by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi

Will today's generation of Jewish children continue to stay Jewish in the future? What can we, as a community, do to help? According to the most recent formal study, there are approximately 50,000 Jewish children under the age of 18 in the Greater Washington area. Of those kids, 3,000 go to Jewish preschools, 12,000 go to congregational religious schools, 3,000 go to Jewish day school and 6,000 are in Jewish youth groups. Obviously some of them go to more than one of those things. But if you add all these numbers up, you quickly see that at least half of local our Jewish children simply opt out.

According to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, nationally there are 700,000 Jewish children who are camp age. Of those, 70,000 go to one of the 150 nonprofit overnight Jewish camps around the country. That means that 90 percent do not.

Yet attendance at Jewish summer camp, like trips to Israel and participation in Jewish day school and/or religious school, is linked to a lifetime of Jewish involvement. Indeed, many of today's most prominent and generous Jewish leaders attribute their desire to lead to their earlier summer camp experiences.

It is vital to find and fund means of keeping the next generation of Jews engaged and involved.

Some kids aren't involved because they or their parents don't want to be inside the tent. Others, including children with financial challenges or special needs, often don't get involved because the Jewish community is not yet financially, physically or emotionally accessible to them. Thus, it is important to shine a light on some good examples for others to follow. One of them is Capital Camps, a highly successful Federation and locally supported and celebrated institution.

Capital Camps is a fun and safe place for kids. In most cases you don't have to push kids to attend it, the joy of the people and the place pulls them in. It also is an inclusive community. Its goal is to offer Jewish camping to any child or adult who wishes to participate, thus providing equal access to all campers. This includes campers with special needs and campers from families experiencing financial difficulties. As a pluralistic Jewish environment, it celebrates Judaism in many different, yet meaningful, ways, each one designed to respect the individual needs of its campers, while promoting strong Jewish identity and literacy. It has a bright, warm and international staff, as well as one of the nicest facilities of any Jewish nonprofit camp in the country.

As more than 5 percent of children overall in America have special needs (and Jewish camping is only attracting 10 percent of Jewish kids nationally at this point) it is vital not only for moral reasons, but also for Jewish survival, that camps don't shut out children with disabilities. Doing so sends a message to a family that one of its members isn't welcome in the Jewish community. And when that message is sent, many families with a child with special needs don't just walk away from the Jewish community - they run.

Capital Camps demonstrates its commitment to individuals with special needs by operating a successful program for children with developmental disabilities, physical limitations and/or health-related issues. By mainstreaming these individuals, it also provides a valuable opportunity for the entire community to experience integration and acceptance.

However, the camp is still serving only a tiny number of Jewish children with disabilities or financial needs compared to the large demand.

Meaningful inclusion can keep entire Jewish families inside our tent for the long run. That is critical for Jewish survival. But in the short term, an investment of treasure and talent must be made.

Most Jewish camps, like many Jewish institutions, were built before the 1991 ADA laws came into place and are not nearly fully handicapped accessible (if at all). The costs to make the Capital Camps ADA compliant were built into the original construction costs of Capital Camps during 2003-2004. The only grant the camp has received to date with regard to ADA compliance was a $65,000 grant in 2006 from the state of Pennsylvania for paving paths throughout the camp. That grant permitted the entire camp to show respect and opportunity for children and adults in wheelchairs, as it features paved paths, ramps and handicapped accessible bathrooms - something that exists in very few Jewish or non-Jewish American camps. Each year Capital Camps spends $68,000 on its direct services for people with disabilities (mostly for additional professional staff). It also spends $500,000 on scholarships and discounts so that finance doesn't cause a barrier to Jewish participation. They, like many other wonderful institutions, need more support.

Rich or poor, fully abled or somewhat disabled, there is a warm and enriching place for Jewish children at Capital Camps. For children whose disabilities are more "involved", there are also specialty camps around the country. Thanks to a special tour organized by the Foundation for Jewish Camping and the Jewish Funders Network, I was recently highly fortunate to tour eight of those camps. The true success stories for children include:

  • Camp Ramah (www.campramahne.org/prospective-families/special-needs-campers) serves campers with a wide range of special needs, including (but not limited to) cognitive impairments, autism, cerebral palsy and seizure disorders.
  • Round Lake (www.roundlakecamp.org) for children with learning differences and social communication disorders.
  • Camp Nesher (www.campnesher.org) which mainstreams boys and girls who are developmentally disabled. It has accessible bunks on each campus.
  • HASC (Hebrew Academy For Special Children) (http://www.hasc.net/camp) provides highly supported educational and clinical services to individuals from infancy through adulthood, who exhibit developmental delays.

Of all of the camps, I was especially struck by HASC as many of the children there not only are in wheelchairs, they also have feeding tubes/issues, or are quadriplegic, or nonverbal, or have severe cerebral palsy or other challenging issues that require a large highly competent and devoted medical staff. Some of the children look profoundly "different" because of their disabilities and, sadly, they have likely suffered the humiliation of odd stares since they were born. But not at HASC! Run by highly religious Jews who see a spark of God in every child, the staff looks straight past the disabilities of the children and into their souls. I have never seen a place where children with so many profound challenges experience so much joy. It's a wonderful place to be.

Jewish institutions all have a long way to go to be fully inclusive - of interfaith families, gay families, families who need financial support or who have disabilities. However, there is a place at camp for almost every Jew. To find out more about Jewish camping go to www.jewishcamp.org.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the founder and president of www.laszlostrategies.com.

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