B’Tzelem Elohim: Everyone in G-d’s Image
By Lori Kauffman-Faison, Director of Inclusion and Special Needs at Camp Jaycee in La Jolla, CA
Inclusion at the Lawrence Family JCC (LFJCC) started in 1995 with a bequest from Theresa Woodard, a non-Jewish woman who had polio. She wanted her donation to “help children with disabilities.” Our JCC embraced the Jewish value of b’tzelem Elohim – each person is created in G-d’s image and should be treated as such – and felt it was vital for campers with disabilities, who are often in segregated programs, to be included alongside their neurotypical peers. The Jewish community is sensitive to societal prejudices and knows firsthand what it’s like to be ostracized. This feeling of exclusion drove our JCC’s desire to bring a fully inclusive community to summer camp. In 1995, our Camp Jaycee included 5 campers with special needs, a number that grew to 60+ in 2019.
I’ve witnessed first-hand how inclusion at Jewish camp benefits both neurotypical campers and those with disabilities. It teaches the importance of humanity, diversity, and compassion. Many camp counselors who have experienced inclusion have subsequently chosen to become 1:1 summer inclusion aides. Some have even chosen to pursue special needs careers. The current movement is toward including people with disabilities in school, work and community. What better place to start than summer camp?
25 years ago, we welcomed Jonathan – an energetic 5 year-old with challenging behaviors – to Camp Jaycee. He is the perfect example of the positive impact inclusion can have on the life of a camper, and of the community at large. Jonathan attended camp every summer as a child, was a counselor in training with aide support as a teenager, and later became a volunteer when the LFJCC initiated an adult transition program through the local school district. For 4 years, he volunteered two days a week alongside his peers, performing various tasks for multiple departments with the support of a job coach. In November 2019, Jonathan, now 30, officially became a JCC employee – a great source of pride for him, his family and his JCC colleagues.
As an integral part of the camp community, we respect and value Jonathan, and know that his contributions make a difference. While in the Leadership in Training program, Jonathan created a game called “Jewpardy,” writing clues about Jewish history, geography, religion and culture and serving as the host. He brought a unique and fun sense of experiential Jewish learning to our entire community.
Looking ahead, the LFJCC is excited to provide even more opportunities for inclusion. First, as part of the 2020 JCC Maccabi Experience, the LFJCC will pilot Maccabi Access, giving teens with special needs an opportunity to share in the experience. Second, planning is underway for ReelAbilities – a film festival that celebrates the diverse lives and creativity of people with disabilities. Finally, the goal of building San Diego’s first universally accessible playground, a space that will benefit JCC summer campers and the community at large, will come to fruition. Our JCC is the proud recipient of a $330,000 Yashar grant from Foundation for Jewish Camp and The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. We anticipate breaking ground on the playground by the end of 2020.
We’re proud that Camp Jaycee provided a foundation for Jonathan to flourish through the years – and for him to help our camp community flourish as well. We will continue to embrace the value of b’tzelem Elohim, enriching our camp community by creating a welcoming and inclusive space where every camper can thrive.
Lori Kauffman-Faison has been the Director of Inclusion and Special Needs at the Lawrence Family JCC, JACOBS FAMILY CAMPUS in La Jolla, CA since 1998. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This piece is part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s blog series on inclusion and accessibility, in honor of Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). Visit FJC’s blog throughout February to discover Jewish camp JDAIM stories.
To learn more about FJC’s Yashar Initiative – a $12 million initiative generously funded by The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation to increase accessibility for campers and staff with disabilities at Jewish summer day and overnight camps – please visit jewishcamp.org/yashar.