Expanding Camp Opportunities for Kids with Special Needs

by Lisa David

The Foundation for Jewish Camp released preliminary findings last week from their recent research study Jewish Camp for Children with Disabilities and Special Needs, which maps current, potential, and desired camp program opportunities for children with disabilities/special needs. The study paints an encouraging picture of the field of Jewish camping, highlighting a variety of models that successfully provide meaningful Jewish camp experiences to children with diverse needs.

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Camp and Israel Programs are committed to providing a positive Reform Jewish summer experience to all children, including those with special needs. The FJC study found that parents of children with disabilities/special needs feel strongly that providing a uniquely Jewish experience is critical; in fact, 34% of parents reported that the biggest factor in choosing a camp for their child with special needs is that it be a Jewish camp where their child can connect to their heritage and community. URJ camp programs enable all youth to have this critical Jewish growth experience. Our camps provide a diversity of inclusion support for campers with disabilities and special needs, and we are particularly proud of two unique camp experiences designed exclusively for campers with special needs: the Mitzvah Corps program at URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, N.Y., and Camp Chazak at URJ Eisner Camp/URJ Crane Lake Camp in Great Barrington, MA.

The study also revealed that the biggest barriers to serving more children with specials needs are not attitudes or wheelchair ramps. Rather, the problem lies in a lack of training and knowledge followed by funding – which is why the Reform Movement is deeply committed to increasing and enhancing both our human and financial resources committed to programming for youth with special needs. We will continue to proactively publicize our program opportunities so more families are aware of – and can ultimately take advantage of – these incredible camping experiences.

As a parent of a child with special needs, I know just how important it is that we continue to seek even more opportunities to reach out and provide a meaningful and fulfilling Jewish camp experience to every child. Summer camp is an immersive experience where Judaism is not only learned but lived, so it follows that our camps should continue to model the Biblical precept that every individual is created in the image of God and is a valuable contributor to the community. Camp can help every child develop a sense of pride and self-worth as they are challenged, grow, and connect to others – and providing those experiences in a Jewish context paves the way for meaningful lifelong engagement in the Jewish community. Especially as the Reform Movement emphasizes effective Jewish youth engagement and retention strategies, we look forward to the FJC’s anticipated next steps: creating an action plan for Jewish camps and convening stakeholders this fall to strategize how best to meet the needs of Jewish youth with disabilities/special needs.

The FJC’s survey provides those of us in the business of Jewish camping with an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come in our efforts to accomplish these goals and to revel in just how many partners we have in continuing to deepen and expand these opportunities.

Lisa David is the Associate Director of Camping at the Union for Reform Judaism.