In the fall of S’s second grade year, we began the search for a sleep-away camp for our daughter. Given S’s thirst for adventure, sleep-away camp was inevitable… and her desire to try it out was sure to come sooner, rather than later. And so, I found myself surfing around on a number of Jewish camping websites. I felt a mixture of nostalgia, joy and sadness as I did so. Nostalgia for the many, many summers I spent at Jewish camp as a child and young adult. Joy for the opportunity we would soon provide for our daughter. Sadness that Jewish camp would likely be yet another opportunity that we could not provide for our son with autism.
That sadness soon disappeared when I began investigating the website for Camp Ramah in New England. Halfway down the page was a link titled “Campers With Disabilities”. I followed the link and began to read all about the Tikvah program– and Camp Ramah’s commitment to including campers of all abilities in their summer and year-round programs. Within a week, we had signed S up for her first session of camp. Within a month, we found ourselves at our first Tikvah Family Shabbaton- a weekend at camp designed specifically for children with disabilities and their families. Over the past two years, our family has been to three Tikvah Family Shabbatons. We’ve made friends that will stand the test of time. We’ve felt nurtured as a family in a way that we didn’t think was possible. The experience of participating in a Shabbaton that was designed to be inclusive for children with special needs and their families was a revelation to me about how things could be. The experience ignited a desire in me to become a leader at home and advocate for more inclusion at synagogue, Hebrew school, and the greater Jewish community in our area.
Participating in the Shabbaton also brought back strong memories of my own camp experience. I started going to sleep-away camp when I was eight years old. I was a camper for nine summers. I loved camp. I loved how I felt at camp. I loved being in an immersive, Jewish environment for four weeks. I loved Shabbat at camp, the way the entire rhythm changed for twenty-six hours every week. I loved the music, and the dancing, and the proximity to nature. Even as a child, being at camp filled my soul. I have vivid, vivid memories of sitting in “The Grove” at camp for Saturday morning services, looking up at the sun filtering through the branches of the pine trees. To this day, the scent of pine needles is as much the smell of Shabbat as wine and challah.
My feelings about camp intensified when I became a counselor. From the first day of staff training, I felt almost a sense of calling. I volunteered for everything. I showed up on time, raised my hand, threw myself into every activity with my whole heart. At the end of training week, I found out that every unit head had requested to have me on th
eir staff. I was quintessential camp counselor material.
I spent six summers as a counselor. I loved the feeling of graduating from being a participant in the camp experience, to being a creator of the camp experience. I loved being the one telling the stories, directing the plays, leading the songs, building the community. At age twenty-three, I moved on to the real world with a heavy heart, but part of me always remained at camp. I admired the grown-ups who came to camp with their families. It seemed like a beautiful way to spend the summer. I wondered if some day I might have the opportunity to return to camp as a grown-up.
So here I am, twenty years later. I’m the mom of a nine-year-old who thrives at camp as much as I did. Last summer, as we were pulling into camp on drop-off day, that old passion for summer camp was rekindled. I wished I could work at camp as a grown-up. It seemed foolish, at the time. On some level, I knew every parent there was reminiscing about the fun times telling ghost stories around a campfire, or the silly camp pranks played on good-humored friends. It took me a while to acknowledge that my desire ran deeper than that.
I finally bit the bullet, and reached out to the director. Several interviews later, I was offered a job.
It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted something as much as I wanted this job at camp. And now, departure day is just two days away. I’m so, so nervous… but so excited as well.
I get to spend the summer in a beautiful camp, immersed in nature, surrounded by community.
I get to spend the summer with my kids, watching as they learn and grow and develop their Jewish souls.
I get to spend the summer with the melodies of Jewish music, the feel of Jewish dancing, and the rhythm of Jewish ritual.
I get to spend the summer unplugging for Shabbat.
I get to spend the summer in an inclusive environment. I’ll be surrounded by people who feel a sacred obligation to include individuals with disabilities in Jewish life.
AND, I get to spend the summer creating that inclusive environment. I’ll be working with the counselors, helping them to understand the various social and emotional needs of our campers. We’ll adjust and accommodate and figure out how to make every kid a part of the group.
I leave for camp in two days. Part of me worries that I am romanticizing this opportunity. That the reality of camp will not live up to my expectations. It’s possible, I suppose. But it’s also possible that I’ll pick up right where I left off twenty years ago.
I’ve been having this feeling lately that all paths lead me to here. I’m a former counselor who always dreamed of returning to camp as a grown-up. I’m an educator whose career has been moving steadily towards Jewish education. I’m a parent of a child with a disability who has been working towards building inclusive environments, especially in the Jewish world. I’m a Jewish person who has been seeking more connection to my faith. It feels like all these paths are leading me to this place at this time.
So, wish me luck! I’ll keep you posted as the summer progresses….