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Camp for Everyone

The blessings of Jewish camps for special-needs kids

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Ezra Kress at camp in 2010. (Jeffrey Kress)

Are you completely sick of me yammering about camp? Well, you’ll be glad to know that this is my last camp-related column of the summer. But while the others have been jokey, this one is anything but.

Meet Ezra, the 12-year-old son of my friend Jeff Kress. Jeff is chair of the Department of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary and co-author of the book Building Learning Communities With Character: How to Integrate Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Ezra is a cheery, funny kid who has familial dysautonomia, a Jewish genetic disease. It affects his sensory and autonomic nervous systems—which control swallowing, body temperature, pain and heat perception, the regulation of blood pressure, and the ability to produce tears.

When Ezra was 7, Jeff and his wife, Adena, learned about Camp Simcha Special, a camp run by Chai Lifeline for kids with genetic diseases. They signed up Ezra, even though they were concerned. “He was in much less stable medical condition than he is now,” Jeff told me recently. “We were constantly going to the hospital. We couldn’t believe the camp could care for him. We assumed we’d max out the services they could provide. But each child has his own counselor, with whom you meet before camp to go over treatments, and Ezra’s counselor that first year was an Australian guy named Avi with this total can-do attitude—think Crocodile Dundee from yeshiva. Whatever we said about Ezra’s medical needs, he’d say ‘No worries!’ At first we thought it meant ‘I’m not actually listening to you!’ But he was. He was amazing.”

In addition to one-on-one counselors, Camp Simcha Special has a full 24-hour medical staff, an on-site ambulance, and an on-call medevac helicopter. The camp provides a visiting petting zoo, a zip line, and an annual helicopter ride. “I’m the only member of the family who’s been in a helicopter!” Ezra crows to his parents.

In the outside world, Ezra’s speech can be hard to understand, and it’s a challenge for him to make friends. But at camp, his best buddy since day one has been another kid with the exact same symptom profile, the same kind of feeding tube, the same oxygen pump. “Camp is his chance to have his own private jokes and independence,” said Jeff. “It’s his time not to have Mom and Dad hovering all over him all the time. What happens at camp stays at camp.”

And at camp, Ezra has blossomed. “His first summer, he was still easily overwhelmed by noise,” Jeff recalled. “We had to sneak him into camp through the back entrance, because all the people and tumult were too much for him. He couldn’t be in the dining room during meals because all the riotous singing and simcha dancing were too much for him. Now, six years later, we take him right into the main entrance, and he’s immediately surrounded by dozens of guys wearing clown costumes, chanting his name. Now, the kid who couldn’t stay in the dining room gets up on stage in front of the whole camp, with a live band, to do a dance of his own invention, the Ezra Dance, and the whole camp does it with him.”

The camp’s spirit of inclusion, Jeff noted, extends beyond denominational rifts. “Professionally, I look at pluralistic organizations,” he said, “and I am amazed that this one really is nondenominational. The people who run the camp may be more toward the right-wing side of Orthodoxy, but there’s no agenda, just caring for kids. There’s a universalist message—respect your family and be a good person and be nice to guests and thank you, Hashem—that kind of thing. That’s what he’s taking home. The camp is really fueled by ruach-y music and wild, raucous fun.”

Camp lasts two weeks, but it boosts Ezra’s spirits for the entire year. And it’s completely free to families. (In thanks, Jeff does regular fundraising marathons for Chai Lifeline, which pays for everything. You can donate here.) When Ezra has his bar mitzvah, this year, his counselors will there.

