Jewish camps are offering more options to families with special needs children, a recent study has determined.
That study, commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), showed that about one-third of Jewish overnight camps have successful special needs programs in place, and that others are committed to developing such programs.
Jewish camps serving Pittsburgh’s children, include Camp Ramah in Canada, Camp Harlam in the Poconos, Emma Kaufmann Camp in West Virginia, and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
The majority of the special needs population in Jewish camps have neurological disabilities, according to the FJC study. Few camps are currently equipped to accommodate children with more complicated disabilities.
The survey found that although many camps had a good foundation for including special needs children in their programs, “the majority of camp directors were interested in doing more,” said Abby Knopp, vice president, program and strategy, at the FJC.
“A broad-based training program would definitely be a place to start,” she said.
Jewish summer camps are crucial because, in some cases, they are the only portals available to Jewish institutional life for kids with special needs, who are sometimes turned away from other programs, such as religious school. The camps also provide a respite period for the parents of the campers, as well as a chance for “typical” campers to live and play with those who are, in some ways, different.
Camp Ramah, a Conservative camp in north Ontario, was one of the pioneers in accommodating special needs campers with the launch of its Tikvah program in 1993. Since then, the program has grown, as have the typical campers who embrace the Tikvah kids.
While the Tikvah campers — nine males and nine females, ages 12 to 24 — have their own cabins and staff, they join with the typical campers for many activities and are fully integrated into camp life for six weeks.
Camp provides a significant way for the Tikvah campers to explore their Jewish identity, said Ron Polster, director of Camp Ramah.
“Their tefillot (prayer service) is the most meaningful at camp,” he said. “Sometimes you can feel these kids’ connections to God and to the community. That piece, the Jewish ritual, is very significant to them, and also very significant to the kids without disabilities.”
Polster, who was on staff at the camp during the summer of Tikvah’s inception in 1993, has seen the changes in the typical kids throughout the 20 years that Tikvah has been in place; they have become more open and accepting.
Each summer, the Tikvah campers are buddied with the 10th-graders for activities such as daily prayer services, learning, free swim and a talent show.
“The 14- and 15-year-olds have embraced the model,” Polster said, adding that each summer the 10th-graders welcome the opportunity to share the stage with the Tikvah campers in putting on a play, and genuinely appreciate the abilities of their Tikvah peers.
“The mentality has changed over 20 years,” he said. “There is more sensitivity. The attitude is not that we feel sorry for the Tikvah [campers], but more that, it’s a level playing field.”
Learning to live in an inclusive environment is beneficial to all involved, according to FJC’s Knopp.
“It’s an important piece developmentally for all kids because this is the world we live in,” she said. “Typical children in inclusive environments do better in all sorts of measures. It’s a positive experience for everybody.”
At Camp Harlam, a Union for Reform Jusaism camp, campers with special needs do not have separate accommodations, but are mainstreamed with the typical campers, according to Aaron Selkow, its director. Camp Harlam is committed, he said, to broadening its offerings to those with special needs.
“We are assessing and evaluating new things that would make Harlam totally reflective of the Reform Jewish community, and for that to be true, it ought to be inclusive,” he said.
To that end, Harlam has invested in an eight-person “wellness team,” he said. “We created and hired positions to provide supplemental support and training.” “It’s subtle,” he said. “We are trying to provide an opportunity for individuals to find a place and be part of the community.”
Harlam has also committed to making its space more accommodating to those with physical disabilities.
“Any renovation going forward will try to be done to be fully ADA compliant, and even exceed ADA standards,” Selkow said, adding that Harlam’s three new cabins are all fully accessible, as are its new $40,000 gaga courts.
“We’re committed to moving in the direction where any Reform child could consider Camp Harlam their summer home,” he said. “We want not only to remain committed to being an inclusive community, but we want to expand our ability to be inclusive, and are pushing toward a long-term commitment.”
One of the challenges in pushing toward that commitment is lack of funding, said Selkow.
“The hardest part is that we in the camping business have some of the best vision and passion in Jewish education; we just don’t have the money,” he said.
The primary challenge faced by Ramah is not funding — the camp specifically raises money to cover the “significant scholarship needs” of its Tikvah campers — but what to do for the Tikvah campers once they age out of camp.
“We are talking about creating more adult vocational opportunities at camp,” he said. “What’s the magic age when they leave camp? We are thinking a lot about that.”
At Emma Kaufmann Camp, nine special needs campers, ages 15 to 22, will join the camp’s Gesher program for 12 days, living in their own cabins, and participating in activities separately as well as with the rest of the camp, according to Adam Baron, EKC assistant director.
“One of our ultimate goals is to create more peer interactions between this group and the mainstream kids,” he said. “Another goal is to help these kids learn independence, and to overcome some of their fears.”
This is the largest number of special needs campers accommodated by the camp since the Gesher program began in 2002, said Baron. Several of the Gesher campers, who are all from Squirrel Hill and the South Hills, were recruited for camp through the Friendship Circle, run by Rivkee and Rabbi Mordy Rudolph. Friendship Circle will send some of its staff to EKC for one day to help train the EKC staff in inclusion.
“We need to ensure that it’s an ideal environment,” Mordy Rudolph said. “We hope to make it more a part of camp.”
The Friendship Circle staff will also be working to help train counselors at the Gan Israel day camp in Fox Chapel, Rudolph said.
At the JCC day camps — J&R and the South Hills — special needs kids participate through a partnership with the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic John Merck Program, according to Liza Baron, director of J&R. The Merck program hires and pays additional staff to serve as aides and monitor the behavior of the special needs campers, who are fully integrated into the camp.
Liza Baron has seen that inclusion benefits not just the special needs campers, but also those who do not have special needs.
“The typical children are impacted in such a positive way because they are learning compassion and patience and understanding that not everyone is like them,” she said. “It’s incredibly valuable to everybody.”
Ann Haalman, director of the South Hills JCC Day Camp, agrees.
“Our kids are wonderful,” Haalman said. “They help as much as possible. They help with tying shoes, or putting on sunscreen. They don’t shy away from them.”
Jewish camps that have embraced special needs kids often find that they become central to the very spirit of the camp, said Ramah’s Polster. “When the Tikvah kids leave, it’s like the heart and soul of camp has left.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)