Just a little more than 48 hours ago, I was told that my blind son Solomon needed to come home on Sunday. It was a decision made by the director of Camp Ramah in Canada in consultation with a number of staff members.
A few minutes ago, Solomon told us that he is coming home on Sunday. This time, it is his decision. In the past 48 hours, a number of remarkable things happened.
First of all, I’d like to reiterate the fact that for the past five seasons, Solomon has been under the care of some remarkable counselors, teachers, waterfront staff, and other professionals at Camp Ramah in Canada. He has been supported, taught, and guided with care and love.
Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances and extremely poor communication, the tremendously painful events described in part one of this post occurred earlier this week. The response to my article was for the most part supportive and helpful. I am grateful for all who commented on the blog, reposted on facebook and/or commented there, and otherwise spread the word. At the same time, my 12 year old daughter Sarah started a petition drive at Ramah to support Solomon, collecting 240 signatures. Other staff members approached the director offering to take a larger role in helping out Sol. The result was that the director experienced a complete change of heart regarding how he handled the matter. He called and expressed a sincere apology, to Solomon, to me, and to my wife. He took a second look at how staff could be assigned for the second month. He assigned one more person to be Sol’s advocate, and at my request, assigned a new parent liaison, Hillel Kurlandsky, to be Sol’s Yoetz, advisor/social worker.
Marisa and I were satisfied that the director sincerely realized that he had made a serious mistake, and took all of the necessary steps to correct it. At this point, the final decision of whether to stay for the rest of the summer was Solomon’s. Given all of the emotional upheaval that had occurred, we were not 100% sure that Solomon would still want to stay at camp. Sol and Hillel had two lengthy conversations, each more than an hour in length. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall. Hillel reported that Sol was remarkably mature and clear in his analysis of why he should stay — primarily, because so many people had worked so hard to reverse the decision of the camp — and why he should not stay. Of course, I wish Sol would have chosen to stay, but given what he’s been through, I understand why he has made the decision to come home.
I don’t know if he still wants to go back to camp next year. I don’t know if we can or should try to convince the camp to make allowances in a program designed to train counselors and other support staff, to accommodate a camper who currently does not have the ability to function as a counselor in training or a helper in most areas of camp. I’m sure that if the camp was willing and if Solomon was committed to it, we could find an area in which he could contribute meaningfully. I think we need to take a step away from questions about camp right now, and come back to it in a couple of months after the strong emotions have faded somewhat.
In the end, I want you to know that I still believe in the Camp Ramah experience, and I think I can rebuild my love for Camp Ramah in Canada. This unfortunate episode appears to be the result of a chaotic transition to new leadership; a new director, Ron Polster, who blundered quite badly. Ron, I want to thank you for acknowledging your mistakes. We are all entitled to make mistakes, as long as we learn from them and make appropriate apologies to those we harm along the way.
To those dedicated Ramah staff who I have hurt in the past 48 hours, I apologize. I am sorry for the damage I have done to the reputation of Camp Ramah in Canada by bringing this event into the light of public scrutiny. I did so only because I thought it was the only way that I could effect change.
Why My Blind Son is Coming Home on Sunday, part 2
Just a little more than 48 hours ago, I was told that my blind son Solomon needed to come home on Sunday. It was a decision made by the director of Camp Ramah in Canada in consultation with a number of staff members.
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I am very impressed by your whole family’s maturity in this situation. However, I am still saddened by how much public scrutiny it took to get the camp, and Ron in particular to rectify the situation. It makes me wonder whether his “change of heart” came about because he realized he had made a mistake or because he was feeling immense public pressure to ‘save his own butt’. Clearly if it had only been a matter of clarifying Sol’s needs, a conversation and maybe 1 page of written directives would have aided him trying to keep Sol at camp to begin with rather than finding reasons why he should have to leave. This raises a huge flag regarding how Ron and the camp’s administration deals with difficult situations.
I give Sol major credit for his decision to come home on his terms. I wouldn’t want to stay somewhere knowing I wasn’t wanted there either. You should be very proud of your son. I hope he chooses an even greater experience like going to Israel next summer.
-Andrea, OT, M.S.W.
I have been reading these comments and thinking about social media. I understand why people use social media to get their point heard. I realize Rabbi that you felt that you needed to quickly make your voice heard and to reach the right people to undo the damage that had been done to your son.
Unfortunately, the anger and vile which your message unearthed in people, renders its message pointless. Instead of becoming a story about the particular situation, which happened to your son, it has become a forum for chastising many, most of them well intentioned. Some of them who make mistakes.
It needs to be remembered that when you send your child to summer camp, for the most part, you are sending them to be cared for by teenagers. Yes, those teenagers may have some training, but there comes a point where they cannot handle every child that comes to them.
I too have a special needs child, and I chose to send her to a Jewish special needs camp. I knew that the counsellors were a bit older and that their focus was on what my child needs. My child is hard to deal with, not impossible but draining, but I do not expect a teenager, many of them just out of the role of “chanich” themselves to be able to do what I struggle with day in and day out.
I wonder in situations such as these, when a blog degenerates into so much vilification of an individual and an institution, whether the writer, long down the road, looks back and says, I wish I had found another way to deal with this.
Paula Simons’ comment pn Facebook
I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t do as a parent. I wouldn’t embarrass my son by posting this story on line with all the names of the people involved, including his. As a newspaper columnist, I often struggle with incorporating family anecdotes into my column while still protecting the privacy of my nearest and dearest. But I endeavour never to use my column to settle personal scores. I understand why this father is angry. We all want to protect our children. And I’m sure in this case, where the son has a disability, that urge to protect is especially strong. But it would surely have been more respectful of the son and his privacy not to launder all this dirty linen in public. Is this about protecting the best interests of the child? Or about using the blog as a tool to exact public revenge? For parents – and I’m guilty of this too – who see their children as extensions of their selves, a perceived attack on a child is seen as an attack on the parent and a blow to the parent’s ego. When people approach me at the paper and want me to write pieces about terrible unjust things that have allegedly happened to their children, I always ask them – and myself – how will publishing this make the kid’s life better?
