By Emily Kessler
Often people at camp refer to the “magic” that appears in passing moments or the joy that accompanies the arrival of Shabbat. While Shabbat is a wonderful time at camp to relax and take a deep breath in the midst of the craziness that is Camp Harlam, Shabbat is not as peaceful an experience for some as it may be for others. Shabbat services require patience, an intense amount of quiet time with one’s inner thoughts, and a lot of sitting in one place.
Shabbat was not easy for some of my campers. One camper used a fidget toy or could ask for someone to take a break with during services. When our unit led services, he did best if we created a special role for him; he decided that handing out prayer books would be best, so we teamed up together. No one had ever seen a Saturday morning Shabbat greeting quite like it, and I am sure there will never be one quite like it again. The song we created to pass the time made every person who grabbed a book smile. While the song he and I created was weird, it was embraced.
*to the beat of the batman theme song*
NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA – SHABBAT – SHALOM
NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA – K’FAR – NOAR
Welcoming in the weird is not a new concept at camp. Camp is, by design, intentionally loaded with opportunities for “being weird.” Tan-lines are cool, crying on the last night isn’t wimpy– it’s competitive, and there is a song or a dance for pretty much anything you can dream of. Camp is weird. But there’s a distinction that needs to be made: despite weirdness being accepted, being neurologically different, having physical or emotional special needs, has not always had a place at camp. That’s changing. Welcoming people who live with physical and emotional challenges to camp has become a priority; it mirrors a significant trend that is taking place in schools and communities as well. Camp’s recent efforts towards inclusion are working to change that with the creation of the RUACH (Raising Understanding and Awareness of Campers at Harlam) team, which I participated in this past summer. The RUACH program provides training for selected staff members to care for, solve problems and help create that camp magic more successfully for children who may have physical or emotional special needs, as well as to become certified in Mental Health First Aid.
While camp is making an effort to provide the camp experience to a wider audience than we were previously capable of, campers with physical and/or emotional special needs provide the bunk and larger Camp Harlam community with an opportunity for deeper understanding and acceptance of people with different learning styles, routines, and habits. This summer, the work RUACH staff members (and all staff for that matter) did was hard, but moments like the ones I shared with this incredible camper exhibit how important it is to hold our community to an inclusive standard. I was not this specific camper’s only counselor and he was not my only camper. He had magical moments with each one of his counselors this summer and hopefully taught the rest of his unit a bit about accepting others who are different than themselves (an important lesson to learn before entering their freshmen year of high school). On top of that, he learned to manage his needs better and understand that there are times where the group’s needs come first. Camp’s relationship with campers in need of extra care is not single-sided — it is mutually beneficial. It is an opportunity for us to say, “Yes, and…” instead of shutting people out of our community, as Inclusion Advocate and Comedian Pamela Schuller explains in this video.
Not only were we good for this specific camper, he was good for us. Thank you Camp Harlam and the Foundation for Jewish Camp-Ruderman/Alexander Inclusion Initiative for giving me the training to help him be successful at camp, but more importantly: thank you to my incredibly spirited, thoughtful, and loving camper for being you.
Emily Kessler was a second-year counselor in the summer of 2016 and a member of the RUACH team. She is currently a sophomore at Brandeis University.