Teaching Self-Reflection and Inclusion, Israeli Style, for Summer Camp Shlichim.

Some of the summer 2016 schlichim
Some of the summer 2016 schlichim

By Beth Steinberg

What were the skills you learned as a staffer at your Jewish camp? From taking on the role of leader and role model to working as a team and helping shape the Jewish life and camp experiences of your campers for 8-weeks, your days were busy and filled with a myriad of details. You learned to think on your feet and in the moment, finding tremendous satisfaction in the act of making it all come together successfully. It was overwhelming, exhausting and completely wonderful.

Each summer, The Jewish Agency hires, trains and prepares approximately 1200 Israelis to work at close to 200 North American Jewish camps – day and overnight camps, movement and independent camps. This group of talented and mostly young, post-army shlichim, face a range of challenges on the job at their individual camps. They’re representing Israel while working in a foreign language, and navigating that particular cultural minefield that often defines the social differences between Israelis and Americans.

How to best prepare them for everything they’ll see and experience? While you knew what camp looked like, most shlichim don’t. JAFI’s Shlichim Training does a does a great job at readying them for walking into camp that first day, ready and able, with a general understanding of their individual camps’ culture and expectations of their shlichim.

Teaching Diversity and Inclusion

Jewish camps of today are charged with offering nuanced responses to an increasingly complex camper and staff population that includes physical/social/behavioral and learning differences as well as differing gender needs. Professional and seasonal staff must respond to the changing needs of their participants with sophistication and caring, offering ongoing training and mentorship to all members of their camp community. It’s a rapidly growing and developing field.

FJC has played an instrumental role in moving this important service area forward with a range of initiatives over the past few years. Following conversations with camp directors across various camp movements, Lisa Tobin, Director of Disabilities Initiatives, along with JAFI’s Summer Camp Shlichim staff, Hanoch Greenberg and Shaylee Cioban wanted something more for shlichim – a conversation nuanced with an Israeli viewpoint on the issue of disability and difference. Together they brought Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem into the picture.

Now in our 10th year, Shutaf runs a variety of inclusive programs year-round for children, teens and young adults, with and without disabilities in Jerusalem. Our specialty day camps held during Passover and August vacations serve more than 225 participants in total. Inspired and informed by our own personal experiences at North American Jewish camps, Shutaf is professionally-run, built on a foundation of Jewish and ethical values, offering a place of complete acceptance and inclusion for participants of all abilities and from all cultural/religious backgrounds.

In Israel, the picture of inclusion is different. Depending on where you live, your exposure to your peers who have disabilities, especially those with more significant physical or cognitive differences, is limited. Israel’s larger classroom size tends to hinder the inclusive success of students with greater educational challenges, relegating them to smaller classes in a general education school, or in separate schools that cater specifically to children with differing needs. While youth movements and in later years, specialty army and national service programs offer opportunities for integration, numbers served are small. Colleges and universities increasingly answer the needs of students with a range of learning differences, but again, only to a lucky few. And, as in much of the Western world, adults with disabilities are under-employed, leaving them marginalized and isolated from greater society.

Shutaf trains and mentors more than 80 counselor staff yearly, as well as offers Inclusion-Accelerator Workshops for educators, youth movement staff and students at all levels of study who are looking to learn more about inclusion, disability and difference. And we do it here, in Israel, with Israelis. We’re aware of the cultural perceptions and misconceptions about difference as well as Israelis and their well-known tendency towards straight talking and straight language.

This year, thanks to FJC’s vision and JAFI’s response to the changing face of inclusion at North American camps, Shutaf took part in shlichim training at Kibbutz Shefayim. We focused on opening a conversation about the issues – inclusion and acceptance – nuanced through activities with open discussions about what’s appropriate and what’s not as a camp staffer and role model. We served as ‘stage setters’ for the further training they will receive at their respective camps when they arrive in North America.

The response was positive. Directors noted that shlichim were well-prepared for the next step of understanding and experiencing the specifics of inclusion and disability issues at their camp. Directors also expressed that the workshops were eye-opening, giving them further understanding of how young Israelis think and react about different social issues, information that would assist them when working with their shlichim this summer.

We were delighted and glad to play a part in this important partnership. Here’s to a great 2016 summer at camps everywhere!

Beth Steinberg is the executive director and co-founder of Shutaf Inclusion Programs, offering year-round, informal-education programs for children, teens and young people with disabilities in Jerusalem. Beth regularly blogs on the Times of Israel about parenting and disability issues, and is also the artistic director of Theater in the Rough, creating engaging theatrical experiences including summer Shakespeare in Jerusalem.