The Canadian Jewish News just posted a story on all of this: http://www.cjnews.com/?q=node/91486
Talk, talk, talk. Jewish values, this, Jewish values that. Shanda for the goyim versus need to know. Bottom line here is that a camp threw out a camper in the middle of the summer because he was blind. Camp Ramah Canada smells so bad it stunk up my house in Los Angeles when I opened the window this morning. No number of words can put this Humpty Dumpty back together again or unring the bell. And some innocent brave kid has to pay such a high price.
David, Thank you so much for sharing your story. Your families experience with the camp and feeling for the Ramah movement really resonate with me. There i Ramah camping experience is indeed unique and special. I moved to New York City with hopes and dreams of raising my children with a Jewish education and experience that was not available to me growing up in southern CO. However as my oldest child entered a pre-kindergarten program at a local day school, we started to notice that behaviours that were being dismissed as age appropriate were lingering and intensifying. By the end of the year, he was not welcome back and not a single day school was willing to accommodate him. He was later diagnosed with ADHD. After 1st grade I decided to enroll him in Ramah Nyack. I worked with the camp pyschologist on a behaviour plan and the summer seemed very manageable. Most of all, I had never seen my child so happy and enthusiastic about Judaism! I enrolled him for the following summer as well! I spoke with the same psychologist before camp and we talked about implementing a targeted plan if necessary. The summer went so smoothly! I never heard a word from staff and a smiling tired child returned nightly. Then on the last day there was a very unfortunate event. I won’t go into all of the details, but it involved my son and two other boys ruining some artwork other children had made that day. I was more upset about it than the camp staff. We agreed it was too bad since it had been an uneventful summer and Ivan would not have the opportunity to apologize to the children. Once again, as soon as registration opened up for the following year, I sent in my form and check. I received a call from the Director. She told me that she was concerned that it may not work out as the last year had been very difficult. I said I was surprised since the only time I was made aware of any problem was the last day. She said that the counselors had a very hard time with Ivan throughout the summer. I told her that the first year we had worked on a behaviour plan and we should have done that again. Her response was that that they expect children that age to behave appropriately. First of all, he had just turned 8. Many children need positive behaviour interventions at that age, particularly children with ADHD. She said me she would take him, but asked if she could send him home if they experienced problems with him. This is one of those conversations where you are so stunned that you don’t even realize what was actually said until about 20 minutes later, and then the devastation sets in. I ended up calling her and saying thank you but no thank you. I decided to put Ivan in a clinical program that summer. He hated me and told me I put him in summer school. My plan was to have him ready to go up to the Berkshires the following summer in the Breira B’Ramah program that includes children with ADHD and high functioning Autism. Now, you have to understand that my son has made tremendous progress, he has gone from an inclusion special education class with his own full-time paraprofessional to a district-wide gifted and talented program with minimal supports and services, he does not even have a behaviour intervention plan at school. Things did not work out so well. Ivan can have a low frustration tolerance, particularly late in the day, very common in kids with ADHD. So when there was conflict with another child, the counselors where overwhelmed. The director of the breira program is very lovely and was committed to helping my son while he was there. She said the staff did have training when I questioned the training. However I don’t think it was adequate as evidenced by there lack of familiarity with signs and symptoms of ADHD as well as inability to proactively intervene early. I know it is not a clinical program and the counselors are kids. However, if I can teach my babysitters and hebrew school staff how to work with Ivan, I think its an achievable goal. If Ramah is going to offer a program that is disability specific, they should be more adequately prepared. While they would take him back, I fear the experience may not be a good one. Overall, given the impact the camp has on the lives of Jewish children and families, I hope critics can understand why we want our children to be included. Every morning I watch my neighbors put their cute little girls on a bus headed for Nyack and remember how much my son loved it there. I know their Tikvah program that serves autistic children is quite successful. I hope the philanthropy community will provide the camp with additional funds to strengthen there other programs and facilities so ALL children can have the Ramah experience.
First, I applaud you for raising this issue. It is not easy to do and to those of you who attack you, I ask them what they would do if you were in your shoes. The saddest part of this is that better communication could have avoided this whole issue but I am grateful that Ramah Canada’s new director has seen the light and I hope this never happens again. On a personal note, I would like to give special attention to Rabbi Loren Sykes who is the Camp Ramah Wisconsin director who when he was at Camp Remah Darom was instrumental in setting up Camp Yofi where our family could participate in a Jewish camp experience. He and Camp Ramah Darom are examples of true understanding. Shabbat Shalom
Statement from the National Ramah Commission
Our moral and religious compass supports inclusion of all members of our community, regardless of their personal challenges or exceptionalities. Ramah has always prioritized the value of inclusion, and continues to be a pioneer in this area with new programs and initiatives. It is our belief that all Jewish institutions including schools, synagogues and summer camps need to emphasize this value within our communities.
However, each individual’s situation is unique and unfortunately, there are times when the importance of inclusion conflicts with the circumstances of a particular camper, staff member, or the rest of the camp community. Decisions in such cases are taken very seriously and discussed directly only with those involved. We at Ramah cannot comment publicly on this or any other individual case due to concerns of privacy.
We understand the sadness and pain these conflicts can create. However, we find it unfortunate that one perspective, however well-intended, has created the false impression of injustice or anything other than caring staff and leaders charged with supporting many people safely.
