Inclusion 02.28.18

Inclusivity in the Past and in the Future

Inclusivity in the Past and in the Future

By Jenni Zeftel

I have a memory of sitting at home with my mom one Saturday morning, chatting over bagels and shmear. The sun was streaming in through the windows, and though it was winter outside, I couldn’t stop thinking about camp. I was 12-years- old, and longing for summer. I just wanted to go back to camp.

At some point toward the end of my bagel and seventh recounting or so of all the things that I missed about my Jewish overnight camp, I wondered aloud about people my age with disabilities. There had been a few campers with disabilities at camp, but I knew from school that “a few” was likely not representative of a larger need. Where did Jewish children with disabilities or other special needs spend their summers? Did they get to go to camp too? My mom said, “Maybe one day you’ll run a camp that could meet everyone’s needs.”

Years later I became the director of New Country Day Camp (2013-2017), the largest summer program of the 14th Street Y serving nearly 800 campers and their families each summer. During staff orientation one summer my team and I read the story of Abraham and Sarah’s tent. We learned about how their tent was open on all four sides in order to invite and meet the needs of all passersby in the expansive desert.
We asked questions based on our own childhoods:

  • Why had children with disabilities been separated in different classrooms, different schools?
  • Why had there not been more accommodations available at our own camps?

With the support of UJA-Federation of New York and Foundation for Jewish Camp, we set out on a mission to welcome every camper and every family who wanted to be a part of our camp community. The only issue was that this new endeavor worried our stakeholders immensely.

Not all of our staff held degrees in education, nor did they have the proper training or the skills to accommodate campers who were potentially so different from our standard demographic. What made us think that we could handle this critical undertaking?

The answer? Torah, actually. Abraham and Sarah.

They didn’t have any special training either. But what they did have was just the desire to include and a willingness to find a way.

In September 2017, I left the 14th Street Y to pursue new opportunities at FJC as Director of Day Camp Initiatives otherwise known as, “the day camp person”. By the time I left, New Country Day Camp was already accommodating and providing extra services to integrate a camper population of 60+ children & staff with disabilities and other special needs into the regular camp program.

As I was recently presenting the 2017 Day Camp Census to a group of new JCC day camp professionals, someone inquired about the steady decline in the “total number of special needs programs” since 2015. As a group, we wondered why. Was it possibly due to an increase in the number of inclusive camps versus older stand-alone programs?

I hope so, but as a field we still have work to do to fully include ALL Jewish children and adults who want to attend, and work for our camp communities.

As Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirke Avot (2:21), “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but neither are you free to desist from it.”