Special needs campers make first trip to Israel

Special needs campers make first trip to Israel

 Five teenagers from Round Lake join with their peers overseas

Since 1920, children in the New York-New Jersey area have had the opportunity for an immersive outdoor Jewish summer experience at NJY Camps.

(NJY Camps originally were called the Felix Fuld Camps of the New Jersey Federation of Young Men’s Hebrew Association and Young Women’s Hebrew Association; it is perhaps not surprising that the name was shortened.)

Today, NJY is one of the largest Jewish overnight camping organizations, offering a variety of programs for 5,500 kids in Milford and Lakewood, Pennsylvania, every summer.

This year, five teenagers made history as the pilot participants in Inclusive Israel, a four-week trip created by NJY Camps’ Round Lake inclusion program. That program enrolls about 140 7- to 17-year-old campers with special needs every summer.

Inclusive Israel campers Jack Silverman and Noah Fishman are at the Yotvata ice cream factory.

The 15- and 16-year-olds in this pilot group traveled together with 100 neurotypical peers in NJY’s long-running nondenominational TAC Israel, as the teen camp’s Israel trip is called. It’s organized in partnership with the JCC Association of North America. NJY hired four additional dedicated staff, led by Esther Staum Katz, NJY’s director of organizational development and formerly director of special needs.

NJY Camps CEO Michael Schlank said, “I think I speak for all of the staff and board leadership when I say it’s very important for us to live the value of inclusion, not just say it. Although Round Lake campers were included in our regular Teen Camp, there was no program for them in Israel.

“That wasn’t truly inclusive, so we committed to inclusion in a meaningful way.”

Mr. Schlank said he’d been discussing the possibility with Round Lake’s director, Aryn Barer, since he began his work at the camp three years ago, but covid prevented its earlier implementation.

“Last summer, we said, ‘Let’s plan it,’ and Aryn did the work,” Mr. Schlank said. “She and her team created an itinerary that, whenever possible, allows the Round Lakers to do everything their neurotypical peers do, with support.

Ray Vaysman and Leora Stern hike with group leader Jessica Wajner.

“As a pilot program, we started with five teens so that we could make sure we are successful before we open it up to more.”

“There was a lot of intentionality that went into this trip,” Ms. Barer said. “The first thing we did was find funders to cover the additional cost for campers, and we worked with camper families to identify who was a good fit for the program.”

Mr. Schlank said the additional cost per camper was substantial, from $2,500 to $3,000. “When we scale up, it will likely become more affordable,” he said. “We want to remove the ‘disability tax’ so that cost will not be an impediment to a family wanting to do this.”

The philanthropies that made that goal possible were the Steven and Beverly Rubenstein Foundation of West Palm Beach and Morris County and the Cherna Moskowitz and Irving Moskowitz foundations of Miami.

Leora Stern stands at the Kotel.

With financial equity achieved, Ms. Barer worked with JCCA to create an itinerary.

“We decided it was not going to be about not doing certain activities but about thinking ahead and preparing our participants to do the same things, stay in the same hotels, and travel in the same buses as their peers,” she said.

Ms. Katz, a veteran educator who has been with NJY Camps since 1996 and speaks fluent Hebrew, said the July 13 to August 10 trip proved a positive experience, despite the unfamiliar foreign terrain.

“For our kids, transitions and changes are difficult, and routine is important,” she said. “But some of the most positive feedback from kids was about things they were worried to do but they felt supported enough to try — and even to fail — because it was a safe enough environment.”

The five participants even developed new skills that they would not have had to develop in a familiar setting, she added. “In a new place, it’s easier to reimagine yourself and try new things.”

Alex Komarovsky, right, is with a friend from TAC Israel Teen Camp.

For example, as all TAC Israel campers must do, Inclusive Israel travelers learned to calculate the shekel-to-dollar equivalent. And they had to be more independent because in the Israeli hotels, unlike in camp bunks, the counselors did not share their rooms.

Ms. Katz said she will always remember when one Inclusive Israel participant got on a camel and asked her to send her mom a picture “because she’s not going to believe it.”

Nor will she forget how another camper was determined to climb up Masada at sunrise despite having foot blisters from the previous day of hiking.

“This epitomized their willingness to take a risk and try something new,” Ms. Katz said. “That for me encapsulated what this was about. We had to adapt a bit, but there were very few things our kids could not do.

“The hope is that the travel program helps them get skills they can generalize and use outside the camp environment.”

Ray Vaysman rides a camel with counselor Candela Benitez.

She also found that when accommodations were made for the five Round Lakers, everyone benefited; for example, designating a staff member to remain with participants who fell behind the rest of the group as they made their way through an outdoor market or alongside a meandering stream.

“Whatever you do for kids with special needs becomes helpful for everyone else,” Ms. Katz said.

“We learned a tremendous amount, and based on our experience this year, there is no reason we should not and will not continue this program.”

Indeed, parents of special-needs teens in the area already are inquiring about next year’s program options. Potential participants who are over 18 can apply to the new Shirvan Family Tzevet B’Yachad Staff Training Program.

NJY Camps is part of the Jewish Community Center movement. The camps maintain a Jewish atmosphere including Jewish cultural activities, kosher meals, and Shabbat services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.

“If you want children to be connected to their Judaism from a belonging point of view, let them live a joyous Judaism in an environment that is accepting of who they are,” Ms. Katz said. “The spirit soars in camp and gives them an opportunity to connect to their heritage and bonds us together.”

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