Kids like Ezra with intense medical concerns need their own camps. But other special-needs kids do well in mainstream camps. So it’s great that Jewish parents today have a variety of options. Every Ramah camp has some kind of program for kids with disabilities. Camp Yofi at Ramah Darom in Clayton, Ga., includes a family camp for kids with autism and their parents and siblings. There’s also Camp Yaldei, a stand-alone camp in Quebec for kids with developmental delays and neurological disorders; Round Lake Camp, a camp for learning-disabled kids, in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Lake Como, Pa.; Camp Morasha Yachad, for kids with developmental disabilities, in Lakewood, Pa.; Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children’s seven-week camp in the Catskills for mentally and physically handicapped children and adults. And Chai Lifeline runs a second camp in addition to Camp Simcha Special, this one for kids with cancer; it can even deliver on-site chemo.

One of the very first special-needs options was the Tikvah Program at Ramah in New England, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary. Back in 1970, when educators Herb and Barbara Greenberg presented their proposal to accommodate campers with special needs to the National Ramah Commission, most camp directors turned up their noses. They worried that allowing mentally or emotionally disabled kids in camp would be upsetting for the “normal” kids. They fretted that enrollment would suffer. But one director, Donald Adelman of the Ramah in Glen Spey, N.Y., stood up. “He said, ‘This is exactly what Ramah should be. I insist on having it,’” recalled Howard Blas, the program’s current director.

Tikvah took off. Now Ramah in New England, which took over the original program from Glen Spey, offers inclusion bunks (in which special-needs and typical kids live and play together), stand-alone bunks, and a vocational training program for older kids and adults. There are bunks with entrances that can accommodate motorized scooters, barrier-free bathrooms, paved roads that won’t make a wheelchair break an axle. For special-needs kids who aren’t well accommodated in other Jewish settings, camp is an opportunity to live a joyous, immersive Jewish life for a few sweet weeks.

I recently chatted with a 23-year-old camper named Sam Busis, who is on his eighth Tikvah Program summer. “I was scared when I came here at first,” Sam recalled. “But everything is wonderful! I can’t pick a favorite thing. I have friends from all over that I only see when I’m here. I work with little kids. I’ve worked in the guesthouse and the kitchen and I liked that, too. I love swimming in the agam—you can cool off and have fun. But my favorite thing has been the Tikvah Israel trip. I loved Jerusalem. The city was really pretty. I bought a tallis.”

Sam’s mother, Judith Beck, director of the Beck Center for Cognitive Therapy and Research, in suburban Philadelphia, laughed when I told her of Sam’s enthusiasm. “The camp’s been amazing for him,” she said. “We’ve seen him grow in social skills, independence, and a can-do attitude. It’s both nurtured and pushed him a little bit. Going to Israel with Howard was one of the most meaningful experiences of his life. They visited a facility for kids with disabilities, picked vegetables on a kibbutz, visited an archaeological dig—wonderful things that expanded the camp experience. And Sam always liked having a mainstream buddy—they connect kids from the Tikvah program with typical campers. It’s great for the typical campers to see the Tikvah kids as people. There’s a level of acceptance that’s really great.”

I think back to my own Mesozoic experience at Ramah in New England, when immersion and mainstreaming weren’t as common. I remember some boys mercilessly teasing one Amitzim (“brave ones,” the special-needs group) camper. At night, they’d try to goad him into bellowing “Shmira!” (“Guards!”) because with his speech impediment, it came out “Shmiwwa!” The boys found this hysterical. Need I say it wasn’t funny? Need I say I don’t think this would happen today?

Both my daughters—one with special educational needs, one without—will be in immersion classes this year. As I type this, they’re at a JCC Camp in Wisconsin with a special-needs program. As I dropped them off at the bus stop this morning, a boy with Down syndrome, wearing headphones, was singing off-key at the top of his lungs. Josie smiled, “Mikey really likes to sing.”

Ramah doesn’t worry about scaring away parents of nondisabled kids any longer. “Do we tell parents when there will be a Down syndrome kid in a bunk?” asked Blas rhetorically. “Well, would you tell kids in advance that there’s a camper who was adopted from Korea or who has two mothers or that there’s a counselor with 10 piercings? Our community includes lots of people. That’s a good thing for everyone. Accepting differences is great—it helps you accept kids who aren’t pretty, who are overweight, who come from other backgrounds.”

