Camps must be fully accessible

Camp for all

In Short

Children who use wheelchairs, crutches or have any other physical disability should not be limited only to camps for children with disabilities. They should be able to attend mainstream camps with their friends and peers.

Picture this, you are sitting on the dock of your summer camp that’s nestled into the mountains. You’re watching the sunrise over the lake with your best camp friends by your side. You are surrounded by greenery, the sounds of nature and the closest town is 10 miles away. You and your friends are thinking about all the new activities you will try, the new friendships you’ll make and all the memories you’ll create in the summer ahead. It sounds like the perfect camp experience for any child, right? 

The truth is camps that many call their “home away from home” are not easily accessible to those with physical disabilities or impairments. Camps are often built in secluded areas, often in the mountains or on land that was once a forest. The reality is most camps have lots of hills, uneven terrain, gravel roads and other natural obstacles. 

Children who use wheelchairs, crutches or have any other physical disability should not be limited only to camps for children with disabilities. They should be able to attend mainstream camps with their friends and peers. As Judaism teaches, everyone is created b’tzelem elohim (in the image of God) and, regardless of disability, should be treated with kavod (respect), chesed (loving-kindness), and rahmanut (compassion). For this to be possible, camps must be more physically accessible to campers with physical disabilities or impairments so that they, too, can have the same transformative Jewish camp experiences as their peers. 

In recent years, especially with the effects of the pandemic, Jewish summer camps have appropriately focused significantly on mental health and how they can make sure every camper feels comfortable at camp. But what about making sure those with physical disabilities can also come to camp and feel cared for, safe and that they matter and their needs matter? Without providing access to those with physical disabilities, how can camp leaders create a true kehila kedosha (holy community) where every camper can be the best version of themselves and feel included? 

You may be thinking: It costs a lot of money to pave the roads of a whole camp, and won’t this disrupt the sanctity of the outdoor nature of camp? Why not just give a camper who uses crutches or a wheelchair a golf cart to get around? While this may be helpful, it can make that camper feel even more outcast and lesser than because they can’t get to activities on the same paths their peers can or even cannot participate in a Shabbat walk. It’s moments like these at camp that can often have the most significant impact, and while walking to activities with your peers may seem insignificant, think about the conversations and inside jokes that camper is not able to be a part of because they have to use a golf cart to get around when their camp is inaccessible.

Meaningful change is possible, The Yashar Initiative, for example is one of the programs leading this effort. The Yashar Initiative is a $12 million program of the Foundation for Jewish Camp funded by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation that awards grants to Jewish overnight and day camps in North America to increase accessibility for campers and staff. In 2021, 13 Jewish camps in North America were awarded this grant. This initiative was created to address the need of campers and staff with intellectual, developmental, physical, and sensory disabilities. Each camp has to raise 25% of the cost for the project before applying for the grant, and they also have to be committed to increasing their number of campers with disabilities to at least 5% of the camper population. 

All camp leaders need to take the time to assess their campgrounds and develop ways to make them more accessible for all. When camp leaders are renovating areas of camp, they need to do so with accessibility in mind. They should think out of the box — while their facilities might meet minimum requirements, how can they make their camp more accessible and attractive to those with a physical disability? Every camper deserves to watch the sunset over the lake with their friends by their side, creating memories to last a lifetime. 

Hailey Kessler is a student at Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership on the Jewish Educational Leadership Track.