This originally appeared in eJewish Philanthropy.
The late nights in the bunks with friends, swimming in the lake, color war breakout that always came as a surprise and the ‘bug juice’ at lunch. Those memories for a lifetime were and are priceless for the tens of thousands of Jewish youngsters who had the privilege of attending a Jewish summer camp.
But they should be memories for everyone in our community- not just for the “privileged.”
Our foundation was proud to co-sponsor the recent Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) Leader’s Assembly. We believe that Jewish camping should be accessible to everyone and recognize the importance of Jewish camping as essential to ensuring continuity in our community.
My personal experience demonstrates this. I spent five summers at Camp Ramah in New England. Although I grew up in an observant Kosher home, I believe my time at Ramah was a critical part of instilling a connection in me to the Jewish people and to Zionism. I believe my current commitment to philanthropy in the Jewish world is partly thanks to Camp Ramah and Jewish camping.
My time at Ramah helps explain why I believe the inclusion of Jews with disabilities—at camp and everywhere else—is essential to boosting Jewish continuity.
Most Jewish philanthropists, and many Jewish communal organizations, focus heavily on keeping our children Jewish. Camping, day schools, trips to Israel, and numerous projects seek to engage our youth in wonderful experiences designed to persuade them to remain inside the Jewish community.
However, in many of these efforts to ensure continuity we chase after highly educated, upwardly mobile young people while excluding many other populations who are actively seeking a place in our community. By doing so, we arbitrarily decide who we want to stay within the walls of our community and who we want to keep out.
Chief among these excluded populations are people with disabilities and their families, who make up roughly 20% of our population. Disability is not a niche issue; it impacts everyone- family, friends, colleagues and co-workers. By being exclusive rather than inclusive, we disenfranchise many of our fellow community members, at a time when we should be inviting them in.
In the end, if we continue to create a society that excludes people with disabilities, we will become completely unattractive to the very young people we are trying to attract! I believe that inclusive Jewish camping can play a major role in creating a more fair and flourishing Jewish community.
Children and youth in the U.S. have already internalized inclusion. They live it every day at school, on the playground, at youth groups. To them, inclusion is the norm. This is mainly because the national culture in the U.S. has surpassed the American Jewish community in its embrace of inclusion.
If young Jews grew up with certain expectations, how will they view their own schools, synagogues and summer camps if they are exclusionary? In the end, they will turn away from a Jewish community that has no place for minorities and instead looks like an old-school country club.
Pursuing, promoting and fostering inclusion is not only the right thing to do according to Jewish values– it is also the strategically smart thing to do, so we build a community to which our youth want to belong.
There is no magic bullet that will bring us to inclusion. Inclusion needs to be a value explored and internally embraced by every single one of us! There is no replacement for the central tenet we hold dear: Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh– we are responsible for each and every Jew. A sense of solidarity, the notion of oneness is what will ensure the future survival of our people.
Outsiders may provide seed funding and access to expertise, but the fundamental commitment to inclusion must come from within the community itself. Only then will it become a fully sustainable part of a newly inclusive American Jewish culture.
It is for this reason that I was excited to participate in the Leader’s Assembly. The FJC made inclusion a focus of the conference and they are working to make all Jewish camping inclusive. I commend their leadership on this issue and believe their involvement and commitment will help build a Jewish community which is exciting, vibrant, welcoming and attractive for everyone.
One of the keynote speeches was delivered by Alexis Kashar, a disability advocate, civil rights and special education lawyer who is deaf. In her address, she discussed her summer camp experience and how it helped shape her views on inclusion. She challenged the conference participants to help make the joy of Judaism available to everyone.
Summer camp is fun, relaxing and allows everyone to participate in joint activities. Now imagine that kids with disabilities had access to Jewish camps, participated and what the end result would be: other kids would see them for who they really are, kids like everyone else.
Our march to inclusion has to start somewhere. Over a cup of pink bug juice is as good a place as any.