I saw the beautiful grinning photo this morning of the young daughter of one of my camp counselors from the ‘90s, taken on the first day of camp.
It was typical of my social media feeds these days, replete with photos and messages of my slightly older friends sending off their children to the Jewish camp of their choice, and my peers reflecting on their children just a bit too young for camp, indulging in the dream of when they will do that first send off.
The themes of these posts, stated and unstated, are familiar; from “I can’t wait for my child to have the wonderful social and growth experience that I did” to “I can’t wait for my child to have the Jewish experience that I did” to the implied “I really hope that my child has the wonderful experience that I did and grows into the person and the Jew that I hope they will be.”
The wish that a child will have meaningful social experiences, will form strong connections to their peers and a strong Jewish identity, is one that unites all Jewish parents, especially those who went to camp. I suspect that this desire is no less strong among Jewish parents of children with disabilities, a suspicion supported by my interactions with a number of these parents over the last few months.
I have written extensively on the benefits of Camp for social and societal inclusion. By breaking down some of the physical, spatial, and social barriers that I experienced and by including me fully in camp programs, camp allowed me to have the breadth of experience and growth necessary for successful societal inclusion as an adult.
Today, I’d like to explore a different element of that same inclusive promise, the Jewish experience. It goes without saying that we are working for a world where every synagogue, every bimah (podium), and every Jewish program is fully inclusive. But we are not there yet. In fact, most people with disabilities face significant barriers to participation in the institutions of Jewish life.
As a child, my parents did not yet own a wheelchair van, which meant that my trips to the synagogue involved wrestling me and a manual wheelchair into a car. The synagogue did not yet have an elevator, which meant that I then had to be carried upstairs, and, to this day, the bimah is inaccessible. For my bar mitzvah, I read the Torah from a specially placed folding table.
I like to think that my synagogue would’ve done that for everyone, and, given that my father was the Rabbi, and who the wonderful people in the community were, it probably would have. But I’m certain many people in rural communities can’t even beat the transportation barrier to get there in the first place, let alone take the initiative for the other pieces in a community where they are not yet known. Even as an adult, none of the orthodox synagogues in my portion of the Upper West Side were accessible to me.
At camp, getting to services, classes, or Jewish programs, was as simple as getting into a wheelchair and driving that chair to get to a space that had been modified for my access. At camp, I never missed the service, and I read Torah every summer after my bar mitzvah. Eventually, I would teach B’nai Mitzvah (kids about to become bar/bat mitzvah) at camp, a circle of sorts.
Most of the other benefits of camp were those experienced by other children, just more intensified for me as a person with a disability. All kids growing up in rural Connecticut towns benefit from things like camp to meet other Jews. Since my social avenues were even more limited than most, camp was especially important for helping to build my feeling of a Jewish peer group and community.
All kids where I come from have limited opportunities for Jewish learning. In my case, even if I had lived on the Upper West Side of New York, accessibility would have limited my opportunity for Jewish learning. The camp program made those opportunities available for all participants.
What’s more, my access needs were mostly physical barriers. Many children, in order to be included, may require programmatic, practical, or even liturgical modifications. In an ideal world, all synagogues would experiment to promote inclusion, consistent with their understanding of Halacha (Jewish law). In practice, in the world of the synagogue, the settled expectations of dues paying members make change slow and innovation painful.
At camp, modifying prayer and ritual practice to promote learning, growth, and spirituality is a virtual prerequisite of the camp program. Regardless of movement, Judaism itself allows a flexibility of prayer and practice that the synagogue may resist. Embracing that flexibility provides a laboratory for inclusion which the synagogue may not be well-equipped to do. Just as one example, if you are already praying outside, how hard is it to let someone who can’t sit still walk around as they, too, connect with God? The possibilities are endless.
This, then, is my recommendation to Jewish parents of children with disabilities praying that their children may find Jewish connection and inclusion. I have no certain answers, but the power of camp as a vehicle for such inclusion cannot be overstated, and I plead with you to check out the options that are available for you and your child.
Camp helped me to be the Jew that I am today, and while it is neither desirable, nor likely, to turn out carbon copies of that Jew, I hope that camp can help your child become the best possible Jew for them.