We appreciate the notes of concern and support we have received from those who have read about the recent situation at Camp Ramah in Canada. To those who have reacted to one blog post with harsh conclusions, without firsthand knowledge of the situation, we would hope that you can understand that sensitive matters like this one are often more complex than presented. Public reactions by those with limited knowledge can be dangerous and hurtful, particularly to those dedicated staff members who work so hard to care for our children.
Camp Ramah in Canada and Ramah camps throughout North America have an outstanding record of inclusion. We have been accommodating children with special needs, educating the entire camp community (and beyond) about the boundless gifts of difference, and have been raising needed funding to extend our program to children with exceptionalities for decades.
The Ramah Camping Movement will continue to nurture inclusive Jewish communities that embrace the value of difference.
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Director
Sheldon L. Disenhouse, President
National Ramah Commission of The Jewish Theological Seminary
I am happy that Ramah claims to prioritize the value of inclusion. Very much so. I am also thrilled to see programs such as Tikvah thrive at Ramah. I also sympathize with their concerns of privacy.
Would it be too much, however, to present a public statement of apology? Dr. Polster managed to do this in private, but the camp cannot publicly admit error? “We understand the sadness and pain” is not exactly “We’re sorry,” not even remotely close. They cannot say, publicly, that they will strive to improve? Whose privacy, exactly, is violated by such a statement?
Let’s not pretend that Rabbi Cohen can’t comment at all; after all, the 3rd paragraph is a veiled attack on Rabbi Krishef (I’d like an explanation as to how Rabbi Cohen can assert that Rabbi Kirshef created a “false impression of injustice” without even attempting to back up that assertion), and the 4th paragraph not only references the case and the blog, but appears to attack the notion that it’s public at all — even though, as events unfolded, it became plainly evident why the publicity was both appropriate and necessary.
To read the letter, would have one believe that Ramah is already perfect when it comes to inclusion, need apologize to no one, and is entitled to conduct all its affairs with no publicity whatsoever. It is, in a word, the very definition of entrenched.
Dr. Polster made a mistake, and to his credit he has worked to correct it (as best he can) and learn from it.
But as a Ramah advocate, former camper and staff member, andparent, I am very disappointed with the official statement. They appear to have learned nothing. Rabbi Cohen does not represent my views.
Rabbi, you have apologized for the wrong thing. You should be apologizing for only presenting half a story/a story with major missing pieces in order to affect change. Telling a partial truth to get what you want is not justified.
Sorry Rachel, I will not apologize for the way I presented the story. What I wrote was the whole truth.
To anyone who may be uncomfortable about the negative press Camp Ramah Canada received based on the first post, PLEASE share the second one with your networks!!! The world is filled with stories about disappointment and heartbreak. We need more stories about resolutions and learning how to work with difference and disability. Blessings to Sol & family as well as the camp.
As someone who was very critical of your post yesterday I appreciate your apology to Camp Ramah and the thanks you gave to the staff, if you only you had acted as maturely from the start the camp’s reputation wouldn’t have been dragged through the mud!
See Rabbi Avi Friedman’s response for what happened why he tried to handle it behind the scenes. I was not going to let that happen to my son.
I am so thrilled that things turned for the better. I am sorry that Sol had such a huge adult experience at such a young age, when he should be having fun.
I’m not sure if you saw my post from part one, but there is definetly some senesiteity training at the bare minimum; ie walk mlle in my shoes. These things should be manditory for anyone working with special needs people ( children or not).
You have nothing to be sorry for Rabbi. We don’t our mistakes and move them from camp to camp to make more mistakes and on and on. We stop it from the beginning child first always. I wish you and your family a Shabat Shalom.
Reblogged this on Under a Tree in Oconomowoc and commented:
As a follow up to yesterday’s post on Camp Ramah in Canada, I was happy to see pt. which transformed this story of shame into a story of a directors tshuvah, a community’s support and a son’s empowerment.
Like David, I am a Conservative rabbi and I happen to have a son with special needs. So, I was particularly touched by this story.
I worked at two different Camp Ramahs during rabbinical school and my daughter was a camper at a third. It was at that third Camp Ramah that my son had an experience very similar to Sol’s. I tried to handle it behind the scenes in the hopes that we could find a way for my son to enjoy the Ramah experience that had been so important to our family. However, I got absolutely NOWHERE with that approach. I applaud David for taking advantage of social media to get Ramah’s attention. Sometimes, in the middle of a camp summer, it’s hard to remember that there is whole world outside of camp. David reminded them that what happens in camp has implications beyond the boundaries of camp.
I will also add that as parents, we are all hurt and angry when our children are excluded for one reason or another. However, that pain multiplies exponentially when it is a child with special needs. I can’t explain it, but there is a difference between the way I respond to my son being mistreated as opposed to my three other typically-developing children. So, kol hakavod, David! You used the most modern technology at your disposal to teach an important lesson as all good teachers must do.
Thank you for showing your strength as a father first in supporting your son and a Rabbi in trying to fight an injustice not just for Sol, but for those who will follow him. I appreciate, as well, the camp director’s sincere reflection, apology and repair work. We can’t ask for more Jewishly. It is beautiful how this story of shame has become a story of a directors tshuvah, a community’s support and a son’s empowerment. Thank you for sharing and making a difference.
While I’m very sorry that your family and Sol had to experience such a profoundly disappointing situation, I think the way you and in turn, the public’s response is a shining example of how diologue can create positive change.
For those who cry “Loshon horah”, that is simply not the case. And to try to convince you that you should be ashamed for speaking out in what was nothing more than the truth (and respectfully put at that!), is really a form of bullying. No one should be bullied into keeping quiet. You shared a real experience, YOUR experience, and with good cause. The result was posiitive and educational on many levels.
No doubt, Sol, above all, will benefit from what he has gained from this learning experience, even if he is hurting now.