Indeed, the evidence is mounting that living and learning with special-needs kids is good for everyone. Recent research shows that kids without disabilities learn tolerance; kids with disabilities develop greater social skills. Blas pointed me to some as-yet-unpublished research conducted by the National Ramah Commission on 100 fifth- to seventh-grade campers at his camp. Fifty-eight percent agreed or strongly agreed that “experiences with campers from this camp’s special-needs program has made me a better person,” and 63 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “experiences with campers from this camp’s special-needs program will carry over into other areas of my life.”

How Jewish a value is that? Kids like Josie, Sam, and Ezra can all benefit from attending camps serving special-needs kids. Society wins. How much more could anyone ask from summer?

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Ok… so what about all the kids who have emotional issues, bi-polar disorder,
post adoption syndromes…. where do they go???

Only special needs children have special needs???

Year after year, I have heard the same thing from Jewish organizations about Mental illnesses; they do not deal with THAT.
Mental illness is still a taboo in a Jewish community… camps?? fat chance…
I have raised 4 adopted kids… still working on the 4th and hoping that things
will one day change among the Jewish community.
De-mystifying, understanding,and accepting this kind of disability too.This needs addressing in the most serious way, for children as well as adults.

I loved hearing about all these opportunities. I chose my son’s (and soon my daughter’s school) because it’s so highly inclusive, and I have been so happy to see how my fairly typical (nearly typical? mostly typical? typical so far?) kids have formed friendships with the mainstreamed special-needs kids and their brothers and sisters. I love my kids’ school because they are serious about derech eretz, and it sounds like these camps are too. Thanks for writing about it.

margaret says:

What a great article, thank you so much for sharing this with us. You brought tears to my eyes and i will be making a donation to Chai Lifeline today.

Thanks for this article; I spent 4 summers as counselor and then Rosh Edah of Amitzim at Ramah Palmer and agree that the entire camp is better for the presence of the Tikvah program. But I’d encourage you in the future to say “kids with special needs” as opposed to “special needs kids” – put the person first, not the disability, as there’s lots more that defines someone than any disability they might have. (As your article proves!)

Jessica says:

My daughter attends Ramah Berkshires, it is an amazing camp and I will continue to send my children. That being said, I believe the Ramah system needs to do a better job integrating the Tikvah program into all of its camps. Families throughout the country with special needs children want a Ramah Experience but cannot send their kids all the way to New England. There is no reason that a child who can be main streamed all year should not also be main streamed during the summer in which ever camp their family wants them attend.

I agree with Jessica, that we need to see better inclusive programming in the Jewish community throughout the US and I would add, internationally. Children need positive experiences – where they see each other as peers, regardless of their differences. At Shutaf camps in Jerusalem, and at our year-round programs for kids and teens with special needs, we include in a different way – 75% kids with special needs (all types) and 25% typical kids. Teens are mixed 50/50 and work in camper groups, training to be junior counselors. Inclusion is throughout our programs – social, financial, religious, a veritable laboratory of co-existence. Visit us and find our more about the Shutaf model –

Just want to respond to Jessica’s comments with additional information re Ramah camps: each of the Ramah camps across the country offers programming for kids with special needs. Please see for complete information. I currently work for Camp Ramah in California, where we offer both a Tikvah program and the Ezra vocational program for young adults ages 18-23 who have special needs. My own children attended Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and looked forward each summer to spending time again with their camp friends from across the Midwest, including the many campers with special needs who were part of that Tikvah program. So a family need not travel across the country to have their own child experience a wonderful summer at Ramah.

