Jewish camps seeking to bring diverse groups under the same tent

Eli Barer, left, and Nathan Goldman Greenberg, enjoying the experience at Camp Ramah in New England, 2009. (Howard Bias)

Eli Barer, left, and Nathan Goldman Greenberg, enjoying the experience at Camp Ramah in New England, 2009. (Howard Bias)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Is there a more enthusiastic camper in the world than Ezra Fields-Meyer, a 17-year-old with high-functioning autism and a regular at Camp Ramah in Southern California?

Not if you ask his father.

Tom Fields-Meyer says his son’s annual visit to the rural retreat in Ojai, 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is a much-anticipated opportunity for Ezra to spend time with all kinds of children in a fun and nurturing environment.

“The four weeks he goes to Ramah and is away from us are really the four best weeks of his year, which is a little bit hard for a parent to say,” Fields-Meyer said. “The kids in his program are almost celebrities. I think camp is great for all kids, but especially for those like Ezra.”

A summer camp experience can be transformative for kids like Ezra, but many Jewish camps believe that special-needs kids — along with other minority Jewish populations, like Russian Americans, Israeli Americans and the children of interfaith marriages — are severely underrepresented in the Jewish camp system.

“Break down the percentage of kids from various backgrounds who attend and the numbers are not where we want them to be to reflect the broader Jewish community,” said Abby Knopp, vice president of program and strategy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a group that seeks to expand access to the Jewish camping experience.

In a conscious effort to promote diversity, Jewish summer camps are working to boost the participation of minority communities in the camp experience.

According to FJC, of the estimated 72,000 youths who attend nonprofit Jewish camps each year, approximately 1,000 are special needs — a blanket term for children and adolescents with a range of disabilities including Down syndrome, autism, paraplegics and visual impairment.

Only 3 percent to 4 percent of children from the Russian Jewish community attend camp, though they represent 15 percent to 20 percent of Jewish children overall, the FJC said. The percentage of Israeli-American kids who attend camp is about the same. Interfaith children comprise about 18 percent of Jewish campers, though their fraction of the larger Jewish youth population surely is much higher.

Camps have taken a number of approaches to integrate special-needs children, ranging from full-immersion programs in general camps to creating specific facilities uniquely for them.

Ezra Fields-Meyer attended a mixed program at Ramah. During the day he took part in the same activities as the wider camp population; at night he stayed in separate sleeping quarters.

“[Ezra] can go go the same camp with his two brothers, be part of the same community, but also acknowledge he has different needs,” Tom Fields-Meyer said.

Some camps have taken inclusivity a step further. At Camp Ramah in New England, special-needs kids have the option of a full immersion program that includes shared accommodations.

“About 12 years ago, families asked if we would consider an inclusion program,” said Howard Blas, the head of the Tikvah program at Ramah New England, in Palmer, Mass. “What they meant is to take the kids and have them be part of the program with the mainstream kids.”

In response, the camp invited Spencer Salend, an expert on inclusive classrooms at the State University of New York at New Paltz, to draw up a curriculum for the joint program. Two kids — one with Down syndrome and one with autism — took part in the pilot eight years go. Now, as many as 12 disabled youths participate each year.

“The idea was that if we started younger, their bond [with the other campers] would be greater,” Blas explained. “We had some very different outcomes. Some have come through the whole program having a great experience. We’ve had some that have been difficult.”

Despite some disappointments, Blas says the initiative on the whole has been positive and productive. But Rabbi Allan Smith, the former head of Union for Reform Judaism’s camp network and now the director of a Jewish camp for special-needs kids in Pennsylvania, says special needs kids who spend summers with peers with similar disabilities come out much more confident and better prepared to interact with mainstream children.

“My position is don’t play games,” Smith said. “Don’t do tokensim and put kids into an environment where they are doomed to fail.”

Another priority has been bringing more Jews from the former Soviet Union and their offspring into the camp fold. Part of the challenge there is introducing the camp idea to a community that doesn’t fully understand it.

“If you look at most of the kids who go to camps, their parents went to camp, too,” said Knopp. “There is a 100-year-old tradition here in America that Russian-speaking Jews are unfamiliar with. Families in the Former Soviet Union sent their children to camp, but they don’t understand the importance of sending their kids to Jewish camps.”

Israeli-American parents also shy away from sending their children to overnight summer camps for similar reasons, the FJC said. Many of them go back to Israel for the summer to visit relatives.

Jewish camps have had more success attracting the children of intermarried families. Though the FJC pegs the percentage of Jewish campers with only one Jewish parent at about 18 percent, Paul Reichenbach, the director of camp and Israel programs at the Union for Reform Judaism, says that up to 40 percent of children at some URJ camps have at least one non-Jewish parent.

Reichenbach says camp curriculums must be sensitive toward children of mixed faiths or they risk becoming alienated from the community. He says the language in some brochures and the content of some programs were adapted to reflect this change.

“While we are all for Jewish values,” Reichenbach said, “we have to recognize we are dealing with kids that are far more pluralistic than they used to be 20 to 30 years ago.”

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