Humans of Jewish Camp: Lisa Handelman
Lisa is the Director of Capital Camps and the former leader of Capital Camps Atzma’im (inclusion) program.
Where did you go to camp as a kid?
I was a Camp Harlam kid and Jewish summer camp was the place where I thrived, where I formed my strong Jewish identify and where I met life-long friends. I grew-up in a town with very few Jewish friends. Camp is where I learn I could be part of a vibrant Jewish community. Last summer, when I went back to Camp Harlam to co-lead a mental health first aid class and to teach a session on inclusion, I was greeted by a room full of counselors with cries of “welcome home”. The camp looked different. There weren’t Gaga or zip lines when I was a camper, but I can still close my eyes and see the sun setting on Friday night as we gathered for Shabbat on the “Chapel on the Hill”. The hill seems smaller then I remembered, but the sense of belonging was the same. I grew up at Camp Harlam and raised my own four children as Capital Camps kids. Jewish camp is where we belong, camp is where we find our home.
Why is it meaningful for you to work at Jewish camp?
After 16 years of leading Capital Camps Atzma’im (inclusion) program, I am thrilled to be taking on the new role of Camp Director. I have always viewed the Atzma’im program as one of the ways we create meaningful Jewish community. We recognize that we are all created in the image of God and we are instructed to teach each child according to their ways. A strong inclusion program makes these abstract concepts real for all our campers.
What makes Jewish camp so special?
We often talk about how camp allows campers and staff to be their best self. Jewish camp is so special because this is true not only for individuals but also for our community. The “best self” of Jewish camp is one that is inclusive of campers with disabilities. Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) is a time for the broader Jewish community to pause and reflect on how inclusive we really are. The world of Jewish camp has come far in the journey. When I was a camper, inclusion was not even something that was discussed. Since 20% of us have a disability, we had campers with disabilities in our bunks, but many struggled because supports were not provided. Fast forward to today, and many camps provide extra training so that campers can be better supported. There are camps that train extra inclusion counselors assigned to villages or units, and camps that provide separate living accommodations with full inclusion during the day. At Capital Camps, campers with disabilities are fully integrated into the bunk, living and having fun alongside their peers. While we acknowledge that collectively we still have a ways to go on the journey to be more inclusive, we also have come a long way towards creating “best self” communities.
What’s something people might not know about Jewish camp that you wish they knew?
People don’t always know what a great opportunity Jewish camp is for college age counselors. I often hear from counselors how much they want to return to camp but that one or both of their parents want them to get a “real” job. I wish these parents could see how “real” working at camp is and how working at camp can best prepare our young adults for the turbulent world we live in. On one hand, camp provides a wealth of resume building opportunities such as collaborative team building, flexible thinking, problem solving and perseverance. Jewish camp, and especially a Jewish camp with a strong inclusion program, provides the opportunity to work with a diverse group of peers and campers. All four of our children grew up at camp and also worked at camp. They worked with campers who have disabilities and worked alongside counselors who have disabilities. From these experiences, they learned a lot about themselves and about the world they — now young adults — want to create.
If someone were unsure about attending Jewish camp for the first time, what would you tell them?
If a parent were unsure about sending their child to Jewish camp for the first time, I would first ask them to contact me or the director of their local Jewish camp. The best thing to do is talk through concerns with an expert. I like to ask parents about their hopes and dreams for their child. As parents, we want our children to be independent, to know themselves, and to have a connection to a strong community. This is true for campers with disabilities and those who have the opportunity to live and learn alongside a camper with disabilities. We want our children to be able to be compassionate, to problem solve and to listen with civility to others who may have a different perspective. Jewish camp teaches all this and more. And we teach these values through fun, friendship and memorable experiences. At Capital Camps these memorable experiences include a child with a disability teaching his peers sign language, a bunk working collaboratively to help a peer overcome a challenge and a staff member who uses a wheelchair being introduced to a camper’s parents a favorite counselor. Jewish camp, and a Jewish camp with a strong inclusion program, is an amazing gift we as parents give our children.
In honor of Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), we’re highlighting the people and stories focused on inclusion and accessibility at Jewish camp all month long. Follow our blog throughout February to discover Jewish camp JDAIM stories.