By Stephen Weitzman
Those are the only words that immediately come to mind to accurately describe all that took place at Camp Chazak, the URJ’s program for children whose social development makes it difficult for them to function in a “typical” camp environment, which is held each year at Eisner and Crane Lake Camps.
Then again, the word exceptional also comes close!
That’s the word that describes the caring and nurturing staff of tireless counselors, led by Eisner Camp’s Assistant Director Marissa Frankel and Psychology Doctoral Student Rachel Schein, who provided almost 1:1 coverage of the Camp Chazak campers each day camp was in session.
Or then again, maybe the word wonderful is the correct descriptive term.
How else do you describe the 12 campers who dressed in white on Erev Shabbat to welcome the Sabbath, who actively participated in Kabbalat Shabbat, Shabbat dinner, Shabbat song session, Shabbat morning T’filah and Havdalah, who conquered their fear of heights on the high ropes course, spent hours in the water swimming, playing, boating and rafting, creatively used different medium in the art shack, sat around the campfire, and who prayed and played with NFTY Northeast Region?
Camp Chazak focused on providing these special needs campers with the opportunity to actively participate in Reform Jewish camping regardless of the challenges or obstacles that have often been put in their way. Regardless of whether they were on the autistic spectrum, had difficulty dressing or with personal hygiene, had down’s syndrome, or had social adjustment issues with their peers, the Camp Chazak participants bonded, became a cohesive group, began to help each other, began to be concerned about each other and began to form camp friendships.
All of Camp Chazak’s campers participated in the day-to-day life of a URJ Camper. Each lived in a bunk, ate camp food, (food allergies not withstanding), participated in hodaot, menucha and nikayon, went from one activity to the next, went to teva, went on a hike, had trip day, sang, danced and experienced the joy of camp.
The more I think about the incredible week I spent as faculty at Camp Chazak, the more energized and enthused I become about all the URJ is doing to meet the needs of Reform Jewish children regardless of their special needs. In meeting these needs our camps take a back seat to no one.
That being said, however, 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 – 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 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 superb as it was – Camp Chazak at Eisner and Crane Lake Camps should only be considered the beginning of the dream to welcome all of our youth to the magic of Reform Jewish camping.
That leads to another thought about another word. This time it’s in Hebrew. That word is sababa!
Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazayk!
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, serves as Chair of the URJ Special Needs Camping Committee and the URJ Congregational Schools Committee, and can’t wait to be part of Camp Chazak again.