When Everyone Plays Their Part: Inclusion at Jewish Day Camp

By Phil Liebson

In our Habimah (Theater Camp) program last summer, three siblings took a bow together after performing a play. While the curtain call is always a moment of joy and accomplishment at our camp, this one was especially meaningful for this particular family because, at the start of the summer, they’d worried that a curtain call including all three siblings might not be possible.

Two of the siblings are typically developing, while the third – Andrew – has some slight delays and uses a wheelchair. His parents called us the first day of camp, understandably concerned about what type of role Andrew could have in the show. Would he be able to participate fully? We did our best to put the family at ease and assure them that seamless inclusion is a way of life at our camp, but as a parent I know it’s hard to not stress about these kinds of things.

The next day, when the parts were revealed, all three campers ended up with great roles. All three were grinning from ear to ear. I was fortunate to be next to their car at pick-up that day, and as soon as everyone was loaded in, the car was buzzing with excitement at the joyful news.

“Wait until you see them perform,” I said.

The parents expressed how thankful they were that all their children were able to participate in camp together. During the school year, all three are in different places due to being in different grades and having different educational needs. It was a privilege to watch these three siblings work and play together in rehearsal as the day of the performance approached. As a Jewish day camp, we’re in a unique position to not only facilitate a great summer experience through the activities we offer, but to create meaningful moments of connection and relationship-building within families. Even the simple act of having a carpool together to camp as a family was a special opportunity for bonding and memory-building.

Cue the day of the performance. I see three confident campers entering the building and two parents who are nervous wrecks. They needn’t have worried: the curtain went up, and all three kids were amazing. Every one of them was an essential part of the performance, and every one of them brought the house down. During the curtain call, the three siblings grabbed hands and took a bow together. After weeks of hard work learning lines and songs, there they were, three siblings who just put on show together, creating a summer of memories and fun to last them a lifetime, center stage, smiles galore, the crowd cheering and two parents who couldn’t contain their emotions.

I am proud to say that this story is just one of many to come out of camp year after year. At Camp JCC, our mission is to create a camp environment where EVERY camper can participate in a meaningful way. No matter their need, medical condition, or cognitive ability, every camper should have a chance to dance at Shabbat, splash in the spray park, perform in the lip sync competition or take a bow on stage! Each session at Camp JCC, we serve around 500 campers; of those, 100 campers are receiving support in a 1:1 or 2:1 setting. It’s essential for us to create a culture in which all campers are fully immersed in and experience the magic of a Jewish camp summer.

On the surface, people may think that experiences like these only benefit our campers with special needs. The truth is that our inclusion program enriches the lives of all involved. From campers and the amazing connections that come from a summer at camp, to staff that change their college majors and career goals to make sure they can continue their work with people of all abilities, to families that are able to see the impact of their campers’ experiences on their lives, we at camp try to truly live the values of Kol Yisrael: the idea that we are all one community. Like actors in a show, each one of us plays an essential role in a larger and interconnected narrative. The full “story” of the Jewish community can’t be told unless everyone gets the chance to play their part.

Phil Liebson is the Camp Director for Camp JCC at the Bender JCC located in Rockville, Maryland. His passion for camp started as a 6 year old and led him to pursue his Master’s Degree in Camp Administration and Outdoor Adventure. With over 20 summers of camp fun, his love for working with campers and staff still drives him and he can’t wait until Summer 2019!

This piece is part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s blog series on inclusion and accessibility, in honor of Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). Visit FJC’s blog throughout February to discover Jewish camp JDAIM stories.

To learn more about FJC’s Yashar Initiative – a new $12 million initiative generously funded by The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation to increase accessibility for campers and staff with disabilities at Jewish summer day and overnight camps – please visit jewishcamp.org/accessibility.