Wishing you all the best,
Rabbi Krishef, I want to thank you for sharing your story via social media – not only have you hopefully affected change, but you’ve also done so much to generate awareness. I am a woman in my early 30s. I don’t work with children, nor have any of my own. Issues of inclusion and accommodation like this one are very far off my radar screen. Now that I’ve read Solomon’s story, I can and will be more thoughtful about events and opportunities I organize can be more open and inclusive for all. Kol hakavod.
I have read both of your blog postings and they have broken my heart. As a parent of a 29 year old son with autism, I know from harsh experience how it feels when those who you thought should be your allies in providing your child with experiences comparable to their fully abled peers – whether it be educational or recreational – turn out to be your adversaries; more concerned with guarding their resources and not setting precedents than meeting the needs of these children. As it is, our children bear far too much of a burden born of their disabilities. When others add to that burden by denying them the opportunities to participate – in their own way – in so many of the same activities engaged in by their peers without disabilities, it makes us want to scream and shout. So we fight the system in any way we can. After all, someone has to be on the side of our children.
As you have discovered, there are times when such advocacy works. You need not apologize to anyone for part 1 of this blog post. If you had not written and published it, and linked it to Facebook, no positive changes would have been effected. Your camp director would never have been encouraged to re-evaluate your son’s situation and propose the changes necessary to make it possible for him to remain in camp. YOU made that happen, along with your daughter and her courageous petition campaign in the camp. It is just a shame that it took such a public exposure to open the hearts of those responsible for creating a positive Jewish summer experience for children. The image with which you closed the first part of this blog post says it all – the hypocrisy of a camp in which the campers sing of the teachings of Hillel but in which the administration blatantly fails to live up to those principles.
As I was saddened by the first part of this blog posting, so was I saddened by the second. The very fact that your son, when given the opportunity to remain in the camp that he so dearly loves, decides to go home instead, is a painful testimony to the great damage that has been done; something that is not simply repaired by an apology forced by public opposition. But I am also saddened by the fact that you felt the need to apologize for speaking truth to power. I, like yourself, am a rabbi. As such I know the complexities of the “political” aspects of our role on an everyday basis. We have to live amicably with our congregations and with our movements – mine is Reform. But when the political considerations of our lives force us to have to publicly apologize for standing up for our children in the face of injustice and abuse, there is something fundamentally wrong. In the end, you are NOT the one responsible for tarnishing the image of the Camp Ramah system. The camp itself is responsible for that – the director and all the staff who contributed and supported his decision, as well as those who oversee the greater camp system who permitted this injustice to take place. They are the ones who have tarnished the reputation of the camp and they are the ones who will be responsible for doing whatever it takes to reclaim that reputation. Hopefully, they will take a serious look at how they can make their camp far more inclusive and welcoming for young people with various disabilities.
I would love to wish you a Shabbat Shalom but I know how hard it is to embrace that sense of shalom when you are hurting because your children are hurting. But I do pray that this Shabbat will bring you, your family, and all concerned, a start to the healing process.
Rabbi Henry Jay Karp
Please don’t apologize! You were not rude, or unkind, or malicious in your post. You simply and truthfully outlined your experiences. If that reflected negatively on camp Ramah and the director there they have no one to blame but themselves. I’m heartened to learn that so many people stood with Sol and insisted that a jewish camp experience must be an inclusive one. I am thinking of your family and praying that you find full healing of spirit and resolve after this trying experience.
I think that this situation is very unfortunate, but that there are several lessons that needed to be learned, and based on what you’ve posted I think they have been. The camp director made an egregious error in his original decision, and I think that your decision to go public with it was probably the best you could do about it at the time. I am thrilled to hear that he has admitted his mistake, and taken the steps needed to rectify it to the best of his ability under the circumstances. I’m not going to go so far as to praise him for doing what needed to be done to accomodate your son, because he should have been doing it already. But he also shouldn’t be villified for his mistake, because it sounds like he is genuinely sorry for it and has shown it through his actions.
I totally understand Sol’s decision to not stay at camp – I’ve had to make similar dicisions for myself before, and it’s always unfortunate when that happens. It shouldn’t have come to this point, but the fact that it ultimately was his decision is the important thing here, and I know he’ll grow stronger for it. Hopefully you, he and the camp can work together over the winter to work up a program for him that will allow him to not only attend Ramah next summer, but thrive there – he clearly has many things that he can teach them, just as they are teaching him.
Finally, regarding the whole public discussion, I think the most important thing about it is that it happened at all. While I understand that there is a desire to not air dirty laundry in public, for far too long this social more has kept things like this incident isolated, allowing things like it to happen over and over again without any way to prevent it from recurring. By having this discussion in a respectful manner (which I think you, and the vast majority of the posters here, have done) hopefully this will allow the dialogue to continue and prevent this from happening again at Ramah or anywhere else. Your son, regardless of his disability, is clearly a very mature and capable individual who has shown excellent character and sechel in response to adversity. He has shown the qualities we should be encouraging in everyone, regardless of age, and hopefully the light shed on this incident will help other people with those same qualities but who have physical disabilities be able to attend nurturing programs like Ramah and thrive as well.
I wish you, your family, and Camp Ramah all the best, and hope that this incident continues to yield many more positives than negatives in the future.
The Director should of been fired/and those who advised and agree with this decision. I am appalled that Camp Ramah would allow him to stay and make allow his excuses. As someone with a physical disabilities I attened Camp Ramah in Glen Spey NY before the legislation was even thought about. the camp went out of their was to accommodate me and made sure I had a good summer. There are many people who are blind who attend mainstream camp (and your son attends a mainstream school) there should be no reason why your son was discriminated against in such a terrible way. I wish your son, and family all the mazel and support that you all deserve.
I am approving this comment, because I have decided to allow all comments go through unless they are patently obscene and/or offensive. However, I very much disagree with the position that Ron should be fired. He made a bad decision. He reversed his decision. As long as he does not make the same mistake twice, he should be allowed to learn and grow from his errors.
