Inclusion at Jewish Camps: Moving from Yes, BUT… to Yes, AND…

inclusionBy Lisa Tobin and Dan Perla

When a parent of a child with a disability asks if there is a place for their child at a Jewish camp, the desired response is “YES, and let me tell you more!” While the worst response might presumed to be “NO, we don’t serve children with special needs,” we suspect there is an even more painful response. The YES, but response. “Yes, we’d like to serve your physically-challenged child but our camp is too hilly.” “Yes, we’d like to work with children on the spectrum, but it’s just not our thing.”

The Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) has spent significant time over the past two summers learning more about our camps’ efforts to offer a more inclusive environment for child with disabilities and special needs. This has included camp visits to observe first-hand what camps are doing to create a more inclusive environment. To be clear, there are more opportunities for campers with disabilities than ever before. The growth in opportunities for these campers has taken hard work. Some of what we see on our camp visits is nothing short of magical. We saw a camper who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair participate in all of the activities at their camp. This child has been given access to a Jewish community which has welcomed her in by ensuring that her bus is equipped with lifts so that she can attend a two day rafting trip with her bunkmates. This is an example of a “YES, and…” approach.

YES, and…. was at work when we saw a camper who learned sign language in order to communicate with a deaf friend in the next door bunk. For the camper who is deaf, this was her first experience at Jewish overnight camp. She learned about Shabbat, connected to Israel and was able to explore her Judaism alongside her peers without disabilities. For her friend who learned to sign, it was her first experience with a deaf person and one which changed her world view forever. The entire camp community learned that the Jewish community isn’t homogenous and that they are all part of a larger kehillah kadosha – a sacred community.

“YES, and …” is at work when a child with autism returns home to his parents filled with wonderful camp stories and singing the many Shabbat songs that he learned at camp. This is a boy for whom Jewish day school was not an option and who sits at home alone on Shabbat because he has no friends to hang out with. At camp, by contrast, he dances in the dining room alongside 100 other boys as they end their meal with a robust song session. This boy stopped to offer a “high five” when he observed our visit.

“YES, and…” is the magic at work as more and more camps get on board the train of inclusivity and spend the time and resources necessary to ensure that children with disabilities are included at camp. It is a commitment that requires full community buy- in and a great deal of intentional work on the part of all who are involved.

But while more and more camps are getting on board, we still hear too many “YES, buts….” The “Yes, but our camp is too hilly (to serve physically-challenged children)” came from one of the oldest and largest camps we work with. The “Yes, we’d like to work with children on the (special needs) spectrum but it’s just not our thing” came from a small camp that prides itself on its embrace of Jewish values. What could be more consistent with Jewish values than offering the transformational power of Jewish camp to more children?!

It is important that FJC acknowledge and promote the many Jewish overnight camps that employ an intentional approach to inclusion of campers with special needs. And we welcome all camps to relook at how they speak to these families and begin their journey on becoming more reflective of the Jewish community.

For parents looking to hear “Yes and…” we encourage you to contact our One Happy Camper partners to explore the right camp experience for your child.

Lisa Tobin is Director of Disabilities Initiatives and Dan Perla is V.P., Program & Strategy at Foundation for Jewish Camp.