Inclusion at camp is not about Chesed, it is about Tzedek. Our efforts are not to create something for others, but rather to welcome all children, including children with disabilities with open arms and ensure that they feel part of the Jewish community.
Our Foundation believes there must be room for every child within our Jewish camp community, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. Creating an inclusive environment enhances the entire camp experience for all. Especially during this Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, we want to call attention to the progress we have made and to our ambitions to ensure that all children are part of our Jewish community.
Our work in the last two years focused first on data-gathering, mapping out the current, potential and desired services available to children with disabilities at Jewish camps. Thanks to an initial grant from the Lipton Family, we learned that for most children with disabilities who attend camp, it is their only outlet for Jewish expression. Given the value and importance of Jewish camp in strengthening Jewish identity and connection with the Jewish community, children with disabilities are losing more than just a fun summer when they don’t attend Jewish camp; they are missing out on the opportunity of Jewish growth.
We also learned that for many camps, one of the greatest barriers to offering greater access to children with disabilities was, and continues to be, proper staffing and training across all levels of staff.
We have taken action! Thanks to the Oppenheimer-Haas Foundation, we have hired a dedicated professional who now mentors camps, provides them with guidance and resources and works with camp staff to enable them to create and enhance inclusion programs at their camps so more children with disabilities have a Jewish summer experience. Thanks to a recent generous grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation, we are able to add inclusion coordinators in four camps this summer, and we hope to replicate this program model with more camps as funding becomes available.
We are grateful to do our part and work alongside other organizations in the Jewish community in the area of inclusion. I am so proud of the progress our field is making – we now count 60 camps across North America that are providing summer experiences for more than 3,000 children with disabilities!
When camp makes inclusion a priority, it creates the best possible camp community for all campers and staff. Everyone benefits.