Reblogged this on MIscellaneous Soup and commented:
The second part of this story.
Also, just as a brief response to the person who spoke about finding ways for our schools and camps to better serve people with special needs: I agree, but part of the problem is that we haven’t made our schools and camps a priority. Indeed Jewish education is IMO, towards the bottom of our priorities. While we spend money on trendy programs,singles events, more holocaust museums,and frankly, birthright, which seems to show a small bump in support of Israel, but offers no such bump in Jewish engagement, our schools and camps go wanting. If our communities decided to make schools and camps a priority, we would be much better able to support a wider variety of students with a wider variety of needs. It saddens me that so many Jews give to secular causes that could easily be supported by others, and our schools and camps struggle to make ends meet.
I hope that perhaps another of the Ramah camps might consider reaching out to you for next year – it would be a shame for Sol’s last experience at Ramah to be this negative one.
Quite a few years ago my son, who has disabilities was verbally tormented at camp(not Ramah, Surprise Lake) . This escalated after camp ended with a series on internet communications in which the other camper pretended to be my son and set up prnographis and cruel discussions with another child. When my son revealed this to me, I printed out all the communications, sent them via registered mail to the parents of the boy who so hurt my son and requested sincere apology and some discussion. They never responed although I know they received the packet. I communicated with the camp director who also ignored the situation It breaks my heat that difficult situations are handeled so poorly in environments where we so trust the leadership. My now adult son was hurt but than G-d was able to put this behind him and learn from it. I am still angry and sad.
There is no need for you to apologize, you acted in the best interest of your son, the Conservative movement, Judaism in general and all humanity. People with disabilities should not be tossed aside as a bother. The last place this should happen is at a Jewish camp that is instilling Jewish values into our youth.
You should never apologize for telling the truth. The situation needed to be addressed, and by doing it publicly you helped Ramah to become a better place and more accountable.
I was a CIT for Sol’s edah in 2008, his first summer at Ramah. While I didn’t get to work with Sol that much, him just being at camp and trying to do the same things as everyone else inspired me to do the best job I could as a CIT and was one of the reasons why I chose to come back on staff in 2010 (even though I was on agam staff). While I was also laid off after one month because the camp was “overstaffed”, I find it hard to believe that the camp didn’t consider the resources they would require for Sol before Ron was hired as director. Also, shortly before I went to camp as a staff member, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which my university considers a “medical disability”. I don’t like to call it a “disability”, but it does interfere in my daily life sometimes and I have “mobility issues” when I have a flare up where it is hard for me walk. I know what it’s like to feel different from everyone, feel like no one your age understands what you’re going through, and to want to be treated like everyone else (even though Crohn’s and blindness are two completely different things), which I’m sure is something that Sol wants more than anything.
I was also really upset with how Ramah kept using the camping trip as an excuse as to why he couldn’t stay. I didn’t go on either my Magshimim or Alonim camping trips after I caught pneumonia on my Nachshonim trip and almost passed out in the middle of a portage because I couldn’t breathe. Now that I have Crohn’s, I can’t go on another camping trip (like the ones Ramah offers) due to a restricted diet, inability to predict when the disease will flare up and risk of dehydration. I do, however, think it was nice that he was still able to go on a one night camping trip with all the other kids that didn’t go on their respective camping trips, as I was never given that opportunity.
While I respect Sol’s decision, camp is going to be a different place without him there (even if I’m not there to see it). I hope that camp will do more to accommodate campers with disabilities that do not belong in the Tikvah program from now on. As a former camper and former staff member, I would like to know that if I have children who inherit my disease and if I send them to Ramah, that their needs will be accommodated and that they will not be treated differently by fellow campers and staff because of a disease that cannot always be controlled. I hope Sol enjoys his last Shabbat at Ramah and that he will enjoy the rest of his summer and the many summers to come.
What is truly sad is the message this sends to the other campers. I hope Sol finds something fun and rewarding to do for the remainder of the summer.
Thank you for bringing this issue into the open. I, like many others, love Ramah, and want to see the movement’s continued growth and success. There are many children who are differently-abled who will benefit from your actions. There are many more typically abled adults and children who will learn the importance of compassion and acceptance of those who are different from themselves because of Solomon’s story. It is very often those people who do not fit the typical mold that teach us life’s most important lessons. Thank you to Solomon for being one of those teachers!
My heart broke in reading both posts. The fact is that it is very hard to meet the needs of people with special needs…but we as a community must do it. Sadly, this case at Ramah is not the only case where a Jewish child had a horrible experience because the system isn’t set up yet to be fully inclusive. This same thing also happens in Jewish Day schools and beyond. Please see this:
The Jewish Week: Needed: A National Strategy For Including Jews With Special Needs
At a recent seminar for nonprofit leaders, I heard one who oversees some 40 Catholic schools in Australia tell of a boy with Tourette Syndrome who, in the midst of a school assembly, stood up and screamed a string of obscenities. When the child finished, the school’s director rose to address the students. “We have just heard from Johnny,” he said gently, “and he is a valued member of our community.” Not a single child chuckled or made the boy feel anything other than welcomed. Full inclusion.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether the head of a Jewish school — or any Jewish organization — would have reacted with the same equanimity.
According to the U.S. Census, one in five Americans has a disability and one in 10 Americans has a severe disability. As there are some genetic and environmental differences between Jews and the general population, Jews may be even more at risk for some disabilities, in part because Jews tend to give birth when they are older, compared to the general population. Yet the larger Jewish community has failed to adequately recognize that welcoming and serving those with disabilities is not only the right thing to do, it’s essential to Jewish survival.
Our tradition offers ample precedent for including people with disabilities from Moses’ speech impediment to Jacob’s limp.
