Blind camper’s case points up Jewish camps’ struggle to meet special needs

Canoers in the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass., which accommodates youngsters with special needs.  (Camp Ramah)

Canoers in the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass., which accommodates youngsters with special needs. (Camp Ramah)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Solomon Krishef was thrilled to learn that this summer he could go to his Jewish sleepaway camp for eight weeks — twice as long as the previous four summers.

It was not to be for the Michigan teenager.

During visiting day in the middle of the summer, his family says, the camp director told them that one month was enough for this year because “the camp couldn’t meet Solomon’s needs.”

Almost 16, Solomon is blind and requires help moving around the camp and taking part in certain activities.

When Solomon’s father, Rabbi David Krishef of Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids, Mich., wrote in a July 18 blog posting about his son’s experience — and his family’s anguish — the response became the talk of the Ramah community.

A day after his first post, the rabbi wrote a follow-up saying that word had spread — thanks in part to a petition drive launched by his 12-year-old daughter, Sarah — and the director, new this summer, had apologized and said his staff could, in fact, accommodate Solomon for the full session. Solomon, however, decided not to return to the camp for the rest of the summer.

The incident has many wondering how well Jewish camps accommodate youngsters with special needs — whether they be cognitive, developmental, physical, emotional or any combination — and what kinds of challenges are facing the camps.

The need is clear. Autism diagnoses, for example, soared more than 45 percent from 2002 to 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the number of children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has risen 66 percent in 10 years, according to a Northwestern University study. 

“It’s hard to achieve a level of competence in meeting all needs of children with disabilities,” acknowledges David Ackerman, director of the Jewish Community Centers Association’s Mandel Center for Jewish Education and a former camp director. 

“Jewish camps have come a very, very long way, certainly in the last 30 years, definitely the last 20,” he says. “Many more camps are offering programs. In general, camp is more accessible than it’s ever been and we should feel good about it.” 

On the other hand, Ackerman adds, “If you’re the parent of a child who can’t be accommodated at the camp you want, it doesn’t matter what the field is doing. It’s heartbreaking. We’ve come a long way; we still have a long ways to go.”

Others in the industry say there is a growing recognition that many more camping services are needed for youngsters with disabilities, whatever the disabilities are.

“It’s a conversation that’s gotten much more active in the last year or so,” says Abby Knopp, the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s vice president of program and strategy.

As part of FJC’s internal planning process, it is joining with the Jewish Funders Network next week to take individuals from both organizations to see seven special needs camp programs in the Northeast.

The Krishefs’ experience notwithstanding, the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah has been serving youngsters with special needs since 1970, according to Rabbi Mitch Cohen, Ramah’s national director. 

“Camp Ramah in Canada has included blind campers, Ramah Poconos used to run a program for deaf children and Ramah New England has been able to include some campers in wheelchairs,” he says.

The JCCA, Reform and Orthodox movements also have various options for campers with special needs at day camps and sleepaway camps. Chabad offers Friendship Circle day camp programs, pairing high schoolers with special-needs campers.

But not all campers fit the labels, Rabbi Krishef tells JTA.

While many kids are well served by programs for special-needs kids, the problem is for campers such as his son, “who do not fit into the regular category” but don’t belong in the special-needs programs. As a result, he laments, the Jewish community is leaving out “this group of kids who are on the margins who really want to be involved in Jewish life and want to be involved in Jewish life.”

While camp officials admit that no one camp can possibly meet every child’s needs, they agree that communicating is key.

“It’s really partnering with families,” says Howard Blas, who directs the Tivkah program at Ramah New England in Palmer, Mass., and emphasizes how crucial it is for parents to speak with camp staff.  “You have to communicate with families; you have to do a careful assessment. It’s not the kind of program where you drop off the kids and come back in four weeks.”

Marcy Yellin, whose 27-year-old son has been going to Palmer — where he’s now in a vocational program for older teens and young adults — also cites communication as vital. 

“I think the more you inform people of your child’s needs, the better off you are,” she says.

Jeff Braverman, director of the Modern Orthodox sleepaway Camp Nesher in Lake Como, Pa., remembers how things changed at his facility.

In 1997, a parent called after the camp’s first session. The mother, he says, asked typical questions about the camp and talked about her son’s likes and dislikes.

“At the end of the conversation, she says, ‘Oh, I assume you can accommodate my son, who happens to be in a wheelchair,’ ” Braverman recalls.

He was unsure what to do, but by the end of the talk he had invited her to visit the camp, where they would figure out how to make it more accessible to her son, who had muscular dystrophy. 

“There was cost involved; there was creativity involved,” Braverman says.

Nathaniel Cohen, then finishing up fifth grade, showed up the next summer. 

“He stayed with us for the duration of his life — as a camper, then a staffer, until he passed five years ago,” Braverman says.

Nesher has since become one of the official camps for Yachad, a program offered by the National Jewish Council for Disabilities that provides camps with staff members specially trained to work with campers’ myriad needs.

Families pay camp fees to Yachad, which then pays the camps directly. As with individual camp programs, Yachad also does its own fundraising.

Money is certainly a factor. Not only is there the expense of making camps accessible — Jewish camps are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act — but there is the added cost of extra staff. That includes the one-on-one “shadow” staff members who often must be assigned to help campers.

Nathaniel Cohen, for example, had one and sometimes two aides with him.

At the JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville, Md., Heather Strauss, director of special needs and inclusion, says the costs for special-needs day campers can be triple those for typical campers. The additional fees, however, are not passed along to families but come from fundraising for the program.

Other directors, however, say a portion of the fees is passed along to families, with the remainder factored into the regular camp budget.

Families often understand that they may have to foot the bill. Yellen’s husband, Ben, says that “We’re used to paying a premium,” not just for camp, “because we know that it costs more” to deal with special needs.

Meanwhile, Krishef says, “The goal of creating inclusive institutions is not something that we do once and we can now say great we’re inclusive, we can stop paying attention to it. There’s always someone else coming in who’s pushing a boundary on one side or another, one way or another, and we have to be ready for it.” 

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