Image credit: Camp Simcha

By Stacy Rosenthal, RJE

At first glance, Camp Simcha looks like any other day camp. Some of the campers are practicing their skills to become “Jedi Masters,” others are folding zucchini into their recipe as they make “hidden vegetable muffins.” No one seems to notice the additional staff as they move seamlessly about the classrooms, occasionally taking a walk through the hallways with individual campers. After a day of visiting the splash pad, participating in field trips and seeing visitors who perform magic or share facts about reptiles, some of the campers get onto a bus which returns them to their homes at the end of the day.

Five years ago, the President of the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC) approached Congregation Beth Israel’s Camp Simcha about partnering with them to send campers with autism to camp. Over the next four years, we continued to collaborate with SARRC to form an inclusive camp for all campers. SARRC provides dozens of hours of training for the staff on topics such as inclusive practice, challenging behavior and techniques for positive interactions (ABA). Throughout the summer, there are weekly consultations and hands on learning experiences which help the staff create a safe, loving and inclusive environment with our campers.
Here are some lessons we have learned:

  1. Programs like this allow us to be ambassadors for Judaism and what we value as Jews (betzelem elohim, welcoming the stranger, etc). These are not Jewish children who are joining us and attending our day camp. Many have had no exposure to the Jewish community and we have the opportunity to build bridges and provide a positive. inclusive experience for all of our campers.
  2. Typical children benefit from the experience too! Children are so much better at this than we are as adults. We, as adults, see obstacles to overcome and the kids are much better at meeting others where they are without judgement or fear. “Micah” drops his fidget? “Emily” knows that it soothes him, picks it up and hands it to him without prompting. I visited a cooking class last week and one of our new campers was having an outburst about not wanting to try a cookie made with carrots and raisins. One of the other campers suggested that she didn’t care for raisins either, but maybe they could try the cookie together. She was able to look past the loud, mournful wail and see what they had in common – both thought raisins were yuck!
  3. In a world where every difference is diagnosed and labeled, our abilities to see the divine spark in each child can become secondary. During the school year, it is necessary to focus on these things to provide the best educational setting where students can learn best. Camp, however, allows everyone to take a deep breath, relax and maximize fun. If done right, we can provide a non-judgmental environment where all kids can just be kids and maybe we can see glimpses of that that is holy.

At the end of the day, kids are kids and camp is everything! We are proud to be able to provide a camp experience where we look past a diagnosis and welcome kids of all abilities into our family.

Stacy Rosenthal, RJE, has served as the Religious School Director at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, Arizona since 2007. This is one of a series of posts on summer camp experiences from the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE).