinators will also receive intensive training and mentoring over the course of three years. They will have the opportunity to learn about universal design, developing strategies to manage camper behaviors and creating cooperative learning for all campers.
Our inclusion efforts continue to grow and we are eager to help more camps find new ways to say yes and break down more barriers. We now have 60 overnight camps within our system who are currently serving children with disabilities. In 2014, we added 3 new programs, one of which is an inclusion program for boys who are deaf and in the summer of 2015, we anticipate several new programs at our camps. As Jewish leaders, camp directors, and educators, this is our responsibility.
It boils down to one major truth: every child, no matter who they are, has the right access the Jewish community. There’s no telling what the future of Jewish camp or the Jewish community will look like, but one thing is for sure: it will be a much richer, more welcoming community if it becomes an inclusive one.
Jeremy J. Fingerman is CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp.
This post is part of a series from the Ruderman Family Foundation which explores the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community. This series coincides with Jewish Disability Awareness Month.