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What I Learned at Camp

Families with developmentally disabled members tend to stay on the periphery of the Jewish community. And why shouldn’t they?

When I applied to seminary, it was suggested that I learn more about the Conservative movement. I was given a choice of taking summer courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary or working at Camp Ramah, the movement camp.

I didn’t have the money to become a summer student, so I opted for camp. It was there that I learned — as a counselor and later an administrator in the Tikvah program for campers with special needs — what it meant to serve the Jewish people.

I learned in those three summers at Tikvah more about life, people and spirituality from my campers, than in all my years in seminary.

I learned about God from Jonathan, who often asked God “why was I created with Down syndrome?” And that God always answered. Jonathan told us he was devoting his life to learning how to interpret the answers he received.

When the Rabbis were asked — “What is the most important concept in the Torah?” —  some responded, “People are all created in God’s image.” Everyone is created with the Divine spark within. Everyone.

When I teach, I invariably ask, “Do any of you know a family with a developmentally challenged member?” Most say no. Yet I know this is untrue. The students are not lying. It’s just that families with developmentally disabled members tend to stay on the periphery of the Jewish community.

And why shouldn’t they? Why should they come into a community that rarely welcomes them? In the sanctuary, we see them more as challenges rather than those to be welcomed. If their child “acts out” in services, they are ostracized and kept at a distance.

Howard, another of my campers, put it this way: “The worst problems I ever had were not because of my disabilities. They were from other people dealing with my disabilities.” He is one of the wisest people I’ve ever known.

And the parents of these brave children must be the most resilient and strongest people I have ever met.

Our tradition has a blessing for everything. There is a blessing when you see royalty, when you hear thunder, when you smell flowers, and many others. The concept of “blessing” is to recognize and appreciate God’s handiwork and purpose in everything we experience.

There is also a blessing recited upon seeing someone who is physically or mentally different from the “norm.” Blessed are You Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who formed many varieties of people.

If indeed we recognize God’s part in their creation, it is our obligation as individuals and members of the community to help and welcome them into our institutions, our sanctuaries and our hearts.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Founder and Executive Director of JSurge, an organization providing Jewish education and services to unaffiliated Jews. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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