While doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, and so many others were working from home and not always feeling very “essential” during the pandemic, Austin, Tiffany, and other people with disabilities were teaching what it means to be and feel truly essential.
When the pandemic hit and it became clear that camp would not take place this summer in the same way it had in previous summers, Ramah campers across North America were deeply disappointed. In the months leading up to summer, campers with and without disabilities enjoyed dozens of quality programs offered by each individual camp and by National Ramah. Even with the availability of these programs, current members of our vocational training programs and alumni—many who found themselves out of work or no longer at in-person internships—expressed concerns that without a summer at camp, they would lose the opportunity to work on important vocational and social skills. We quickly mobilized to create TikvahNet, a series of 75-minute Zoom meetings facilitated by Ramah Tikvah staff, focusing on both job skills and socialization.
We recently kicked off our third 8-week series of TikvahNet programming. To date, over 80 current or former Tikvah voc ed program members have participated. For each session, the program coordinator and four staff members prepare PowerPoint slides, enabling participants with a wide range of intellectual and developmental disabilities and verbal abilities to fully participate in the program. Slides were shared with participants and families prior to each session so they could prepare in advance. We have learned about money management, workplace behavior, the elections and our right to vote, proper precautions to take during the pandemic, resumes, and self-advocacy. We have also cooked, danced, enjoyed a virtual tour of Israel and a Chanukah party, and made cards of appreciation to frontline workers. The level of dedication of the staff members truly led to the success of the program. They developed, individualized, and expanded the concept of TikvahNet so that it will continue even beyond the pandemic.
One of the great benefits of TikvahNet has been watching participants from Toronto socializing with old and new friends from Chicago, Seattle, Washington, Miami, and Los Angeles—across three time zones! Participants enjoy sharing stories of one very special thing they have in common—camp! They compare notes on similarities and differences between camps–special Shabbat foods, whether they have a pool or a lake, and where they pray on Shabbat. They look forward to ending each session with the Ramah-wide nighttime song, Rad Hayom.
Perhaps most inspiring has been listening to Austin and Tiffany tell the group about their jobs. Austin spoke about his job at a hospital in St. Louis, where he delivers food trays to patients in their rooms. “I am an essential worker!” he tells the group. Tiffany of Los Angeles adds, “I’m an essential worker, too! I work in a grocery store.” Austin and Tiffany are performing essential work and more importantly, are feeling like the essential workers that they are.
We hope to continue helping people with disabilities feel more essential and ultimately find meaningful employment. In the current phase of TikvahNet, we are inviting businesses who employ people with disabilities to describe what it takes to be hired by their companies. We have already heard from Blue Star Recyclers (computer and electronic recycling), and will soon hear from Luv Michael, a granola company. Two current TikahNet participants and their parents will soon join to share the story of Shred Support, the DC-area shredding company they started during the pandemic. These two young men with Down Syndrome, Uriel and Jacob, are doing essential work and teaching the community what it feels like to be essential.
The American Camping Association (ACA), which employs more than 320,000 camp staff and serves over 7.2 million children in its 2,400 ACA accredited camps report in a 2017 study that 44% of camps offer specialized programs for individuals with disabilities. They proudly note, “For 120 years, the organized camp experience has been serving individuals with special needs.”
These camps began by serving campers with physical challenges and this “was the beginning of a pattern of the camp community’s response to societal issues affecting campers with a wide variety of diagnoses, including polio, intellectual and physical disabilities, childhood diabetes, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.”
In the Jewish camping world, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, two special education teachers, started the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England in 1970 for campers with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There has been tremendous growth in the area of inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish summer camps since that time. According to Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, 3,744 campers with disabilities participated in FJC overnight camps in 2019 and 4,145 in day camps.
While many camps did not operate in person in the summer of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is the norm around the world for children with disabilities to participate in summer day and overnight camps and respite camps. These camps differ in affiliation and structure: they may be public or private, faith based or nondenominational (communal), and they may feature various models of camping including fully inclusive, camp within a camp, and separate camps for people with disabilities.
In the United States, overnight camps typically take place during the summer months, and last from several days to 8-weeks. Campers often travel many hours by plan, bus or car to arrive at camp.
In Israel, a country roughly the size of New Jersey, overnight camps are a relatively new phenomena and tend to last from 5 days to 14 days.
The recently established Summer Camps Israel organization aims to promote greater involvement in 30 summer camps throughout Israel. Several camps and organizations in Israel currently meet the needs of participants with disabilities and their families.
