Blazing a Trail of Triumph

Last year, Batya Cate looked into a new modern Orthodox camp in Malibu for her three children. With daily learning sessions, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, an organic farm, sports and archery fields, a climbing wall, an animal education center, arts and crafts pavilion, and hiking trails connecting to the beach, it sounded like paradise.

Despite all its offerings, though, Moshava Malibu, at the Shalom Institute, wasn’t prepared for the needs of Cate’s son Aaron, who’s been diagnosed with autism.

That’s all changed now. This summer, the camp is working with Yachad, the flagship program of the Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities, to bring more opportunities to people with learning, developmental and physical disabilities. This partnership will result in the first Orthodox overnight camp on the West Coast integrating youths with special needs, officials said. 

For Cate, who is sending 10-year-old Aaron to camp this August with his 12-year-old sister and 8-year-old brother, the change represents an amazing opportunity.

“The Yachad program will allow him to be a part of the greater Jewish community in a way he hasn’t been before,” she said. “While the immersion program will be a challenge for him, we are the kind of parents who encourage all of our children to get out of their comfort zones.”

For many Jewish-American kids, summer camp is not just a welcome change of scenery but also a rite of passage. Rabbi Kenneth Pollack, camp director, said it’s essential that the camp adhere to that most Jewish of values: inclusion.

“The concept of running a camp without including everybody is not the Jewish way,” he said.

There will be 12 spots available this year to campers with special needs, and Joe Goldfarb, director of summer programs at Yachad, said there could be more in the coming years if the program succeeds. The initiative is funded, in part, through a $7,000 grant from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Pollack says that since his own early, life-changing experience as a counselor working with a camper with Down syndrome, he felt there was a need for a program like Yachad, as the choices for many Orthodox families involved either sending their kids to non-Jewish camps set up for special-needs services or keeping them at home during the summer. 

The purpose of the program will be to make these campers feel right at home. While each of the campers with special needs will have a Yachad-hired counselor shadowing him or her, the ultimate goal is to have both the camper and shadow counselor become assimilated seamlessly into the general population of the overall “bunk,” or group of campers.

“Yachad counselors will fade in and out to serve their camper as needed, and the rest of the time work alongside the other counselors so the greatest amount of natural, unforced inclusion is achieved,” Goldfarb said. “With the typical kids around, the Yachad campers will get social role modeling, observing how typical kids interact with each other, acquire essential social skills work and feel a sense of belonging.”

Although it is hard for Aaron Cate, who is high-functioning, to engage in social activities, his mother knows he doesn’t like feeling different and separate. As she sees it, the program, even with Aaron having to adjust, is a golden opportunity for him to learn how to fit in. 

“Rather than be a special-needs kid admitted to the camp, he will be part of the camp group,” she said. 

Pollack said he believes that adding these campers to the mix will benefit everyone, not just those with special needs.

“Typical kids benefit by interacting with kids who have needs different from their own, sensitizing them,” Pollack said. “While some campers may anecdotally know a special-needs kid from shul, or a neighbor with a sibling who goes to a special-needs day school, they have not had that personal interaction with them. It is important for typical kids to interact with others who may not have the same level of social skills or Jewish literacy they do.”

Moshava Malibu operates under the umbrella of Bnei Akiva, a religious Zionist youth movement. Prior to the summer camp session, Yachad will host a West Coast Family Shabbaton (weekend retreat) June 13-15 at the Sheraton Agoura Hills Hotel. Activities will revolve around education, networking, play and a beautiful Shabbat observance for families of special-needs children. To register, call (310) 229-9000, ext. 206.

Looking forward, Pollack has nothing but optimism for even greater things.

“I hope there to be a world some day where the word ‘special’ won’t need to come before the word ‘needs,’ because all kids have needs. It is important that our counselors and everybody else involved in the camp see the world that way.”

Photo: Campers from last summer (above) at  Moshava Malibu, which will be adding opportunities for kids with special needs this summer. Photo courtesy of Camp Moshava Malibu