Shelley says:

I am really sorry that not enough research was done for this article. Camp Yofi that is mentioned is a long weekend at the end of the summer. What is a family of an autisitic or on the spectrum family supposed to do the other 2 months of the summer? Yes Camp Ramah was the first to have a special needs program but now Yachad has programs in virtually every modern orthodox camp – Camp Nesher, Mesorah, Lavie to name a few. Morasha is just one of those programs and they only did it because back in 1997 Camp Nesher accepted a wheelchair bound boy with a fatal progressive disease. Camp Nesher (part of the eight New Jersey Y Camps) was the only Jewish camp willing to build a wheelchair accessible bunk and ramp the camp back in 1997 because they said that they needed to provide Jewish Camp to those who seek a Jewish Camp experience. This child sought that. Morasha started its yachad program many years after that.
Camp Nesher went so far as to build accesible staff housing so that when this boy became of counselor age he too was able to work at camp along with his camp friends.
In answer to Sandra Steuer’s question – her best hope is Round Lake(also one of the eight camps of the New Jersey Y Camps). They accept a fairly wide range of children with emotional disorders such as bipolar syndrome.

Merlee says:

Twenty years ago, we sent our son to a day care that stated ‘meeting every child’s special needs’ was their goal. Although he didn’t have any truly special needs, I believe that the experience helped him grow in ways that other places would not.

There were kids with feeding tubes, with helmets to protect their heads from falls, in casts, needing therapy of various types.

He has grown into a very empathetic person. There should be as much of this as possible.

Arnold Kragen says:

A special commendation for the article as one who is the parent of a son with severe autism and epilepsy. My son, Philip, soon to be 31, was in the first group of campers that were part of a special program for autistic children at Camp Kutz in Warwick, NY, the “flagship” camp for the Reform movement. Philip fully benefited as did the mainstream campers who got to know him and others with autism. He become not only part of the camp but also one of Kol Yisrael.

The special program was initiated by the late Rabbi Alex Schindler of blessed memory, at the time President of the Reform movement, as a part of his efforts to make acoomodations for these kids plus all adults and children with disabilities. He fully believed in their being key members of our communities and oongregations. I still recall, a great moment in my life and Philip’s, with Philip being called up for an Aliyah at the Shabat service at Camp Kutz and standing next to Rabbi Schindler. That day fully fulfilled part of the Kedoshim in Leviticus that states “not to show deference to the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.”

It is a real Mitzvah that we are providing camps for these children among all the deonominations and at Philip’s age, I hope perhaps they can be made available to Jewish adults with special needs.

You brought tears to my eyes, this touches very close to home! There is also camp chesed in Los Angeles you shoul mention.

Nancy says:

Question — I am just now thinking of sending my 10 year old son to sleepaway camp next summer for 2 weeks. We are modern orthodox and our son has both learning disabilities as well as bipolar. Any suggestions of camps we should look at?

Dovid Eliezrie says:

Watch this great video of Camp Simcha at Times Square last week.

Nancy, the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s web site has a “camp finder” feature — you can use the filter to select “special needs” and narrow your search to whatever denominations of Judaism you’d feel comfortable with. I’d check out the camp web sites and contact the camps you find most intriguing to see if they feel like a good fit for your son. Depending on where you live, there may also be a camp fair in your community in the winter; check with your JCC and larger local shuls.

The FJC’s search engine is what I’d recommend for anyone seeking a comprehensive roundup of ALL the Jewish camps out there that address populations with various special needs.

Sandy Miller-Jacobs says:

Thanks for this terrific article! Yes, we may still have a long way to go, but there are already many choices for children and teens with special needs. It’s amazing to see the impact camp has on those with special needs, and equally important on those who aren’t identified as having special needs. The most inspirational services at Ramah NE have always been the Tikvah ones where the Amitizim campers sing, lead the davening, deliver the d’var, and chant the parasha. It’s been amazing to see how over the years new programs have begun and more and more campers with special needs are involved in Jewish camping. Kol ha Kavod to the counselors and directors who create a truly inclusive Jewish community.