Programs Serving Special Populations
Shutaf, a year-round Jerusalem-based program, serves 300 participants, ages 6-30, with and without disabilities. They employ a reverse-inclusion model which brings together participants with diverse developmental, physical, and learning disabilities (75% of participants), alongside participants without disabilities (25% of participants).
Co-founder Beth Steinberg reports, “When we moved to Israel in 2006, the camp world here was underdeveloped. The ideas of an American style camp with values to grow and become was unheard of. We wanted summers to be the best time for our kids and we wanted to serve all kinds of needs.” Summers in Israel are usually very hot. Without camp programs, children often stay home alone or with siblings while parents work.
Steinberg’s program offers a three-week day camp program each August, with arts and crafts, science, music and movement, sports, archery and a ropes course. Steinberg and her Shutaf team quickly responded to the Covid crisis by offering “Camp in a Box,” carefully planned “boxes” containing arts and crafts projects, sports equipment and gardening projects which were delivered and to over 150 participants. “It felt like a
happy gift,” reports Steinberg proudly. Similar boxes are provided to participants and families during the Jewish holidays of Passover (April) and Chanukah (December) when children are on break from school.
Steinberg, a veteran of the camp scene in Israel, reports, “There has been some changes recently in camping, with more choices now and some programs offering short term sleepaway programs.
The Jordan River Village Camp
Camp housed on 245 acres in the Lower Galilee of Northern Israel (near Givat Avni), was established in 2006 and is the 16th a network of 30 camps worldwide, part of the Paul Newman “The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.” They offer three unique types of camp programs which take place over approximately 40 sessions per year.
One program serves children and adolescents ages of 9 and 18 who present with a wide range of medical conditions and genetic diseases, including cancer, seizure disorders, transplants, and neurological disorders. Director Yakir Sternin proudly reports, “We are the only camp in our organization which offers sessions for participants who or deaf or have hearing impairments, and for children who are blind or have visual impairments.”
Sessions are generally 5-6 days and are for children who do not need parental assistance with self-care or medical care.
Three-day family sessions are offered for parents, siblings and children ages 5-18 who require self-care or medical support. Participants are oftenwheelchair users, present with seizure disorders which are not well-controlled, or are user of ventilators. The camp has also established a relationship with the Ministry of Education where campers with intellectual and developmental disabilities and autism attend 3-4 day sessions with their school staff.
Sternin is pleased and excited that the camp’s sessions bring together participants from very diverse walks of life in Israel, including Jews who are secular, religious and Ultra Orthodox, as well as Christians, Druze, Bedouins and Circassians. In addition, there are two sessions per year for children who come from the Palestinian Authority and Gaza.
“We are on the way to fulfilling a dream,” reports Sternin. “It is one of the most beautiful things when they meet and see eye to eye – when you are fighting for life, it doesn’t matter who your father is and who you pray to! Disability and medical situations create bridges!” Sternin also sees equally strong relationships formed among the over 1000 volunteers who come each year, from very diverse backgrounds.
Is a camp program which integrates children and teenagers at risk and with disabilities, in to five day overnight camping sessions. The two sessions per season take place on the grounds of the Jordan River Valley camp, but is not affiliated with that camp. My Piece of the Puzzle was inspired by the United States based program, Camp Ramapo, in Rhinebeck, New York. According to director Jenna Albaz, half of the participants have such disabilities as autism, Down Syndrome and intellectual disabilities, and half come from “broken homes, dysfunctional families, have no friends, or have a police record.” Elbaz is pleased with how the participants integrate and form friendships. “For the at risk children, it is their first time they have felt loved, unconditionally. For the participants with special
needs, it may be the first time they have friends without special needs and they can just be themselves.” Elbaz adds, “It is win/win—it brings out the best in both populations.” Elbaz is in the process of expanding to also offer school year programs, and a mechina, a pre-army preparatory program.
Other organizations in Israel offering camps for participants with disabilities include:
The Israel Scouts, include and integrate 3000 participants with disabilities including visual and hearing impairments and behavioral disorders. They often host overnight camping trips.
strives to attain full social inclusion of people with physical disabilities. One way to achieve this is through weekend groups and summer camps. Each summer, hundreds of participants and volunteers attend 24 overnight summer camps throughout the country. Sessions last for 5 days and include such activities as kayaking in the north, abseiling (descending rock formations with ropes) in the south, hikes, and the performing of community service.