Despite that history, the Jewish community is only beginning to take disability issues seriously. We need to do more, in the same way we are tackling civil rights issues such as fully including women and gays, even though the issue of disability is especially complicated for us. Jews often prize achievement above inclusion.
Of course, talk is easier than action. Including people with disabilities can be infinitely complex: a child with physical challenges has very different needs than a child with intellectual challenges or a bright child who happens to have dyslexia or autism. And it can somehow be easier to help someone who is blind or in a wheelchair because you can see his or her challenge. But the challenges of those facing mental health issues or autism spectrum disorders are just as real.
The Jewish community needs a national strategy to serve and include people with disabilities. One model to consider is the public school system, which by law must offer services to children with a full range of challenges. In some cases, zoned neighborhood schools can meet their needs. But when children have deeper issues, special private and public schools often do the job. Even the biggest education budgets do not assume that every school can accommodate every child. The social contract is that every system needs to be able to accommodate every child.
That should be the Jewish community’s approach.
Some Jewish schools, synagogues, camps and youth groups can meet the needs of children with special needs while keeping them alongside their typical peers. But the reality is that only major Jewish population centers can afford to offer a full range of services to meet the needs of children whose more significant special needs require increased professionalized talents and resources.
And for all the advantages of including special-needs children with typical peers, there are also benefits to having enough kids with differences at a school or camp that they can support each other. Just as Jews require 10 people for a prayer minyan, a group of 10 or more children with a range of special needs within a school can create a cohort of compassion, a safe space to learn together.
Still, due to the intense needs, public and special-needs schools are often a better option for Jewish children with special needs than Jewish day schools. That makes after-school and weekend programs important components in fostering ongoing Jewish learning and relationships and setting the stage for inclusion.
Some models are already emerging. Exciting work on this issue is being done in Boston by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and globally by the Jewish Funders Network; both organizations are supported by the Ruderman Family Foundation. And the Jewish camping movement is doing important work in this area.
Given scarcity of resources and demographic realities, it’s not realistic to make every Jewish institution fully inclusive of every kind of different ability. But creating central policy and focus can help create change. Local communities, too, needs strategies in sync with national efforts. The time is now to pull all efforts together into a national system that makes sense for Jewish dignity, respect and survival.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the founder and president of laszlostrategies.com in Washington, D.C. She is a proud parent who knows the challenges of raising a Jewish child with special needs.
Published By The Jewish Week.
Shame on you! I have followed this story for the past two days and must tell you how disappointed I am in you. I am a parent of both campers and staff at Camp Ramah in Canada. It is a wonderful and magical place that has taught our children so much about living as a Jew. Though I sympathize with you and what your family has gone through i think your public posting of this issue is shameful. As a Rabbi, you should understand how wrong is it to air our dirty laundry. Did you exhaust every other avenue before you made this so public? I think not! Did you reflect on the damage you may do to the people and to this wonderful institution that has cared for and nurtured your children and mine for so many years? It is too little, too late to now post a follow up. It may make you feel good about yourself but the damage you have done to the Camp Ramah in Canada and to the people who work so hard to make it a magical place for our kids will be felt for years to come. I know that Camp Ramah in Canada has been so incredibly helpful to Solomon and others with special needs in the past. To turn on them and disregard all that they have done for you goes against all the Jewish values that Camp Ramah has taught our kids. As we welcome in Shabbat, I think you should sit back and reflect on what you have done. I hope you learn from this. Like I said, shame on you! A rabbi should know better.
I agree that Ramah is a wonderful and magical place. Before you condemn me for “airing dirty laundry in public,” consider the timing of the sequence of events. We were not told that there were problems until Tuesday night. Although discussions had taken place the week before, and some issues were apparently ongoing since the beginning of the summer, the camp never contacted us. On Wednesday morning, Sol was told that he needed to leave camp in 4 days, on Sunday. Shortly after that, we got in the car for our 9 hour drive home, arriving at about 7:30 p.m.
Consider how much time I had to take action, before Shabbat began – 2 days. Wednesday night, Thursday, and Friday, to somehow convince the director to reconsider. What other avenues would you have suggested? The director of the camp had already refused to consider any other option. The Board of Directors of the camp are not listed on the web site. If I had sent private notes appealing for help to a few people, would I have gotten a strong, immediate response? It’s summer – many people are away on vacation. Would contacting just a few people have made them feel the urgency of the situation, urgent enough to call me early Thursday morning, after already having talked to the director? Would the director have felt enough pressure to take immediate action?
Maybe I could have sent a note only to my private Rabbi network, and not posted on Facebook or Twitter. But this is my son, and if I delayed too long it would have been too late. I figured I had about 15 hours to get the decision reversed, and still leave enough time for us to make sure that we were satisfied that Sol would be protected. So I used the shotgun approach, and blasted out my message as loudly as I could.
Yes, I thought about the damage that such a note could cause Ramah. I also thought about the damage that had already been done to my son. I did not disregard all of the things that they have done for Sol – but to ignore what they were doing would undermine a significant Jewish value as well.
Therefore, I wrote my article, and if I was going to publicly call Ramah Canada on the carpet for a serious mistake they made, I was not going to do it anonymously. I signed my name. I take responsibility for what I wrote. When the incident was resolved by the camp reversing its position, I publicly accepted Ron’s sincere apology.
In the course of the past two days, I have read many stories of similar acts of discrimination by our camps, educational institutions, and synagogues. One of the blessings of social media is the power to shine a light on injustice and in doing so, effect needed change in our institutions. I feel no shame for doing this.
David, don’t spend to much time defending your actions to someone who is too cowardly to even leave a name. I am glad the camp did the right thing, too bad it was done to late to allow your son to feel comfortable to remain for the rest of the summer.
