It is a sunny Shabbat afternoon in early August at Camp Ramah in California. The oldest Machon campers have finished lunch, enjoyed some free time, and have reconvened on the hill under a large tree for their Shabbat afternoon learning session. I am honored to be this week’s guest teacher, and I take the opportunity to talk to 75 fifteen-year-olds about an incident that put Ramah in the national news over the last two weeks.
I explain to the campers – all of whom are “off-line” all summer and are not aware of recent events – that a parent posted a blog in which he voiced a grievance against Camp Ramah in Canada. I note to the California campers that the resulting online firestorm became an unprecedented public attack on Ramah (unintended by this parent) and called into question Ramah’s highly-regarded reputation for inclusion of campers with special needs.
I pose to the campers two key challenges that Ramah faces as a Jewish camping movement committed to inclusion: the limits we confront when we cannot include all campers at all times in all activities, and the perilous position we find ourselves in when we are challenged about a particular case through the vehicle of social media, where everyone, it seems, feels entitled to express an opinion in a very public manner even as they build upon the anger and hard feelings that can erupt and snowball at a moment’s notice.
As a long-time Jewish educator, I have had the privilege of participating in many engaging conversations with children around Jewish texts and Jewish values, and have been part of many discussions on Ramah’s special needs inclusion programs, which exist at all eight Ramah residential camps in North America (including the newest Tikvah program which launched this summer at Ramah Outdoor Adventure in the Rocky Mountains). Yet, this particular session, on the heels of an especially difficult two weeks, was exceptionally meaningful, because of the lessons I learned from the teens.
One after another, the campers – most of whom are actively involved in California Ramah’s Tikvah special needs inclusion program, as Tikvah buddies and as everyday friends of Tikvah campers – raised their hands, eager to talk about how meaningful and even transformational their involvement with Tikvah inclusion has been. “I have learned more from being in camp with kids with disabilities than anywhere else in my life,” one girl said. “I started volunteering all year with special needs peers because of my camp experiences.”
A boy commented, “My parents have sent me to camp from a very young age. But my brother with autism had nowhere Jewish to be until he went to Tikvah. It’s the best thing for him, and for my parents.” And a third participant noted, “Tikvah is great – but it’s also great that other kids with differences are part of our edah (group) and fully integrated in our activities.”
And then the discussion became heated. We talked about social media—an area that all of our teens can comment upon with an expertise that most adults do not possess. I took note of a great deal of ambivalence, as they talked about the advantages of being so readily connected to large circles of friends, and the many downsides as well.
We discussed the power of every individual to publicly shame someone, and the fact that social media makes it easy to do things that one regrets later. Most commented that they were deeply sorry about some things that they had emailed or posted on Facebook, not realizing until later that they were hurting someone and that damage had been done to reputations and friendships.
I was particularly impressed that the teens understood completely the difference between the need for institutional transparency and the issue of privacy concerns when it comes to children. They exhibited an astounding sensitivity to the complications that can arise for educators in camps, schools, and elsewhere, when they make difficult decisions about campers and students and the practical yet painful limits to inclusion.
My take-away from this conversation was that the children, through their own difficult learning experiences online at the advanced age of fifteen, already understood something that perhaps we adults, less experienced in social media, may still need to learn – the accessibility and ease of use of social media is simply no excuse for sharing information or even commenting on specific cases where educational confidentiality should be paramount. There are times when privacy concerns must trump all other considerations. And educators, in service to their professional and personal values, must continue to work hard to keep information about their students and campers offline and out of public forums.
As it happened, one of the adults spending Shabbat at camp who heard my discussion with the Machon campers was Tom Fields-Meyer, a veteran journalist and the author of Following Ezra, a memoir about his autistic son, who is a long-time camper in Ramah’s Tikvah program. “It was clear that this is something these kids all struggle with,” Tom told me afterward. “They live their lives in the social media world, and they know how easy it is to write something that will be read instantaneously by thousands of people. That’s both powerful and very scary. I could see them digesting this very Jewish message – that it’s important to pause first, and consider the consequences.”
I came away from this discussion impressed by the wisdom of our teens and committed more than ever to protecting the privacy of our campers and their families. Discussions around juvenile bullying on Facebook are part of today’s mainstream educational discourse, though no one as yet has any good solutions. I trust that Ramah’s experience will serve the Jewish community as a teachable moment, and will inspire us, as adults, to serve as better role models for our children.
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen is the Director of the National Ramah Commission.