February is JDAIM, which stands for Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance, Inclusion Month. It’s also the time of year we launch our Start a Campfire Campaign to support scholarship for Jewish overnight camp. I hope you’ll support them both!
I am singling out our Jewish camps for special praise because they are places where disabilities are not seen as obstacles. They are places 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 perfect 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 is really involved in feeding several hundred campers and staff members three times a day — incredible focus and hard work! To see Scott Hyman, a person with disabilities, lead in the kitchen with competence and a strong work ethic, totally inspired me.
Our camps don’t merely pay lip service to inclusion, they model it. Camp Barney’s Chalutzim program for campers 10-22 years old with special needs has been nationally recognized since it was established in 1992. Camp Ramah Darom also prioritizes inclusion and 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. The MJCCA’s Chaverim day camps include staff experienced in working with children with special needs, low camper-to-staff ratio, and access to camp activities. Chaverim campers run the camp Shuk, modeled after an Israeli marketplace, fostering independence, communication, and camper confidence.
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 inclusion 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. That’s why I’ll always be a camp guy!