By David Ogul
For the family of Brandon Levine, a New Yorker who was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 3, who suffered from seizure disorders in the years that followed and who dealt with learning disabilities all his life, the Yachad Program at Camp Morasha was a godsend.
It was here, in Pennsylvania’s peaceful Pocono Mountains that Brandon, now 20, polished his davening skills, honed his love of Jewish life and took part in a variety of sports through a program designed for special-needs children.
“For us, as parents, to have a program over the summer where our son is being properly watched and taken care of 24 hours a day was a great thing,” says Brandon’s father, Danny Levine, who owns a Judaica store in Manhattan. “For Brandon, to be in a camp where he is having fun, having a great time and being with a larger Jewish community was just wonderful.”
When a child is a healthy, well-adjusted, rambunctious tyke, finding a summer camp that suits his or her needs can be no more difficult than embarking on a Google search. But when a child is fighting cancer, struggling with autism or living with Down syndrome, options can be more limited and the search more daunting.
That, however, is changing.
Responding to the growing demand of parents raising special-needs children, an increasing number of agencies have created or refined programs that enable handicapped youth to forget about their challenges while enjoying the Jewish camping experience.
“It’s a great way to help make these kids grow and for them to get the most they can out of life,” Levine says.
Virtually every branch of Judaism now has a camp that offers programs for special needs children. In many cases, these kids spend part of the day within their own group while enjoying sports, synagogue services and sandwiches with children who are not living with physical or emotional challenges. Other camps of are created specifically for children with special needs.
The Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman near Santa Rosa, Calif., embarked on a Neshama Program two years ago that is tailored toward Jewish youth with autism spectrum disorders.
The program’s mission, according to a statement, “is to honor the unique characteristics of every camper and provide access to Reform Jewish camping by creating individualized accommodations and modifications that allow each camper to succeed.”
“The first summer was very much a pilot year, and we learned a lot about how best to implement the program and support our campers and their families while they are at camp,” says Rabbi Erin Mason, Camp Newman’s associate director. “This year, we integrated the Neshama campers much more into the greater community, involved their families in opening day programming and had constant communication throughout their week at camp. We created materials to send to them ahead of time to prepare them and help the campers understand camp even before they arrived. Staff was hired that had experience in Jewish camping that served the needs of this community.”
The Shemesh Program at Camp JRF in Pennsylvania is affiliated with Reconstructionist Judaism. There, “campers will swim, play sports, sing, dance, explore nature, take an off-camp trip and be part of the vibrant Jewish experience,” its Web site says. “Designed as a parallel inclusion program, Shemesh campers will not only have time as a unit — as much as possible, they will participate alongside their peers in a variety of programs, including our moving Shabbat celebration.”
The Tikvah Program, available at Camp Ramahs across the United States, is affiliated with the Conservative movement and is designed for Jewish adolescents with learning, emotional and developmental disabilities.
“All of the campers come to camp for the same reasons: to have fun, make friends and learn about Jewish things,” according to the Ramah Web site. “They are included with their non-disabled peers throughout the day. During the academic hour, a teacher with special education training is able to provide self contained education to those campers for whom it is more appropriate.”
At Camp Simcha in Glen Spey, N.Y., a Chai Lifeline-sponsored endeavor, youth 6 through 20 battling cancer are provided with “the chance to forget about illness and concentrate on being normal,” the organization’s Web site says. The program allows campers the ability to “share their hopes, fears and triumphs with friends, or just forget about illness for a while. Campers are lavished with love in a positive environment that imbues them with the confidence and fortitude they need to navigate the forthcoming year’s trials.”
Simcha, which is free, provides everything from traditional camping activities to medical care and counseling.
“It is truly a remarkable program that gives such joy and provides so many smiles to kids who are going through such great challenges,” says Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, an umbrella organization based in New York that works and coordinates with Jewish camps across North America.
Fingerman’s organization does not keep statistics that track the increase of special-needs campers over the years, but says unequivocally, “It clearly is a growing trend.”
Available programs run the gamut and cater to children “with physical disabilities, cognitive developmental delays, and there’s even a trend in catering to children with food allergies.
“Camps are much more sensitive to the range and needs of campers today,” Fingerman says. “The joy of being in a Jewish camp should be accessible to everybody.”
Despite what those in the industry say is a growing number of opportunities, others contend more needs to be done.
Elana Naftalin-Kelman runs the Tikvah Program at Ojai’s Camp Ramah. “The Jewish community is far behind where we should be on supporting kids with special needs,” she says.
Synagogues and education programs are a good place to start.
