Why My Blind Son is Returning from Camp Ramah in Canada a Month Early

For the rest of the story, see part two of this post here.

My almost-16 year old blind son, Solomon, was supposed to spend 8 weeks in the second-oldest Aidah (age group) at Camp Ramah in Canada, a Jewish camping program affiliated with the Conservative movement. My wife and I went to visit him and our 12 year old daughter this week. While there, the camp director told us that he was sending Solomon home four weeks early at the session break because “the camp is not able to accommodate Solomon’s needs for the full 8 week session.”

This is Solomon’s fifth year at camp. Sol went for one session each summer for the previous four years, but this year, called the “Magshimim” year, required campers to enroll for the full summer. Solomon was thrilled to go for both sessions. He loves camp, and for the first four summers, it appeared that Ramah loved Solomon and was completely willing to assign extra staff and arrange for some Braille materials so Sol could participate fully in the camp program. There were some rough spots. Camp staff did not always do everything they could have to ensure that Sol had the proper materials and was fully included in every activity, but we were confident that the director was committed to full inclusion, and neither we nor Solomon let the small things bother us very much.

This summer, a new director took the helm just a month before camp started. He didn’t know Solomon and we didn’t know him. Nevertheless, we assumed that the camp’s prior commitment to accessibility and inclusion would be maintained. We were wrong. Part of the Magshimim summer is a five day overnight camping trip. Although the overnight has three tracks for kids of varying levels of fitness and ability, the counselors, Rosh Aidah (unit head), Yoetzet (advisor/parent liaison), and camp director met and decided, without consulting with Solomon or with us, that they didn’t have the staff to accommodate Sol on the camping trip. Further, they also decided that they couldn’t continue to accommodate Sol for the second four weeks of camp. Ultimately, the final decision to remove Solomon from camp rested squarely on the shoulders of the new director, who decided that the camp was not willing to either hire an additional staff member or redirect a small amount of current staff time to helping with Solomon’s special needs.

Among the reason he gave for sending Solomon home early was that Sol takes too long eating his meals and showering, and requires help moving from activity to activity, which he also does very slowly. He also suggested that the Magshimim program requires moving around camp and engaging in camp activities independently, something which is nearly impossible for a blind camper with no vision to do. Note that at no time did the Yoetzet (advisor/parent liaison) bother to contact us regarding these issues. Had she asked, we could have given her some simple solutions for speeding up Sol. Also note that while it is standard procedure to include 15 year old students with special needs in discussions of their public school Individualized Educational Program, the camp held all of these discussions about Solomon without including or consulting with Solomon.

The first thing that Solomon told us when we saw him on the first day of our visit was that he wanted to return to camp next year, and that he would do anything and give up anything, including a possible trip to Israel tailored to blind students, for the opportunity to return to camp for his final summer. Our conversations with the director took place at the end of the second day of our visit, while Solomon was on a one night overnight with 8 other campers, who also had not gone on the 5 day overnight. We told the director that he had to tell Solomon why he was being sent home from camp early and why he would not be given the opportunity to return to camp at all the following year.

On the final morning of our visit, we sat in the director’s office as Solomon heard the news from the director. Solomon was brilliant. After saying that he was heartbroken at hearing such totally unexpected news, he saw through the holes in the director’s flimsy explanation of why he needed to go home and asked the same question that Marisa and I had asked the night before: “The camping trip is over – what is happening in the second four weeks that would be difficult for me to participate in?” There was no real answer to that question. The director’s explanation boiled down to a statement that the camp is not willing to devote the resources to continuing to include Solomon fully in the program. During our conversation the previous evening, I had challenged the director’s lack of commitment to inclusion – he kept using the language of “not able to fully accommodate Solomon’s needs,” and I got him to admit that the honest answer was that the camp is no longer willing to fully accommodate Solomon’s needs. Solomon knew immediately that it was a case of “not willing to,” rather than a case of “not able to.”

I should note at this point that the Camp Ramah system, consisting of nine camps, has a special needs program called “Tikvah.” Each camp specializes in a subset of special needs, such as ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Disorders, learning, emotional, and developmental disabilities, neurological impairments, and physical challenges. Solomon, while blind, does not fit into any of these categories. He attends a public college preparatory high school and with minor modifications, completes the regular curriculum.

The major part of my Jewish identity was formed at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I loved Camp Ramah, and because of that my children went to Ramah. This director has betrayed the values of the Jewish camp that I love. The Conservative movement is on record supporting accessibility and inclusion in our institutions. Camp Ramah in Canada is now on record stating that if you have a physical disability and need greater support than the “typical” camper, they will not devote the resources to fully include you in their camp program. You might say that this is not true – they devoted the resources to giving Sol a terrific half summer, it’s just that asking them to accommodate him for the full summer is expecting too much. To this, I say ask Solomon if being the only camper asked to leave camp early, not being able to participate in the full overnight or in the second half of the program, not being able to celebrate the final banquet with his friends, is enough. You can guess what the answer is – being half way included is not enough.

After that painful meeting, sitting in the dining hall with Solomon eating breakfast, I watched the campers sing and dance to a contemporary version of a teaching of Rabbi Akiva:

“Love your neighbor as yourself – This is the fundamental principal of Torah.”

If I didn’t laugh, I would have started crying again. The camp can sing and dance all they want about loving one’s neighbor, but until and unless they back up the words with action, Camp Ramah in Canada will be a place that Rabbi Akiva would be ashamed to be associated with.

For the rest of the story, see part two of this post here.


“Special” needs?

What is is that they say about the children in Lake Wobegon?  “… where all the children are above average.” Of course, when every child is special then no child is special, and that’s the way it is supposed to be.  At this past weekend’s CRUSY kinnus at Beth El in Pittsburgh, every child was warmly received and brought into the program.  There were no special needs.  There was only a conscious effort to provide everything that was needed to make the program fully inclusive and accessible.
This post is my periodic plea to congregations to consider what it takes to be accessible to a blind person who happens to walk through your door on Shabbat.  It doesn’t take much.  This year, Beth El’s inclusion committee decided to purchase a set of the Braille volumes of Sim Shalom and Torah.  They actually only needed to acquire five of the nine volumes of the siddur in order to satisfy the needs of a regular Kabbalat Shabbat, Shaharit, Minha, and weekday morning.  Knowing that they were hosting the kinnus, they also purchased the volume of Torah and the haftarah for that specific Shabbat. All of this is easily available from the Jewish Braille Institute.
When my son Solomon arrived at kinnus, he was not special.  He dovened just like everybody else, with his Braille siddur.  He went up to the Bima and led Torah service.  It was no big deal.  He just participated in leading a part of the service, something that a couple dozen USY’ers did over the course of the weekend.
However, it was a big deal to his father who was standing in the back of the sanctuary with tears running down his cheeks, because at that moment his son was not special. Like thousands of youth before him, he was given the honor and privilege of participating in a Shabbat with his USY friends.
One day, Solomon might show up at your synagogue.  When he does, are you going to make him feel ‘special’ by requiring him to bring his own very bulky set of books, or are you going to make him feel like a part of the congregation by giving him a book, just as you will undoubtedly do for every other person who walks in?
For more detailed information on how to order a standard Shabbat set of Braille volumes, contact me at Rabbi@AhavasIsraelGR.org.