The painful story of a blind 15-year-old who was asked to leave Camp Ramah in Canada because he was too hard to accommodate has touched off the latest debate about the inclusion of people with special needs in organized Jewish life.
The Conservative camp movement admits the Ontario camp — one of eight overnight camps in the Ramah network — made mistakes, but says it’s being unfairly maligned in the aftermath.
Solomon Krishef chose to leave Camp Ramah in Canada last week, several days after his family was told on visiting day that the staff could not accommodate his needs for his first full summer. (Solomon had attended four previous one-month sessions.)
Solomon’s angry dad, Rabbi David Krishef, wrote about the incident on his personal blog, noting that among the reasons given were, “Sol takes too long eating his meals and showering, and requires help moving from activity to activity, which he also does very slowly.” The blog post quickly made its way across Jewish cyberspace through social media.
In a second blog post, the rabbi, who leads Congregation Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids, Mich., said the camp had reversed its decision, thanking the director, Ron Polster. Rabbi Krishef praised Ramah campers and staff for stepping forward and volunteering to help Solomon get through the rest of the summer after his daughter, Sara, started a petition drive to keep her brother at Ramah.
“He called and expressed a sincere apology, to Solomon, to me, and to my wife. He took a second look at how staff could be assigned for the second month,” wrote the rabbi on July 19. “Of course, I wish Sol would have chosen to stay, but given what he’s been through, I understand why he has made the decision to come home.”
Rabbi Krishef did not respond to messages left at his temple office or at home.
Rabbi Mitch Cohen, director of the Ramah Camping movement, declined to discuss specifics about the incident, citing privacy concerns, but said it has caused the camp and its policies of inclusion to be maligned.
“We were really baffled by the extent of the lashon hara and the amount of people who commented publicly without knowing anything about the situation at hand,” Rabbi Cohen told The Jewish Week Tuesday.
While he conceded that the camp did not handle the matter “perfectly,” he said “the father’s well-intentioned blog turned into so many letters of support on the one hand for Ramah and so many e-mails of harsh criticism from people who had no idea what they are talking about. When it comes to inclusion we are proud leaders in that area as a movement.”
Ramah Canada, which is two hours north of Toronto, will have about 600 campers in its two sessions this summer, including 20 who take part in its Tikvah camp and vocational program for teens and young adults with disabilities. Rabbi Cohen said he believed that, other than Solomon, there are two other campers who are visually impaired.
Messages for Polster and Ramah Canada’s communication director were not returned as of Tuesday afternoon.
Rabbi Cohen said it was Polster’s first summer as director, but he had previous experience working in Jewish summer camps. According to his LinkedIn profile, Polster, who has a Ph.D. in religion from the University of Toronto, previously worked as director of Jewish Camping Initiatives at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp George.
In his blog, Rabbi Krishef said, “This unfortunate episode appears to be the result of a chaotic transition to new leadership.”
Rabbi Cohen said there is no need to review the camp’s policies or to take any further action as a result of the incident.
Solomon’s departure from the camp comes as a group of 20 Jewish donors and foundation professionals is set to board a bus next week for a three-day jaunt to eight Jewish Northeast camps to look at their level of inclusion and see how better funding can maximize participation.
“The funders see inclusion as important across all spheres of Jewish life and know that camps are an important place to take big steps,” says Avi Zollman, spokesman for the Jewish Funders Network, which has planned the trip for several months.
Elsewhere, activists are looking at the incident as a teachable moment. Writing on eJewishPhilanthropy, Naomi Brunnlehrman, co-founder of the Jewish Deaf (and Hard-of-Hearing) Resource Center, said it “highlights the consequences to all of us when the wider Jewish community continues to perceive access and inclusion as optional and not an integral part of what it means to be a sacred Jewish community.”
Richard Bernstein, an attorney and activist who has sued Delta Airlines, the University of Michigan and others on behalf of people with disabilities, said he was upset when numerous people alerted him to the story, but heartened when Ramah reversed its decision.
“That doesn’t happen too often,” said Bernstein, who is blind. “I give them a lot of credit for realizing the mistake and doing the right thing. I think this is a wonderful opportunity to educate and excite our community about ways to make people with disabilities and special needs feel [included].”
Citing his own experience at a non-Jewish private camp when he was Solomon’s age, Bernstein said, “It wasn’t a big deal. I couldn’t participate in archery or tennis but I felt close to my cabin-mates. People wanted to help me. It created a sense of camaraderie. It’s human nature to want to help people.”