“Day schools on the West Coast are not focusing as much on kids with special needs,” Naftalin-Kelman says. “More kids and more families are seeing the doors closed because of the special needs of their child.” She says the solution begins with rabbis and education directors thinking more broadly about the populations they are serving.
“It starts with education and awareness,” she adds.
She praises the program at Camp Ramah, along with Camp HASC, an award-winning summer program of the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. The latter, located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, offers more than 300 mentally and physically handicapped children and adults a seven-week excursion each year.
Naftalin-Kelman says Camp Ramah offers the only camp for special needs children west of the Mississippi that runs longer than a week. The focus is on children with behavioral and developmental disabilities, such as autism and Down syndrome.
“The program has been incredibly successful. We’ve been able to accommodate kids with a variety of backgrounds,” says Zach Lasker, Ramah’s camp director. “The stories and the experiences that come out of this program are incredible and life changing.”
Judy Rosenthal spent nine weeks each summer for 14 years teaching art at Camp Ramah in Ojai. Tikvah, she says, “is a fabulous program. Every child is treated individually.”
The kids, she says, contribute more than they take.
“They are a blessing for everyone at the camp,” Rosenthal says. “These special-needs kids seem to have a real love for Judaism. You see them leading the services, calling the pages (of the siddurim) out, whatever it might be.”
Depending on the needs, some kids may sleep in the same areas as other special needs children, but they do virtually every other activity with children who do not have special needs. They may go to synagogue services and take part in sporting events with other children. And through a “buddy” system, a child from the general population is paired up with a special needs child, forming a friendship that can last a lifetime.
The most notable difference at Ramah between the Tikvah Program and the standard camp is that the counselors working with the Tikvah kids are more experienced — and there are more of them.
“The counselors in that program are the cream of the crop,” says Tom Fields-Meyer, a writer from Los Angeles who also serves on the board of directors at Ramah in Ojai.
Fields-Meyer and his wife, a Conservative rabbi, have three children. The middle one, 15-year-old Ezra, lives with autism and has been taking part in the Tikvah Program for the past five years.
“We want all of our kids to have the Jewish camping experience, and this is a great way for him to be with other Jewish kids and learn about Judaism in a fun and enjoyable atmosphere. He goes for four weeks, and it’s the best month of his year.”
He elaborated on the experiences his family had in a recent opinion piece published in The Jewish Daily Forward.
“Camp Ramah places children like Ezra among its top priorities. In the process, it teaches him and his peers — and many adults — a Jewish lesson as old as the Talmud: Kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh. ‘All Israel is responsible for one another.’ We are all a part of the same community.”
It is a sentiment expressed by most parents, Danny Levine included.
A camp with programs including special needs children teaches kids to be sensitive, he says. “It teaches kids that not everyone is like them. And it gives them the ability to help other kids.”
Camps Nationwide with Programs for Special-Needs Kids
Responding to a growing need in the Jewish community for summer camps that can cater to children with special needs, many sites have created specialized programs — either parallel or inclusive — for kids with different types of challenges. Among the camps that are solely for children with special needs:
• Camp Simcha (www.chailifeline.org), in Glen Spey, N.Y.
• Camp HASC (www.hasc.net/camp), in the Catskills
• Round Lake Camp (www.roundlakecamp.org), a NJY Camp in Lakewood, Penn.
• Camp Yaldei (www.yaldei.org/summerCamp.asp), in Wentworth-Nord, Quebec, Canada.
In the western United States, the following camps offer programs for children with
• Camp Akiba (www.templeakiba.net/fellowship.asp?pid=48), in Santa Barbara
• B’nai B’rith Camp (www.bbcamp.org), in Oregon
• Camp Charles Pearlstein (www.campcharlespearlstein.com), in Prescott, Ariz.
• Camp Ramah (www.ramah.org), in Ojai
• Camp Tawonga (www.tawonga.org) in Groveland, near Yosemite
• Camp Kalsman (kalsman.urjcamps.org), in Arlington, Wash.
• Camp Newman (newman.urjcamps.org) in Santa Rosa
Other camps in North America with special needs programs include:
• Camp Kaylie (www.campkaylie.org), in Wurtsboro, N.Y.
• Camp Kingswood (www.kingswood.org), in Bridgton, Maine
• Capital Camps (www.capitalcamps.org), in Waynesboro, Penn.
• Camp Livingston (www.camplivingston.com), in Bennington, Ind.
• JCC Camp Chi (www.campchi.com), in Lake Delton, Wisc.
• Camp Morasha (www.campmorasha.com), in Lake Como, Penn.
• Camp B’nai Brith (www.cbbmtl.org), in Lantier, Quebec, Canada.
Parents can visit www.jewishcamp.org/camps and click “Special Needs” in the search tool.