At the recent GISHA Conference on Jewish Special Education at Hebrew College, I had the privilege of hearing the personal story of a husband and wife and their years-long attempts to find a Jewish space in which their children – both struck with the same severe neurological disorder – could make Jewish friends and strengthen their Jewish identity.
The parents talked openly about their isolation and deep loneliness as they sought both Jewish and non-sectarian educational and social opportunities for their son and daughter. Happily, in 2011, they found a school that became their home – the Jewish Montessori School of Toronto – and I couldn’t help but think about the many Jewish families like theirs who are seeking summer “homes away from home” for their children, as well.
The findings from our just completed a survey, “Jewish Camp for Children with Disabilities and Special Needs,” has left the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) encouraged about the current reality at camps and optimistic about the potential to help more children with special needs and physical disabilities find a Jewish overnight camp that will be right for them. In truth, when we chose to roll out a survey that would establish a baseline of information about current services available for children with disabilities at camp, we had no idea what to expect. How many children with special needs and disabilities were currently being served at overnight Jewish camps? How satisfied were these children and their parents with their camp experiences? What were the attitudes of camp professionals towards the prospect of establishing new and more complex programs serving more children?
The data uncovered by Laszlo Strategies has been encouraging, first of all, in that we learned that Jewish camps are serving more children with disabilities than we realized. In a previous informal information gathering, we had estimated that approximately 1,000 children were enrolled in nonprofit overnight Jewish camp annually; from the survey we learned that the figure is closer to 2,500 children. Furthermore, parent responses indicated that their children cannot often find a place in other Jewish educational settings, making the opportunity for Jewish immersion and socialization at camp that much more significant.
We were pleased to learn, as well, that those children with disabilities that are attending camp are overwhelmingly satisfied with their experiences. This finding parallels precisely the satisfaction levels of typical campers and highlights the exceptional ability of camping professionals to understand and meet the needs of their current customers.
As is true with many other Jews that find it difficult to connect with the Jewish community, camp can offer a first and welcoming connection. Together with our camp partners and experts in the field of special needs and disabilities, FJC is eager to apply the lessons learned through this process in order to help the field meet the needs of more children with disabilities.
Abby Knopp is the Vice President of Program and Strategy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp which supports and advocates for over 150 nonprofit Jewish overnight camps across North America (www.jewishcamp.org). She lives in New York City with her husband and is the proud mother of three sons.