Summer Camping amidst Social Strife

Spring semesters on college campuses across the US are seeing protests over the war in Gaza on a scale approaching the 1968 unrest. Protesters are encamped; police are kitted out in riot gear, debate over free speech has been weaponized, and all of this against a backdrop of virulent antisemitism. Just before Passover, Israeli schlichim (young Israeli adults preparing to come to the United States as emissaries and camp counselors) were living in bomb shelters as Hamas and then Iran attacked Israel with barrages of rockets. As Jewish camps in the US gear up for Summer 2024, the young adult American staffers will be packing their recent campus experiences along with their sleeping bags, just as their Israeli counterparts will be packing the experience of living in a country in active combat.

Jewish summer camps need to accommodate all of these stark, lived experiences into their training and management strategies as they build their teams for Summer 2024. These dedicated young adults will gather first for staff training and then welcome thousands of campers for a summer full of fun and Jewish identity building – but it is against a backdrop of unprecedented controversy in the U.S. and strife in the Mideast.

Camp leaders are thinking carefully about their institutions’ respective approaches to Israel, community, and the conflict, all of which is essential. But it is also insufficient. It is imperative that young adult counselors have the tools to navigate the schisms that October 7 and its aftermath have created in the extended Jewish community. There are important but often overlooked tools available from the disability inclusion movement which, if included in staff training and reinforced by camp senior leaders, will help younger staff to listen to one another with empathy and open curiosity, learn to stretch their ability to tolerate differences and embrace the value of inclusion more broadly.

These are the skills that camp disability programs have been incorporating for years. Disability inclusion programs teach counselors to be active listeners, conflict mediators and how to employ restorative inclusion as a tool for community building. We need to teach these skills to all our diverse group of camp counselors, and we need to advance inclusion beyond its traditional model which focuses on disability and nothing else.

Training programs often espouse the benefits of active listening but in reality, this is a difficult skill to acquire. Active listening requires paying attention to what is said, what is left out or not said, and to the non-verbal communication that goes alongside the words. Inclusion counselors work with campers and staff who may have trouble using words to express their thoughts or understand expectations. Thus, it is precisely these staff who learn best how to view behavior as a form of communication. Inclusion counselors understand that what a camper blurts out may not mirror the true meaning of what the camper wants to communicate, and so are more inclined to give that camper the benefit of doubt. Inclusion counselors listen to learn about their camper and their camper’s needs, they understand that communicating is both nuanced and complex.

This level of sincere, active listening is a necessary first step for staff with different views and perspectives to work together. Within the boundaries established by camp leadership, counselors need to be able to discuss their views openly and honestly. Rather than attacking someone for using words or slogans that make someone else feel uncomfortable, counselors should be encouraged to be curious about each other’s lived experiences. We need to teach our young adult staff to have what Robbie Gringas and Abi Dauber Sterne, authors of Stories for the Sake of Argument call “Health Arguments.” These are collaborative discussions where the goal is to learn not to convince or reach a compromise. We need to ask staff to anticipate sensitivities and to listen with empathy.

Inclusion counselors receive extra training in conflict mediation. They need to notice when their campers may become emotionally overwhelmed and learn the skills to de-escalate a tense situation. The most important step in this process is slowing things down and helping their campers take a step back and pause. Inclusion counselors help other campers and staff understand that even when someone does something a different way, there can be equal value. For example, everyone helps clean-up after an activity even if everyone has a different job and some campers get additional support to complete the task. Inclusion counselors help others understand that fairness doesn’t mean that we do exactly the same thing in the same way but rather fairness means that we all get what we need. In addition, inclusion counselors help campers tolerate differences that may not initially feel fair. At camps with a strong disability inclusion program, campers get an opportunity to strengthen their skills to be tolerate as they come to understand why a particular camper gets to walk around the dining hall when they need to stay seated or to ignore noises a peer is making during quiet time.

Increasing counselors’ ability to tolerate different political views and ideas around the current conflict is essential if they are going to work collaboratively to provide their campers with a fun filled summer. This involves developing an intercultural mindset where one’s own culture is not seen as more valuable than another’s culture and the goal is to build bridges across these different lived experiences. Donniel Hartman in “Pluralism, Tolerance and Deviance”, the Boundaries of Judaism (pp13-35), points out that difference that are viewed as having equal value are a lot easier to engender mutual respect. At the same time, he notes, not all differences fall under this category. There are some differences that staff members are going to see as intolerable or deviant. We need to work with counselors to strengthen their ability to tolerate differences in a way that aligns with each camp’s mission and culture.

At the core of disability inclusion programs is the understanding that inclusion benefits the entire community. It is not about doing something kind for “others” but about building a community that values and appreciates all. An inclusive community is about authentic human connection. It provides a pathway to honoring our Jewish values such as T’zelem Elohim, that we are all created in the image of God.

In The Coddling of the American Mind, authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt point out that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “epitomize what (they) call common humanity identity politics.” This approach highlights shared morals and identities. Lukianoff and Haidt shared that “King’s approach made it clear that his movement would not destroy America; it would repair and reunite it.” Similarly, expanding inclusion and allowing variety of ideas and viewpoints to be shared and discussed will not destroy camps this summer, it will strengthen them. Camp professionals often talk about summer camp being a place where campers and staff can learn to become their best selves. Learning to listen to each other with curiosity and empathy, mediating conflicts with compassion and understanding and building a community where all feel a strong sense of belonging will move us a step or two beyond the conflict of Spring 2024. The hope is that at the end of the summer, the Israeli and American young adults will be packing a more robust set of personal tools for community, and a library of summer experiences seeing things from others’ perspective. The disability inclusion movement has been opening doors and enabling understanding for decades; now is the time to realize that inclusion isn’t really about disabilities, it is reparative and it’s about all of us.

About the Author
Lisa Handelman is a coach, consultant, and workshop facilitator. She has over thirty years’ experience in Jewish camping, education and in the area of disability inclusion. She is the former Director of Capital Camps, one of the largest Jewish, pluralistic overnight camps on the East Coast. Lisa has a BA in Psychology, a Masters in Learning Consulting, and a certificate in Jewish Education Leadership.
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