As Inclusion Expands In Jewish Summer Camps, A New Training Guide

Ramah InclusionBy Howard Blas

  • After three years, the camp director has finally trained the 800 campers to “quiet down” in the chadar ochel (dining room) when he puts his hand in the air. One day, a young man with Down Syndrome grabs the microphone from the director and starts singing a version of “Shalom Rav.” The room erupts in laughter.
  • The head of the agam (lake) blows the whistle and announces into her megaphone, “Everybody out – swimming is over – lake is closed!” Everyone leaves the lake – except for a 14-year-old camper with autism. He is having such a good time that he refuses to leave.
  • It is Friday night and the scholar-in-residence is teaching a staff class to which members of the vocational training program are invited. The most engaged participant is a 25-year-old man with Aspergers. He is so enthusiastic that he keeps interrupting the rabbi with questions and comments.

What are the camp director, head of waterfront, and camp rabbi to do in such situations? Where can they turn for guidance and advice?

Now, thanks to the new Inclusion Training Guide for Jewish Summer Camps, a co-branded project of the Ramah Camping Movement and the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), navigating these situations and similar ones just got easier. The guide became available in May 2015 – in time for the upcoming camping season – for use by everyone in the camping world and beyond.

Here are some ways directors, counselors, department heads, camp rabbis, infirmary staff and others could use the new guide to handle such real-life situations likely to arise at camp. Consider these responses:

  • The director smiles, waits patiently, and joins the camper with Down Syndrome in song – followed by the entire chadar ochel. A counselor in the disabilities inclusion program seamlessly walks up to the front of the dining room and takes the camper to the side to discuss the matter. Counselors from the disabilities program are invited to read a bedtime story and facilitate a discussion in camper bunks to discuss the strengths, weaknesses, and unique needs we all have.
  • The waterfront head is worried about safety at the lake when one person doesn’t follow the rules. The inclusion specialist explains that people with autism are often rigid, have a hard time with transitions, and need frequent reminders of the time remaining. Next time, the waterfront head offers a five-minute warning.
  • The scholar-in-residence doesn’t want to be “mean” and allows the young man with Aspergers to offer his comments. The inclusion specialist works with the rabbi to remind the young man that other people in the class also have valuable perspectives and comments to share. They work out a “deal” where he can offer two comments per class.

Nearly two years ago, just before staff week for the rapidly approaching camp season, I turned to my colleague Lisa Tobin, Director of Disabilities Initiatives at FJC, and asked her if she was aware of any materials for training staff members of inclusion and disability camping programs at Jewish summer camps. Although I had been the director of such a program, the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, for fifteen years and had been working in the field of disabilities camping for nearly twenty years, I had not come across any written resources for training and supporting staff. I wondered if perhaps FJC was aware of any such materials.

Lisa began reaching out to colleagues in Jewish camps – across movements, organizations, and geographic regions – and learned that such a training guide did not exist and was badly needed. Colleagues longed for a “soup-to-nuts” guide. FJC secured some generous initial funding from UJA-Federation of New York-Neshamot Fund, and a co-branded partnership between the Ramah Camping Movement and the Foundation for Jewish Camp was born.

This past year, Lisa and I have been writing original content and also collecting and compiling intake forms, templates, mission statements, job descriptions, sensitivity training materials, descriptions of various camp programs, and all kinds of practical guidance and more to be used by counselors, inclusion specialists, camp directors, intake coordinators, camper care specialists, and others. Our project team at Ramah included Tali Cohen, Director of Tikvah Vocational Services at Ramah New England, and Orlee Krass, National Ramah Tikvah Coordinator.

It is our hope that this resource guide will grow, evolve, and be updated regularly. It may grow to one day include training videos, chat rooms, an “ask the expert” section, and a listing of professionals in the field.

Ramah is proud to participate in this project and share its 45 years of experience in the field of disabilities camping. In 1970, visionary special education teachers Herb and Barbara Greenberg took the first steps toward achieving their vision of including children with a range of disabilities in a typical Jewish summer camp. Despite resistance and naysayers who were worried about the cost, lowering the level of Hebrew in Ramah camps, and “normal” campers leaving the camp, their pioneering efforts at Ramah have led to a philosophy of inclusion throughout the Ramah movement such that every residential and day camp in the Ramah network now serves campers with disabilities.

Two new Tikvah programs at Ramah Darom and Ramah Poconos will come to life in the next two years so that as of 2016, all eight Ramah overnight camps will have programs open to hundreds of campers with disabilities, serving Jewish families across the entire North American continent.

Tikvah programs include a wide array of camping opportunities, including targeted programs for specific populations, family programs and retreats for families with children with disabilities, Israel programs, and a growing initiative in vocational education whereby Tikvah alumni come back to camp as young adults to learn job skills and work in neighboring communities while enjoying the socialization and Jewish experiences of camp life.

Ramah strives to continue to innovate and to identify new ways of collaborating with our colleagues in the field of disabilities camping. As I write this, National Ramah is holding its annual spring leadership training program that for the third year in a row includes a specialized track for staff members who work with campers with disabilities and participants in vocational training programs. Of the 21 participants this year, two-thirds are from camps outside the Ramah movement. The new Inclusion Training Guide for Jewish Summer Camps represents yet another important step forward in the critical work of including young people with disabilities in Jewish camping.

Howard Blas is the director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network as well as the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England. He is a recipient of the 2013 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education in recognition of his work with Ramah in the disabilities field.