Guest blogger: Rachel Dubowe, a special needs educator from Los Angeles, California. Rachel is also the Onsite Coordinator for the Mitzvah Corps program at Kutz Camp, a Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) camp in Warwick, New York.
For the past five summers, I have had the honor of working for the Mitzvah Corps program at URJ Kutz Camp. Mitzvah Corps is a special needs camping program for teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The program’s mission is to honor the unique characteristics of every camper and provide access to Jewish camping by creating individualized accommodations and modifications that allow every camper to succeed. So when my camp and I heard that National Ramah invited the URJ Camps to their Spring Leadership Training Conference training at Ramah Darom, we saw it as a great opportunity to collaborate with a different camp movement whose mission closely aligned with our own.
While the world of special needs camping is currently expanding, it can still feel quite small. It is easy to get lost inside the bubble of your own camp and movement. The weeklong training at Ramah Darom burst my bubble. I walked away with the knowledge that there were camping communities out there doing similar programs to Mitzvah Corps. This newfound knowledge was a shock to my system. A beautiful and much needed shock.
We often think of special needs camping in terms of the impact it has on the campers, but the experience of working with people with disabilities can be profound for counselors too. Mitzvah Corps has had a significant impact on who I am today. It informed my choice of college major–I have a B.S. in Human Development for the University of California-Davis–and spurred me down my current professional path. (I work as a Hebrew school educator for kids with disabilities.) It was wonderful to be surrounded by similarly like-minded and dedicated staff members during my time at Ramah Darom, all of whom understand the importance of Jewish camping. We would never dare turn away a camper because of their specific needs.
With this shared commitment to special needs camping, we spent the week exchanging resources, ideas, and strategies for better serving our campers’ needs. Together, the Ramah Camps and URJ Camps will change the face of special needs camping. These two movements are dedicated to spreading the joy of camp. I witnessed this collaboration firsthand at Ramah Darom.
Leviticus 19:14 states, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” There will be no insults or blocks placed before anyone attending a Ramah or URJ Camp this summer. Rather, every camper, with or without disabilities, will be encouraged and supported in all aspects of the camp community. So as I embark on my sixth summer of working for Mitzvah Corps, I do so with a sense of newfound inspiration and collaboration.
I end this post with gratitude. Todah Rabah, National Ramah. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the greater world of special needs camping. Thank you for inviting the URJ Camps to participate and collaborate. And above all, thank you for ensuring that camp is a community that welcomes everyone.
Training for the National Ramah Tikvah Network is supported by the Neshamot Fund of UJA-Federation of New York and the 2013 Ramah Israel Bike Ride and Hiking Trip. Additional funding from the Ruderman Family Foundation will facilitate planning and discussion around new developments in vocational education programs that will take place at four Ramah camps this summer.