Children with special needs can thrive at jewish summer camps

special needs camps

For a Jewish kid growing up in the outskirts of L.A. County, Jewish summer camps were very special to me. At Habonim Dror, a Labor Zionist camp, I picked up my first conversational Hebrew words. I learned how to study Jewish texts at the former Camp Swig in Northern California. And even though I’m tone-deaf, I still got a part in "Fiddler on the Roof" at Camp JCA Barton Flats. My husband had enjoyed three summers at Camp Ramah on the East Coast, and because we are fairly observant, it seemed the most natural thing to send our kids to overnight Jewish camps.

With our oldest daughter, Rachel, it was easy. At age 8, she first went to JCA Shalom for a weeklong introduction to overnight camp, and then for longer sessions to Camp Ramah in Ojai, where she was a camper and, later, a staff member. Her favorite day of the week was Shabbat, with its special foods, songs and dances.

But with our son, Danny, who has significant developmental and physical disabilities, it was a whole different situation. He has complicated medication regimens and needs help with everything from toileting to dressing. Where would he go to summer overnight camp? None of the Jewish camps except for Ramah even had a special-needs program listed on the Internet, and he wasn’t old enough for their program.

We finally found a beautiful special-needs-only camp in Malibu operated by a local nonprofit, overlooking the ocean with its own swimming pool and ramps for the disabled. Two full-time nurses were there to deal with the complex medical needs of the campers, and counselors skilled in working with people with disabilities were recruited from around the world. The camp was, of course, not kosher, so we sent our own hot dogs and told them not to give Danny any other meat products. And, of course, there was no Shabbat. Danny did OK, although once or twice we almost had to go get him prematurely when he wouldn’t take his meds. He asked for Mommy all the time.

When we went to pick up Danny from that special-needs camp, we were handed a "memory book" that had an inscription from one of his counselors: "Danny, you are an awesome dude. Yours in Christ, Scotty." Making things even worse, the director of the special needs camp told me a group of Jewish campers from a nearby Wilshire Boulevard camp had come to visit for a "mitzvah day" and had focused in on Danny because he was the only Jewish camper there.

The next year, I started an early conversation with Shalom Institute Executive Director Bill Kaplan at Camp JCA Shalom, and along with a few Jewish friends who had boys around the same age with different developmental disabilities, we collectively figured out a creative solution. Without any red tape, JCA Shalom would create a special-needs bunk, with an extra counselor plus a few one-on-one aides for campers such as Danny who needed more intensive assistance. The kids would be part of the bigger camp experience, but the schedule would be adjusted to take into account their sensory or other special needs. Typical campers would serve as buddies and hang out with our boys a few times a week.

Danny came back from one week at camp talking about Shabbat, music and the Israeli scouts. No one had to call us to say that he wouldn’t take his meds. Clearly, the Jewish camps were a better match.

We wanted to have the kids together at Ramah, so we started conversations about Danny participating in their special-needs Tikvah program. Only one camper before Danny had come with his own aide, and we weren’t sure how it would work for him to be away two whole weeks, longer than he had ever been away before.

Elana Naftalin-Kelman, director of the Tikvah program, came over to our house a few months before camp and took notes about all the details of his daily schedule and exactly what would be needed to ensure a great camping experience. With partial funding for the one-on-one aide from the state-funded Lanterman Regional Center, we were able to swing the costs financially.

That was five years ago, and this summer Danny stayed for a month with a wonderful aide. Although he still gets homesick the first few nights, he looks forward to camp all year long. His favorite place at camp is the pool, and he especially enjoys imitating the other boys in the tent early in the morning.

On the last day of camp, Rachel sat next to Danny on the bus. As they pulled out of the long driveway away from Camp Ramah, she reminded Danny that camp was all done for the summer and they were heading home. He started to cry.

With more Jewish camps opening their tents to campers who have special needs, it is well worth the extra time and effort to find a Jewish camp that can be a good match for your child or teen with special needs. The memories and rewarding experiences at camp last long after they’ve outgrown that tie-dyed camp T-shirt.