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What It’s All About – Lessons from the FJC Leaders Assembly

Elana Naftalin-Kelman

Elana Naftalin-Kelman

Guest blogger: Elana Naftalin-Kelman is the Tikvah Director at Camp Ramah in California and the Founder and Executive Director of Rosh Pina, an organization that supports Jewish institutions of all types to become more inclusive of people with disabilities.

I was beaming with Ramah pride as I learned from and shared with camp professionals during the Foundation for Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly last week.

I was inspired by the many voices around the table, I was moved by the wide variety of camps that were represented, and I was encouraged by the number of people talking about inclusion.

Everyone wanted to think together about how to increase the opportunities for inclusion of children with disabilities at their camps.

Leaders Assembly 2014

(L-R) Elana Naftalin-Kelman; Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Ramah Director; Howard Blas, Ramah New England Tikvah Director; and Jay Ruderman, Ruderman Family Foundation President, at Leaders Assembly 2014

Because of the generosity of the Ruderman Family Foundation, there were multiple opportunities for camp professionals to learn, think, and talk about inclusion. In session after session, they were engaged in thoughtful and meaningful conversations about this issue.

But it wasn’t until the last morning that I had my “aha”moment, my moment where once again I was inspired to do the work we do at Camp Ramah.

I was listening to the keynote address given by Alexis Kashar, who is an amazing speaker, advocate, and lawyer. She also happens to be deaf.  She was talking about her experience at summer camp, and what made it successful.  For her, friends and flexibility were the two things that made her experience the joy of summer camp as all other kids do. She described how her friends took care of her and each other; they were her buddies; they kept an eye on her and made sure she didn’t miss out on any of the fun.  And the staff were flexible in their scheduling and in programming, which allowed her to have access to a greater variety of activities.  And she said, “I wasn’t made to feel different.”

And it hit me – this is what it’s all about.  It’s not about programming, staffing, extra funding, or building of ramps (although those things help).  It’s about how we treat each other and how we interact with each other. Alexis felt included because she had a friend, and because the camp staff was thoughtful and flexible.  Not because she had braille on every sign, or a shadow to show her where to go.

She had people who believed in her and believed in her ability and right to enjoy everything we all love about camp: staying up late laughing with friends, learning new songs and singing them at the top of our lungs, diving off the diving board, and so much more.

And this is something we all can do.  Without approval by a board and without raising more money, we can train our camp staff, model inclusive behavior, and change camp culture to believe that all types of people should be and deserve to be members of the magical place we call camp.  And I am honored to be doing it with my talented, thoughtful colleagues at Ramah.    

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