Katherine O'Brien
Katherine O'Brien

Inclusion Lessons for Jewish Camp and Beyond

I have spent the past two days at the Ruderman Inclusion Summit and here, in cold Boston of all places, I am reminded how truly special Jewish summer camp is. Under the theme of “Including Each, Strengthening All,” 1,400 people gathered  to explore, connect and advocate as, for and with people with disabilities. At 20 percent of all Americans, people with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States and are deeply and disproportionately affected by the pending changes in healthcare and tax legislation.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism spoke about Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, which compares a coin maker who makes coins out of a template, every coin identical, and the Creator, who made each human unique and inherently deserving of love and respect.  At the Ruderman Summit people with a diverse range of abilities and religious affiliations are working together, with the entire conference integrated and fully accessible, as any gathering should be. For Jewish organizations and Jewish camp in particular, these are the Jewish values we must emulate. Each person, regardless of abilities, are created in the image of God- inclusion as a Jewish value.

Jewish camp is that ideal world that recognizes all people’s gifts. Even for those of us with “normative” abilities, camp has always been the place where we feel that we truly belong. Camp magic is an environment of acceptance, no-judgment and great equalizing- and so it should be too for differently-abled campers and staff. For camps this means physical inclusion- making camp accessible physically for people with special needs- and social inclusion throughout camp, from the camp director and senior staff to bunk counselors and campers.

This morning I joined camp representatives, inclusion specialists and camper care specialists, for a breakfast breakout session all about Inclusion at camp. In addition to networking, we discussed a range of topics including utilizing collaboration for increased inclusion, managing mental health issues and sensory rooms at camp.

Kate OBrien and Jay Ruderman

The strongest takeaway for me from this inspirational conference is: in listening to activists and people with disabilities I learned that they do not want to be “a mitzvah project.” In today’s climate, where intolerance seems to be publicly condoned, we could all do with more mitzvot, kind words and charity. But Inclusion in the Jewish community is not accomplished by words and money alone.  Inclusion at camp and in communities is in ensuring access to full participation in Jewish life, enabling all Jews to be responsible for mitzvot and active in their own Jewish life, as much as possible. Our job is to teach acceptance and to constantly seek new ways to include people with disabilities fully in our community, with all supports needed.

Inclusion is not about doing a mitzvah, it is a core Jewish responsibility to be embodied throughout our communities and camps.

Kate O’Brien is Director of Jewish Education at Foundation for Jewish Camp.

About the Author
Kate is the director of Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, where she provides Jewish educational insight, direction, and coaching for the breadth of FJC’s programs. Before FJC, Kate served as the Director of Education, Innovation, and Organizing at The Workmen’s Circle. There she built and supported a national network of Jewish cultural schools that connected children and adults to their Jewish heritage and helped families link their secular Jewish progressive values with their social justice activism. Previously, Kate originated the position of Senior Research Writer for the Berman Center for Research and Evaluation at JESNA. Kate earned MAs in Jewish Education and in Hebrew Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She currently is studying Special Education at Hunter CUNY. She lives in Yonkers with her wife, Beth, and their rescue dog, Fritz.
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