The Journey Toward Accessible Jewish Camps
By Orlee Krass
Summer camp is such an ingrained part of the Jewish community. Connections to our summer camps are meaningful and they run deep. There are connections between generations – parents who met there and started families and continued the tradition. There are friendships that span the country because of the best friends made during seven weeks each summer, making Jewish geography quite the conversation starter no matter where you are in life.
How would you feel if you could not attend (or could not send your child) to summer camp because of different needs or abilities? What if the place you called your summer home could not be your child’s summer home?
Fortunately, Jewish camps all over the country work tirelessly year-round to give each and every enrolled camper – regardless of need or ability – the BEST experience possible. Just as summer camps put processes in place to make food service safe for campers with food allergies and create support systems for homesick campers so that they have a successful summer, camps work to ensure that a meaningful summer experience is accessible to and inclusive of campers with disabilities.
I am Jewish, a product of Jewish summer camps. I now work year-round for a Jewish summer camp where I run the special needs program. We have an inclusion program for our campers who can live in “typical” bunks with some extra support. We also have a residential program offering support to participants in a living space designed to meet their needs. We work with each family who comes through these programs in advance of the summer – as well as throughout the summer – to ensure that each camper thrives at camp.
I’ve always prided myself on the work we do to create an inclusive environment, but last year I had an experience that reminded me that there is always room to grow our offerings – beginning with accessibility. There is ALWAYS room for improvement, and the journey to being an inclusive community does not have an end point.
February 14th marked my one year anniversary of having Meningitis, a brain bleed, and ending up unable to walk because I temporarily lost use of the left side of my body. When I was finally able to understand what was happening to me, I remember one of my first thoughts: “How will I go to camp if I am unable to walk”? Since camp was not wheelchair accessible, I knew the answer. If I did not regain mobility on my left side and learn to walk before the summer, I would not be able to be at camp.
This was an unacceptable thought. I love my job, and June through August are the fruits of my labor. Everything I work on during the year comes to fruition. I was not going to miss Kayitz (summer) 2018!
I worked hard in rehab over the next few months to not only regain use of my left side and walk, but to be strong enough to navigate the terrain of camp in the Poconos mountains. During this time, and the summer that followed, I began to take notice of ways in which my camp was not as inclusive as I’d thought. Sure, I knew we had work to do in terms of accessibility, but even the areas of camp that were deemed “accessible” were not necessarily accessible to all. My experience was a true wake-up call, leading me to shift my thinking around accessibility. What does accessibility really mean? How can a camp be “fully accessible”? Accessibility, like inclusion, looks different for everyone. There will never be a moment in which I – or anyone else, for that matter – can claim to be an “expert” on inclusion and accessibility. Accessibility is not a destination at which we can triumphantly arrive – it’s an ongoing journey.
It is my goal to always to continue the journey to advance our institution towards all aspects of inclusion. I hope to see more efforts towards inclusion and accessibility – not only in camp settings, but throughout the Jewish community. We ALL benefit from pushing ourselves to find more ways to be inclusive and accessible. I urge you to take a look around your communities and make a commitment to taking this journey with me, so your community continues down the road to being more accessible, welcoming, and open.
Orlee Krass is the Tikvah Director at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. She is a lifelong Ramahnick having grown up at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack. Her love for all things camp and her passion for inclusion is the driving force behind her work and is always counting down the days until the next Kayitz (summer).
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 new $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.