This morning I read a father’s blog post that broke my heart (http://embodiedtorah.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/why-my-blind-son-is-returning-from-camp-ramah-in-canada-a-month-early/). The author’s son, Sol is in his fifth summer as a camper at Camp Ramah in Canada and was told that he would have to leave Camp after 1st session despite being enrolled for the entire summer. Why? In short, because Sol is blind and the camp’s new director was unwilling to accommodate his special needs (Please see the blog post for the entire story).
Words are inadequate to describe what a shanda this is. Camp is an unparalleled place for forming Jewish identities and building Jewish identities. What kind of lesson was this director seeking to impart to Sol and to his fellow campers by placing this stumbling block before him? Certainly not any Jewish value I am aware of.
I have spent my career promoting Jewish camping because, thankfully, my experience as a camper, counselor and Rabbi have been summers of inclusion, not exclusion, of building Jewish souls, not breaking them down. I remember camp as a place of community and belonging for all.
Perhaps one of my most powerful camp experiences occurred when I was a counselor at URJ Olin Sang-Ruby Camp. One of my first time campers, Jeff, was a wheelchair bound paraplegic. Rather than questioning if we could accommodate him in a standard bunk, the camp director, Jerry Kaye, simply set about doing whatever was necessary to make it so. My co-counselor and I needed to learn a lot to support Jeff that session, but it was all worth it. Our entire bunk had one of the most amazing summers, and Jeff was a big part of it.
Louis Bordman, the director of URJ Eisner Camp (where my children have been going for the past 12 years and where I have had the privilege to serve as faculty) speaks of camp as a “bubble”. Under the bubble, campers are set apart from the outside world and able to envelope themselves in a community based on Jewish values; a community of inclusion, mutual support, growth, independence and safety. Eisner campers have taken the Bubble on as their precious legacy, seeking to make it as real as Louis’ vision. They feel safe inside the bubble, they feel cared for inside the bubble and they feel Jewish inside the bubble. More importantly, they take the bubble with them when they leave camp, bringing its lessons to a world deeply in need of its values of inclusion, community and living our Jewish teachings.
What is true at Eisner, is true for every great Jewish Summer camp. Each one has its own “Bubble”; each one has its own responsibility for imparting the highest values and ideals of our Judaism in such a way that that bubble follows their campers into the outside world as a vision of what can be and what should be. That is why the bubble matters. Because it is what camp is about and, more importantly, it is why camp matters.
What is most sad about Sol’s story is that in the case of him and his fellow campers, their camp’s bubble was burst. Caring, community and Jewish values were made absent in a critical moment. I pray, that upon further reflection, it is a bubble that can and will be repaired.
An update from Sol’s father’s blog: “2:45, Thursday, July 19. The camp has changed its position and is working on adjusting staffing so that Solomon can stay at camp. We do not know yet if Solomon will stay – there are further conversations to be had with the director and several staff members. I’ll post an update later tonight or tomorrow, after we reach a decision.”
Whatever the family’s decision, I’m glad that bringing this into the open has caused the camp to reflect on its decision, hopefully not just in this case, but for all campers now and in the future.