People should not leave anonymous posts, particularly when they are dismissive or critical. If you cannot put your name on this, then don’t post. Karen LIbman
Seriously, that attitude is one that allows all manner of evil things to occur in the name of keeping it internal. If the the director of the camp can’t see Solomon as a someone worthy of putting in the energy to make his camping experience work (something that has been done in the past) and then wait without consultation to spring the “your kid has to go” at the last minute it was clear there was an attempt at covering it up. Perhaps the director needs a lesson on what B’tzelem Elohim means. How easy was it for the people who made the decision to just reject Solomon as if he were not worth their time and do it in a way that left little or no recourse but public pressure. As a parent of a child at the camp you should be just as outraged. Lecturing Rabbi Krishef on Jewish values when the camp didn’t show any is laughable, The Talmud teaches us the Seal of God is truth, hiding the truth to protect those who are treating human beings as second class citizens is not God’s work. Garnering support for a incident like this actually is good for Ramah and the movement in the long run. It gave the camp director and others a chance to learn, grow and come back to the ideals the camp has been known for. In our community how quickly will the story have taken on a different direction and perhaps next year the singing would be a little quieter, the camp a little emptier and the future a little bleaker because this Rabbi didn’t reach out to take a stand for what most of us believe in.
Dear Anon…. what is the wonderful and magical lesson in telling a family that their blind son has to leave camp and cannot finish the summer out as he planned and they paid for? How is that not a public statement of intolerance and or, at best, ignorance? There is no damage done by Rabbi’s sharing of information. The damage was done here by the camp administration that made a decision in failing to work with these parents and maintain open lines of communication. For you to accuse Rabbi of wrongdoing by bringing the light of day on a very dark choice is mindboggling. So, in your mind, is it better to keep these actions hidden and “private”ly discriminate against the disabled? Is that what it means to live as a Jew? I think not. I suspect that it is the Camp that will learn from this. I suspect it is the kids. I only hope the lesson learned is that all Jews are valued and valuable, not that we leave the ones behind who require a little more work and support or make them uncomfortable enough that at the end of the day they choose to leave because they no longer feel they belong or want to be there. Rabbi never expressed anything but appreciation for the staff and for the other campers. To be honest, responses like yours, which fail to acknowledge the damage done to this beautiful child and his family, and instead focus on protecting the institution which caused the harm, regardless of the good that may have otherwise been done by the camp, are the ones that are shameful in my humble opinion.
Anon, if anyone needs to apologize here, it’s you. I am redirecting your words back to you: “As we welcome in Shabbat, I think you should sit back and reflect on what you have done.” This family did nothing wrong- stop protecting the one who did. Thankfully this camp director has apologized for his enormous error to the satisfaction of the family. Unfortunately, it has left the boy at the center of all of this too uncomfortable to stay at the camp he previously adored, as planned. Give us some credit- we are able to forgive those who apologize sincerely and take steps to correct their errors. Maybe this is something that you have difficulty doing??
David and Marisa – you did the right thing by taking your personal plight to the public. Ron seems to have done the right thing, but only after public pressure. Camp Ramah’s National Commission should recognize the mistake and make it a public mission that it shall not happen again. This is the basis for a case study on Jewish education, Jewish (and non jewish) summer camps and on Inclusion. We can all learn. May your drive home on Sunday from Canada to Grand Rapids be filled with joy and conversation.
Stop apologizing. You did not at any point imply there was something wrong with the entire Ramah system, only that at one camp dealing with a director transition there was a issue with your son who was a long term camper. Problems like this can happen to anyone, any kid, any family for any number of reasons. You shone a light on the issue and you got the support, both in the community and the camp, that you needed to impact the situation in a positive way.
Take a page from Hillel on this one: If not now, when?
You did good.
What a wonderful way to usher in the month of Av. There really is hope. Hodesh tov & Shabbat shalom.
David, I think you and Marisa did exactly the right thing for your son and other children. In the process, you also reminded the wider Jewish community that inclusion requires effort. —
I have children at Ramah in the Berkshires, have worked at the Nyack camp. Many years ago I even worked at Ramah Ojai as a teenaged counselor. Ramah has come a long way but isn’t perfect as you well know. Clearly the camp has much to still work on. Please don’t regret posting your feelings and experience online. It is only through your email that many of us now realize this to be an issue needing discussion and solution. Sol can’t be the only blind or otherwise physically limited youngster wanting a supportive and rich Ramah camp experience who will benefit from your efforts to effect change. I only wish that Sol didn’t have his summer camp end so abruptly. Despite the rallying of support in 11th hour, an incomplete and abrupt end still leaves a sour note. What a mature young man you are raising! I applaud his strength of character to go through this experience with his head held high. Unfortunately, he has learned that sometimes people just don’t “get it” until they are smacked hard in the face. The camp will forever be better off for this experience only IF they use it to examine their mistakes to effect change. No Jewish camp should ever single out any person for being “different”. History has done this enough to the Jewish people and we, of all folks, should know better! The fact that Sol was not a new camper shows that the administration didn’t do it’s homework prior to the summer. Sol’s issues were not suddenly put in front of them…and just as you ought to have expected, they needed to have a plan ahead of time. Let’s hope that next year’s preparations, for each of the Camp Ramah locations will be better! It’s time Ramah do some research by talking to other successful programs and holding honest discussions that include parents and specialized educators. Write a letter to the head of all the Camp Ramah’s, if you haven’t already done so. Offer to be on a committee this year to help write policies and action plans for actual inclusion of all campers and different-abled staff. You have already begun the process of effecting change but it will take an experienced parent like you to see that it gets put into real action. In the meantime, I hope that Sol can have some fun and less intensity in the remaining weeks of summer.
I agree with comment #1 and I am sure that bringing it to the public forum is indeed what brought about the change. Wishing Sol a happy remainder of the summer.
You were in the right to comment to the public, do not apologize for protecting your son! He is an incredible guy and deserves to be treated correctly.