Is a youth movement for children and youth with and without disabilities. They also run a summer camp in the northern Israel coastal city of Nahariya. It is held over 3 sessions each August and is open to family members as well. Activities include swimming, sports, yoga, plays, magicians and more.
Say hello to Camp Yalla, which will bring entertainment and connections to kids in the most modern of ways.
This past March, when the reality of no school and parents working from home began to set in, a few young Jewish summer-camp lovers began to raise the next inevitable question: What if camps are unable to open this summer?
Mariel Falk and Avi Goldstein, veteran campers and staff members at Camp Modin in Maine, and a few friends with years of experience at other Jewish summer camps, created Camp Yalla—a virtual Jewish summer-camp experience for 8- to 12-year-olds.
“My heart was breaking over the loss of physical summer camps,” reports Miriam Lichtenberg, a veteran of both Camp Nesher in New Jersey and Camp Ramah, a network of camps affiliated with the Conservative movement. “I wanted to help rectify that and perhaps fill in the gaps that so many children would be missing—namely, community, friendship and a place to be your full self.”
Lichtenberg, will serve as Camp Yalla’s director of Jewish programming, says summer camp is “where I found myself.”
“It is where I made some of my closest friends, developed some of my fondest memories and have always been able to be my truest and best self,” she explains. “Camp Yalla gives me hope. At our camp, we will bring some of the best things about physical camp to our experience—the friendships, the laughs, the deepening of the self and the mind, the ability to be silly and free. Camp Yalla will have all of that, and I am immensely grateful and excited to be a part of that experience!!”
Camp Yalla will offer three two-week sessions from July 6 to Aug. 14. A free trial period will take place this month on three consecutive Fridays (June 12, June 19 and June 26), so parents can see whether their kids enjoy the format and decide whether or not to register for the summer. The camp’s founders are aware that potential participants have spent months in front of computer screens, and have been learning from educators about Zoom best practices and protocols. They report that they will be offering “activities geared towards fun and play.”
Campers will choose electives “that suit their interests and give them a sense of ownership over their day.”
To date, 50 campers have expressed interest in attending Camp Yalla. Each session will likely be capped at 120 participants.
‘Social connections are vital, even as we social distance’
Co-founder Avi Goldstein, a recent college graduate with 10 years of experience at New England’s Camp Modin—seven as a camper and three as a counselor—explains that Yalla will meet Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for an hour each morning and afternoon. Mornings will consist of bunk activities to “build community, foster friendships and teamwork.”
Afternoon electives will include such activities as arts-and-crafts, theater, dance and virtual field trips. On Fridays, campers, as well as siblings and parents, are invited to Shabbat services, which take place well before the start of the weekly holiday, followed on Saturday night with Havdalah.
Goldstein, who wrote her undergraduate thesis on the role of Jewish summer camps in the United States in the post-Holocaust period, stresses their desire to offer a taste of Jewish summer camp and to get kids “to want to go to any Jewish summer camp in the future.”
“We are so passionate about Jewish camping!” she practically gushes.
Goldstein and her team have been in conversation with Rabbi Avi Orlow, vice president of innovation and education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, about ways to potentially “feed” campers to other Jewish summer camps when they reopen in the future. Yalla may succeed in offering a camping experience to first-timers, who will then become lifelong participants. “Our goal is to foster communication, imagination, fun and positivity—and to get kids to want to go to any Jewish camp!”
Many Jewish summer camps and camping movements are exploring ways to offer camping virtually this summer, as well as ways to send “camp in a box” packets to families and to offer small family camps on their camp sites. “I am calling this the ‘summer of learning’ because camps will need to pilot new ways to engage, inspire and connect with their communities,” notes Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Goldstein and her team are getting a well-rounded education in all aspects of running a Jewish summer camp. In addition to learning about offering programming online, they are learning about marketing, budgeting, staff hiring, payroll and the effective use of social media.
While offering Jewish summer camping online is new and uncharted, there may be benefits for both campers and families.
David Bryfman, CEO of the Manhattan-based Jewish Education Project, observes that “while summertime is often associated with separating ourselves from our screens, this year offers an opportunity for kids all around the world to engage with one another in meaningful, fun and social experiences. If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, it is that social connections are vital, even as we social distance.”
With children meaningfully engaged this summer, their parents may get a few minutes of downtime. “During this time—and maybe even more so in the summer months—parents need to be kind to themselves,” suggests Bryfman. “Giving yourselves a couple of hours ‘off-duty’ while your children attend virtual summer camp might be exactly what you need to be the best parents you can for the entire summer.”