At the tail end of January we celebrated our local champions for inclusion at Jewish Abilities Alliance’s 5th annual Power of One event. Over 350 people turned out to honor 31 Power of One award recipients and to kick off Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) in February. It was no surprise to me that so many of the honorees work at and support inclusion at our region’s Jewish overnight camps and day camps. Our camps are places where disabilities are not seen as obstacles, where bullying is never tolerated, and where all kids are liberated from the cliques and social rules that operate during the school year. In this way, camp is a sweet taste of olam ha ba, the perfected world we yearn for.
I got my first real glimpse of what inclusion looks like at Camp Barney Medintz when I worked in the kitchen. It was the best job I ever had at camp and it taught me what’s really involved in feeding several hundred campers and staff members three times a day — incredible focus and hard work! To see Scott Hyman, who is on the kitchen staff, honored for his leadership, competence and strong work ethic at Power of One, filled me with pride.
One of the most moving moments at Power of One was when Rachel Krigsman, a counselor at Ramah Darom, was honored for her support for Briah Margolias, a camper with special health needs and one of the most medically fragile children ever to attend camp. Little Briah came up on stage to give Rachel a hug and a bouquet of flowers, and then told the audience how her counselor made the camp experience wonderful for her. For Briah and the entire Ramah Darom community, this was a beautiful example of how true inclusion erases stigma and builds compassion.
In the City Camp counselor Brent Rogers was honored for his support of day campers with special needs. Lotem Eilon received an award for inclusion programs at Camp Coleman. And the 2019 Robyn Berger Emerging Leader Award went Sarah Scheuer for her inclusion efforts at MJCCA Day Camps.
I recently became aware of another ally for inclusion at camp, Atlanta couple Matt Bronfman and Ronit Walker. They have been deeply impacted both by Ronit’s deceased sister, Naomi Walker, who because of her physical disabilities was unable to attend summer camp as an adolescent, and their daughter Kyra, who loves Camp Barney Medintz and has worked as counselor in their Chalutzim program for campers with special needs for the past two summers. Campers come to Chalutzim with a wide range of abilities, and the staff works closely with each camper to ensure a great experience. Their daughter observed some gaps in the program and felt it could be stronger. So, the family met with Federation and talked with us about ways to improve the program. Together we shaped a substantial gift to restructure the program and hire a director dedicated solely to Chalutzim. The gift will also support staff training and inclusion all year long and create a bridge between MJCCA day camps and Camp Barney.
Our camps are places that don’t merely pay lip service to inclusion, they model it! Let’s not forget that Camp Ramah Darom launched its Yofi program for Jewish families with children on the autism spectrum years ago. It has become a national model for inclusion in a camp setting. Our Jewish Abilities Alliance has reached more than 1,000 day camp and overnight camp counselors and staff through its trainings, so that these values of compassion, understanding and sensitivity endure all year long.
From my years as CEO of Camp Twin Lakes and directing the Isabella Freedman retreat center, to being a camper and a counselor myself, I’ve seen miracles at camp. What I saw at Power of One provided even more shining reasons why I’ll always be a camp guy!