Welcoming Children with Disabilities at Jewish Camp

Did you know approximately 15-20% of Jewish children in North America are defined as having intellectual, social, emotional, or physical disabilities?  Currently, only a fraction of these children attend Jewish camps.  Given the value and importance of Jewish camp in strengthening Jewish identity and connections with the Jewish community, children with disabilities are losing more than just a “fun summer,” they are being denied the opportunity for Jewish growth.

Making the camp experience more inclusive is a priority for the board and staff of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) and I am excited to share the progress that we are making to ensure that all Jewish children are able to experience the magic of Jewish camp.

In the last two years we’ve visited a number of camps that offer services to children with disabilities to speak with camp staff and see facilities and programs in action first hand.  You may have seen the groundbreaking survey we conducted: Jewish Camp for Children with Disabilities and Special Needs, published in May 2013 by Laszlo Strategies.  This was the first study of its kind in the Jewish community and included in-depth interviews of camper parents and camp staff.  We analyzed the results and mapped out the current, potential, and desired services available to children with disabilities at Jewish camps.  The result is an ambitious five-year Disabilities Initiative, for which we are currently seeking funding. This Initiative aims to:

  • double the number of children with disabilities attending Jewish camp over five years;
  • train staff members in 60 camps;
  • create inclusion coordinator positions in 20 camps;
  • enable 15 camps to significantly change their physical layout and facilities; and
  • establish vocational education and life skills training programs at 10 camps.

FJC will make it possible for camps at different stages of readiness to become involved in this enterprise and together we will ensure that more children have the opportunity to experience transformative Jewish summers at camp.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Leo Oppenheimer and Flora Oppenheimer Haas Foundation, we were able to add a new member to our staff last month to lead the field of Jewish camp in making it more inclusive and accessible for children with disabilities.

In the coming months I look forward to sharing with you developments in how we are making it possible for thousands of children with disabilities to take their own Jewish journey, discover joyous Judaism at camp, and take the transformational camp experience with them as they move through life.

Chag Purim Sameach – enjoy a happy Purim!

About the Author
Jeremy J. Fingerman has served as CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) since 2010. Prior to joining FJC, he had a highly-regarded 20+ year career in Consumer Packaged Goods, beginning at General Mills, Inc, then at Campbell Soup Company, where he served as president of its largest division, US Soup. In 2005, he was recruited to serve as CEO of Manischewitz.
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