Thirty-eight years ago, many people worried that having campers with special needs in a normal Jewish summer camp would be a disaster. Would those campers bring down the level of Hebrew and Jewish knowledge? Would the speciality staff know how to work with them? Would the regular campers not return in the future? Fortunately, the Tikvah Program Director and the camp director moved forward, invited a small group of children with disabilities to camp, and never looked back. The Tikvah Program continues to grow and evolve, offering an overnight camping experience for campers with various special needs at several locations in the U.S. and Canada.
In Palmer, Massachusetts, Tikvah campers follow a very busy daily schedule consisting of davening (morning prayers), breakfast, bunk clean up, three periods of morning activities, lunch, four afternoon periods, dinner, an evening activity, and finally, showering and bedtime. At the end of eight weeks, Tikvah parents have expressed their appreciation for the language, social and Jewish growth and the independence displayed by their children. Some of these campers with intellectual disabilities, autism and neurological impairments travel as much as a thousand miles to attend the program.
Tikvah campers, like their typical peers ages 9 through 16 years old, enjoy Israeli singing and dancing, swimming, boating, sports, arts and crafts, and electives such as the ropes course, drama, video production and web design. Tikvah campers also participate in vocational training, a buddy program with typical campers and various service projects within the camp. For example, we sold baked goods for soldiers in Israel, and we bake and sell challah each week. The money is being used to build a new water fountain near our baseball field in memory of a dear friend/camper who died of a heart problem a few years ago.
Tikvah campers are constantly interacting with their typical peers in activities, shared mealtime, camp programs and incidental walks along the same road from activity to activity. There are field trips for bowling, chocolate factory visits and blueberry picking as well as the annual camping and canoeing trip. At the end of the camp session, Tikvah campers put on a play (in Hebrew and English) for the entire camp community.
Tikvah campers clearly benefit from the overnight camping experience the various Tikvah Programs offer but it is the rest of camp which is being given the real gift: a four week or eight week opportunity to interact and form meaningful, genuine relationships with people similar and different from themselves. It is our hope and dream that all Jewish children will be able to attend a Jewish summer camp!
This article featured in the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) Religion and Spirituality Division Newsletter, Summer 2007.