We Can Welcome Every Youth

by Stephen Weitzman

Wow!  What a Biennial!

As Chair of the URJ Special Needs Camping Committee I tend to see the things through glasses that say – “All of us have special needs – even if we can’t explain or define them.”  And regardless of our needs we all want to be included and nurtured.

Last week I couldn’t help marveling that we met in Washington, DC – the city of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech; we met and discussed the Torah portion that speaks about Joseph the dreamer; we witnessed the unveiling of the Campaign for Youth Engagement – a campaign that puts the emphasis on the individual – a campaign that puts the emphasis on dignity – puts the emphasis on relationships – and – with respect to my own personal dream – puts an end to limiting assumptions about the inclusion of all youth in our temples and in our camps.

Last Friday morning a very moving and motivating session entitled “Welcoming Every Youth” was held.  The session focused on providing every youth with the opportunity to actively participate in Reform Jewish life regardless of the challenges or obstacles that may be put in their way.

How do we as a Movement deal with our youth regardless of their needs – whether academic or physical – in our temples or our camps?

Alas – the answer is “not as well as we should.”

We do not do it on purpose.  No one sets out to exclude a child from camp or synagogue participation – but because of our preconceived notions about a child’s level of responsibility – or commitment – or because of the configuration of the physical plant – or the cost of updating the facilities – we unintentionally exclude children from the day-to-day operations of our temples – and because at camp we think they are unable to live in a bunk – or get from place to place – or can’t get up the steps to the dining hall – or the bet am – or the art shack – or into a shower stall – etc. we sometimes exclude them as well.

At this time of transition it is time to realistically answer the tough questions – questions that include – In what ways can we include our youth in our day-to-day synagogue operations and increase their participation at our camps? What abilities are we tapping into?  What special needs are we meeting?  What more can we do for campers with special needs?

As Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, Senior Advisor on Disability Issues for the Religious Action Center so deftly put it on Friday, “we need to put people with disabilities first” in everything we do – since each of us – whether we want to admit or not – has one.  Each youth has the potential to participate in the magic of synagogue life and/or URJ camping – for as the Torah points out time and time again – each of us is created “b’tzelem elohim” in the image of God – and as Rabbi Dan Freelander commented during Wednesday night’s Biennial plenary – this notion – that we are all created in the image of God – is strongest among our youth.

As Rabbi Landsberg also pointed out – we need to do away with the very subtle negative attitudes expressed toward individuals with obvious physical challenges.

Other challenges to our youth are not as obvious.  Sam Gelfand – a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome – from Central Synagogue of Nassau County, Rockville Center, NY blew me away with his forthright presentation about having stumbling block after stumbling block put in front of him by both his peers and their parents – because of his condition – and because of his need/desire to feel like a typical teenager – a need/desire that had been ignored by many around him.

Each of us – as Sam so correctly illustrated – has been socially awkward as a teenager.  Each of us – if we’re honest about our teenage years – can remember being nervous with social interactions – and each of us has been a target for bullies.

It is in our camps that Reform Jewish youth can learn to be tolerant – can learn to be patient – and can learn to choose friendships by the type of individual a person is.

In 1997 while serving as President of Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook, NY there was a young man who was fastidious when it came to the building and grounds.  At his Bar Mitzvah service I gave him the key to the building, made him the Vice Building Chair and took lots of negative reactions from adults for it.  The building hasn’t been that clean since he went to college.  He even convinced the custodian to individually clean the memorial plaques with Q-tips.

Another teenager loved writing.  When I asked her to be my teaching assistant she turned me down because she assumed I was going to ask her to spend her time handing out paper and pencils.  Instead I asked her to teach Midrash to my 6th graders.  She put together an incredible 6 part curriculum that we spread over the school year.  She is currently continuing her study of literature at Johns Hopkins University

As a Regional President I insisted that NFTY-NAR be represented on the Greater New York Council.  When I served as regional Youth Chair I included high school students on the committee.

There is no way an adult can get “into the head” of today’s youth.  They are living in a different world than we did.  The only way to understand their thoughts, ideas and emotions is to ask and listen.

While speaking about Joseph’s dreams during his Shabbat morning Torah Study Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the Executive Director of the IMPJ mentioned that the term k’tonet pasim – the term that is used to describe Joseph’s beautiful coat of many colors is a term used by Israelis to refer to the clothes worn by the prisoners in the concentration camps.

He also mentioned that the phrase achai anochi m’vakeish – “I am looking for my brothers” – Joseph’s response to the man he encounters on his way – is used by Israel to describe a trip of 11th graders to Poland to view the camps.

What do these terms have to do with welcoming every youth and making our temples accessible and making URJ camping a reality for every youth?  We can either embrace our youth’s search for the beauty and brotherhood/sisterhood that is available in Reform Judaism or we can wind up disparaging about what might have been.

The more I see and hear about the incredible week(s) our children had at URJ camps – children with and without social adjustment issues – like those at Camp Chazak last summer – the more energized and enthused I become – not only about Camp Chazak – but rather about all that the URJ is doing to meet the needs of all Reform Jewish children including those with special needs.  Our camps take a back seat to no one.

It is not enough, however, and much more needs to be done if we are to truly make Reform Judaism a reality for all of the children of our congregation’s members.  Focusing just on my URJ Camp dream – my dream is to eventually have numerous options available (whether as an inclusive component at each camp; or as a camp within a camp; or as a separate program the week before and/or the week after camp ends; or as a family weekend) so URJ Camping is possible for everyone.

I believe we need to begin to explore options for the construction or continued maintenance of handicap accessible temple or camp buildings and cabins that will not limit the full participation of youth who are physically challenged, (for example those in wheelchairs, those who are blind, those with prosthetic devices, etc.), and as a Movement we all need to make a commitment to explore fund raising options to do so.

As wonderful as they are – Camp Chazak at Eisner and Crane Lake Camps, Camp Neshama at Newman and Mitzvah Corp at Kutz should only be considered the beginning of the dream to welcome all of our youth to the magic of Reform Jewish camping.

To paraphrase a theme song at what is often referred to as “The Magic Kingdom,” turning this vision into a reality will help guarantee that “a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day” is really “only a dream away” for the magic kingdom that is a URJ camp – and for the magic kingdom that is Reform Judaism.

This will enable us to secure the unity of the family by linking all Reform Jewish youth to our people and to our Torah.  It is my belief that this sense of developing relationships to the community will keep our youth connected to the Jewish people.  If our youth are emotionally touched and inspired they will remain connected to Judaism for their entire life.

After all – what is our goal if it is not making Reform Jews?

During his sermon on Saturday morning Rabbi Eric Yoffie stated, “We owe every Jewish child the intense experience of a Jewish camp.”  I would like to expand that to include not only camp but to also include an active Reform Jewish life.  I am convinced that through inclusion, accommodation and participation we can welcome every youth and make the dream a reality.

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik!

Stephen Weitzman served as President of Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook, NY  on three separate occasions, served as President of the URJ Greater New York Council, is currently a member of the URJ North American Board and serves as Chair of the URJ Special Needs Camping Committee and the URJ Congregational Schools Committee.

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2 Responses to “We Can Welcome Every Youth”

  1. avatar

    Kol HaKavod! I could not agree more…

  2. avatar

    I just came across your blog where you mentioned hearing my son, Sam Gelfand, speak at the URJ Biennial. I don’t know how to get in touch with you but if you would please send me a note at my email listed here, I would love to chat with you.
    Thank you – and thank you for listening to and appreciating what my son had to say.
    He really is all that and a bag of (kosher) chips.

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