Camp staff 02.22.18

Camp : An Open and Safe Community

Camp : An Open and Safe Community
By Lisa David, Director of URJ Camp Harlam

For the last few years, Camp Harlam has continually sought out to create an open and safe community – an environment that is understanding, accepting, and where bias and prejudice are not tolerated. The leadership of our camp (including our professional staff, lay leaders, and other stakeholders) has invested quite a lot in an effort to continue to shift our culture to be even more aligned with our Reform Jewish ideology, which believes that every individual is created B’tzelem Elohim – in G-d’s image. As we believe this to be true, we have worked hard to develop policies, programs, communication channels, outreach, and trainings in order to do all that we can to ensure that Harlam is a true reflection of today’s Reform Jewish families.

One of the things we have emphasized to our community members is our belief that since we are all truly created in G-d’s image, then we can each contribute something valuable to our greater community. In addition to that belief, we’ve stressed that excluding anyone from our community diminishes the experience for each of us, and lessens our chance of achieving our goal of a more perfect world through tikkun olam (repair of our world).

There are countless moments I have witnessed during the summer which left me feeling confident that our Camp Harlam community has successfully moved in this direction. As a camp director, seeing individual campers and groups welcome newcomers that are different from them, in addition to seeing the excellent work our staff has done to ensure new campers are successful, feels like great progress towards our goal of an open and safe community. There have obviously been times when it’s been challenging, but, one of the things most gratifying about these efforts is to see how our campers have so naturally embraced this culture and have opened their arms and hearts to those around them, regardless of those with more significant challenges, or those struggling at any one moment in time.

For example, take our bunk of Kineret (6th grade) girls who last summer created their own mini-Chill Zone.

In 2016, Harlam established Chill Zone, a sensory space that provides campers the opportunity to take a break from the sometimes overwhelming, overstimulating, 24/7 environment of camp. It’s a small, private, quiet space outfitted with a variety of tools like a bubble wall, stress balls, fidget toys, and other items to keep kids calm and allow them some time and space to decompress. For campers with disabilities or campers for whom the environment at camp can prove to be challenging at times, this accommodation has helped them to be successful at camp, when under other conditions they may not have been. Our campers, both those who have used this space and those who have not, have come to appreciate that every camper needs different things at different times, and have adopted and integrated our philosophy of “universal design” by creating their own accommodations that many, if not all campers, can benefit from.

Enter the aforementioned Kineret girls bunk. During the second session of the summer, the girls created their very own Chill Zone in their bunk, a physical space for those who need some privacy or separation, something that all of us at camp need at different times. They were thoughtful enough to outfit this area with lights, books, fidget toys, and other items that can provide some sense of comfort, to create an island of calm in what might otherwise be a chaotic space. They had internalized Harlam’s inclusive practices and they, too, created an open and safe community; a sacred community, where each person is valued and where accommodations are made to support those who need them, which truly may be any of us, at any time.

Similarly, last summer, I also had the opportunity to visit an Arava (7th grade) boys bunk during their evening ritual, with the intention of sharing with the counselors an incredibly moving letter from a camp family. The family spoke beautifully about how meaningful it was for their child to be welcomed and included at camp:

“When your child has challenges, it can be exhausting. You’re constantly in advocacy mode and you worry a great deal of time. Your heart breaks when you see a typical group of boys his age at the mall or in the neighborhood laughing and having fun because your son doesn’t have that level of independence or that group of friends. He’s on the outside most of the time and that is tremendously hard. You know your kid is lovable and has lots to offer, but often you have to fight just to get him in the door.

At Harlam he is part of the group. He is on the inside and that makes the hearts of all who love him explode with happiness…Thank you so much for giving him a chance. We are so grateful to you and all of his amazingly wonderful counselors. Harlam is really the most magical of places.”

We read this letter (through tears) and shared our gratitude for the support of the counselors in creating this successful experience. Their immediate response? “It’s the kids.” Without accepting any recognition, they credited the campers for understanding and accepting a newcomer who might have been different from them, but who brought joy to the bunk. Moved by their response, we decided to share the letter with the kids, who were beaming as they read the touching tribute. Their response? “We loved having him in the bunk! He was so funny! This is just what we do.” To them, it was not exceptional that they had been so welcoming, it was expected. They shared stories of what this camper gave to them, and how they benefited from his participation in their camp community.

Including people, making people feel safe, and helping others to be successful are not only things we continue to do at Harlam because it is a nice thing to do for those who might struggle at times or in other places, but these are things we are obligated to do because of our Jewish values. These are things that we do because we derive great value from the gifts that each person adds to our experiences here. We don’t always do things perfectly, and at times ensuring each child is successful can be incredibly hard. But both the successes and the learning that come from the challenges are the things that enrich each person and our community.

I’m grateful that our kids have naturally internalized this and lived it while they’re at camp, as I hope it will help all of them, and all of us, to continue to make the world outside of camp a more open and safe place for all.