Harold Feinstein says:

To Sandra Steuer
I wish for you to find a little inner peace. A response to a lovely article about beautiful things which are done should be “Beautiful article. Thanks for sharing.”
When you have an attitude that “nothing is good enough for me” because you feel some things are not represented, you indicate to the world how miserable you are.
Whether there are other programs addressing the issues you raise is irrelevant here, as it was not the focus of the article. Celebrate the good deeds and bring your negativity elsewhere.
Harold F

Phil Warmflash says:

Thanks for the article. One correction: my daughter is now at Yachad b’Morasha for the fourth summer. She has cerebral palsy is physically dependent, in a wheelchair with a communication device. While most of the campers are mentally challenged, YACHAD has made a place for my daughter with her physical limitations to thrive and grow.

The Union for Reform Judaism recently passed a resolution on Special Needs Camping and ran a special session this summer for special needs campers. Glad to see this catching on so all Jewish kids can experience the joys of Jewish camping.

Vicky says:

In addition to Tikvah (Amitzim) and Ezra, Camp Ramah in California also offers Ohr Lanu, a five day family camp at the end of the summer for families which include special needs kids. The program includes a counselor for each special needs kid, and woven into a full camp program family time, parent groups and a sibling program as well. This year’s camp will be the third annual It is underwritten by Camp Ramah and by the Community Endowment Fund of the LA Federation.

Camp Newman, the URJ Camp in Santa Rosa, California is offering Camp Nefesh, a one-week camp for special needs campers. This is the inaugural summer.

Rachel says:

I went to Capital Camps as a camper and grew up with campers with special needs in my bunk. Even though my elementary school includes students with special needs in some programs, living with such campers was a wonderful way for me to learn about and be comfortable around the special needs community. I think this is invaluable and I’m glad you touched on it, Majorie.

Ramah Palmer also has a great program in place and as a counselor there, I truly saw how amazing both campers and counselors alike are. Kol ha-kavod.

I am writing on behalf of the Director at Yachad, an organization for people with disabilities. From what you have written it sounds as if our programs will suit what you are looking for. Camp Moshava might be a good fit for your son. Please contact Joe Goldfarb. He is at Moshava for the summer so you can try his email here at Yachad or you can try contacting Moshava directly. Below is Joe’s email address at Yachad:

Best of luck!

Loren Sykes says:

Thank you Marjorie for this important article. While there is clearly still room for expanding the nature of special needs programming in camps and the creation of new special needs camps – very broadly defined -, the field has come a long way. More and more camper and family lives are being touched in the framework of Jewish camp than ever which also translates into greater learning for the “typical” populations. While I am personally partial to Camp Yofi, to the Tikvah program, and to Shutaf as a result of my own involvement and/or friendships, it is clear that each movement is working to do more and to create more homes at camp for a growing range of needs. And with that said, we have a long way to go to make Jewish camp a summer home for every kind of camper possible. Thanks again for your moving article.

observer says:

Re: Learning empathy

Readers need to know that Marjorie’s *actual* empathy is not as inclusive as her lip service is. In the public domain, she rails against another type of “kid with special needs” within days of writing this column, in a complete 180-degree about-face. She has received dozens of thoughtful comments rebuking her unfair and hurtful remarks–and oh so very tellingingly she is choosing to censor the comments of her readership who rightly criticize her ignorance and her mendacity. Marjorie, it is time you take stock of yourself, your dishonesty, and your hatred of others. The reputation of Tablet Magazine is damaged by Marjorie Ingall.

observer says:

Having read elsewhere in the public domain Marjorie’s vigorous backpedaling in response to this criticism, in like-kind fashion some backpedaling from the above remarks, too, is now in order. Although she thoughtlessly injured and provoked parents of a small subsection of kids with very special needs, Marjorie has since excused herself. She may now correctly consider the olive branch to be mutually tendered. Shalom.

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Camp for Everyone

The blessings of Jewish camps for special-needs kids

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