I do hope that this only helps in building the camps overall respect for each and every camper. It has been an issue in the past for many campers and I hope that this is taken as a lesson for Camp Ramah.
It is great that the camp apologized, I do though hope they take true action on their words. Time will tell.
To those who looked at the Camp Ramah website and asked us if the picture of the blind boy on it is our son: Yes, that is our son and I did not know that picture was even on there! Thanks for bringing that to our attention and thanks again for all of the support. Marisa
Sol has something to teach everyone. Thank you for sharing this whole experience. It’s given me several things to think about and learn from.
I have been thinking about your first post all day…. I love Ramah. I love everything it stands for. I have been a Ramah camper, counselor, rosh hinukh and yoetzet. I was deeply saddened by how ramah Canada dealt with Sol – but here is my most current thoughts… I went to the Ramah website to see who is the current director- I know Ron. I worked with him at Ramah Berkshires. I believe Ramah Canada made a mistake. I believe Sol suffered an injustice that goes against the Jewish values that Ramah lovingly and passionately teaches – but Ron is not a bad person… A monster … Or a heartless soul. He had to make a decision that he felt affected his whole camp. He was looking at the big picture- Please, again understand, what happened was wrong. I forwarded your blog on my Facebook page because I was so enraged and sad- but as I read the comments tonight posted on your blog, I grew even sadder. I appreciate your follow up blog – and letting everyone know that you have spoken with Ron in a positive way…
I want Ramah to be accountable. I want Ramah to experience heshbon hanefesh – but Ron was doing his job… Not Perfectly…and maybe in this moment not well… Knowing Ron as a compassionate man I don’t believe he intentionally set out to Hirt your son or family. – as you said, everyone is entitled to make mistakes! Kol Hakavod to the Ramah success stories of inclusion. And Kol HaKavod to you a father who made a difficult choice to go public in a challenging situation to be an advocate for your son. Sol is a lucky guy… Rabbi Faith Cantor
I also read yesterday’s posts with very mixed emotions. I was very sorry to hear about the treatment of your family and the way in which this specific Ramah camp has not lived up to a mission of inclusion, especially when this was a case of not just not having the resources to accommodate your son, but rather the withdrawal of support that had already been in place this summer and summer’s past to make Sol’s time at camp successful, safe and meaningful. My mixed feelings were due to the fact that I know Ron Polster, the new director. I worked as a counselor for several years under him as Asst. Director at Ramah Berkshires. Like Faith I know him to be a good, compassionate man, a true mensch, one who loves Camp, loves Ramah and loves the campers and staff. I am sorry that this unfortunate situation arouse during the first months of his tenure as the new director. I am sure there are countless complexities in the transition as a new director, especially when replacing such a beloved one, that we can not know. I am sorry this all occurred. I am glad that SOl was given the option to remain at camp, and I wish Ron much luck as he continues this job.
I am hapy that peopel chage there hearts becuase it was way too sad and Solomon is way too nice and kind and that realy mae me sad and hurt in side for him and I think he can see beter than people who can see becuase he can see in his heart . I know it hurt his heart and he is the same as any one ..so now I am hapy they found they was wrong , becuase they was not seeing right. but now I am hapy they are seeing .becuase Solomon not able see with his eyes but he see with his heart and soul. I will hope he feel beter soon .
I am very glad that the camp director has apologized and seems to have learned from this experience, and I believe everyone who was involved in this story, or merely heard about it, has also learned something. Even though Solomon ultimately chose not to remain at camp, I believe this will become a positive memory for him and your family.
Take a look into camp sabra. They have allowed disability staff to work in a program. It’s just a matter of coming up with the curriculum to make Sol experience and be a counselor. But yes it can be done.
I just heard about your story today and felt ashamed as a former counselor working in camps for over 10 years that they would allow this to happen. I’m glad to hear the director honored his mistake, and hopefully will make abprogram that Not only Sol can do but others as well.
I have just read this ‘Part 2’ and feel some sense of peace after doing so……. having had my mind mulling it over all day. It is healthy for all concerned to take a step back and let the dust settle …. as well as they can under the circumstances. These things can be forgiven, but are usually hard to forget, try as we may. Lessons were learned in Canada by the camp administration, and it is to be hoped they open the way for continued improvement there. One positive is that it has been addressed promptly by all involved. Let us hope any wounds to Sol’s heart heal swiftly and leave no lasting pain.
You write: “I am sorry for the damage I have done to the reputation of Camp Ramah in Canada by bringing this event into the light of public scrutiny. I did so only because I thought it was the only way that I could effect change.” As one father to another, OUR KIDS COME FIRST! You did the right thing. It’s never a good idea to mess with a system that works. Camp Ramah in Canada was a good system under Michael Wolf’s leadership. This change at the top seems to have brought about the “chaotic transition” that you mention above. Through the power of social media, the camp could have used Solomon as an shining example of how it’s willing to accommodate campers who aren’t a good fit for the Tikvah program, but still require extra attention from the staff. Instead, social media was used as a negative disruption. I’m glad that Ron Polster has apologized and tried to rectify the situation. I’m also certain that Solomon made a mature decision and one that is right for him. Kol Hakavod for what you did for the sake of your son. I think Camp Ramah in Canada will be sure to keep every “michshol” away from the “eever” in the future.
Thank you to all who left such kind and thoughtful comments on the previous blog post about our son Sol. It was never our intention to bash Camp Ramah in Canada, only to use this forum to bring about a change in the situation. I am eternally grateful to all of the Staff and Campers at Camp Ramah in Canada who have shown such dedication, caring, and love to Sol and our other 2 children who attended camp there over the past 5 years. By no means are their beautiful deeds overlooked. It takes a village to raise a child….I think all Moms know this, esp. Moms with special needs children! Thank you all again for being an amazing ‘village’!