Monthly Archives: June 2016

Inclusion: A Chessboard or an Open Tent?

ResnickI am so inspired and enthused that Sigal and Haley chose the topic of inclusion—one of the core Jewish values that has driven me in my work as director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires—as the theme for this edition of Kesharim. I want to share my thoughts on this very important, very Jewish, and very “Camp” subject.

Many people have heard me compare Camp to a chessboard.  Camp, like the game of chess, has rules.  In order to function as it is supposed to, we must operate within the framework of those rules.  Nonetheless, inclusion, at its core, is by no means necessarily contrary to “the rules” of Camp.

I’ve always known, and know now with even more conviction, that we cannot accept everyone who applies to Camp. While Camp may not be the right fit for every Jewish child at every stage of life, we must nonetheless aim to be as inclusive as possible, in order to achieve our mission, which states that CRB has a commitment to inclusion. I have always worked hard to have as many parents as possible make the choice to send their children to Camp and subsequently, to meet the needs of all our campers. We invest time and energy to work with families, and sometimes their care teams, to help every child feel comfortable as a Ramahnik.

CRB is proud to be one of the first Jewish camps to have a fully integrative program where campers live in bunks with the support of additional, specially trained bunk counselors. The idea, driven by our commitment to inclusivity, is simple. Children in Breira are not singled out.

We recognize nonetheless that Breira may still not be the right fit for every camper who is in need of extra support. After our Breira director spends time with a child and the child’s parents, we decide together if CRB is an appropriate environment for the child.  When necessary, we have guided families to other Jewish camps that may better serve the child’s needs. The Ramah Tikvah programs often provide the right setting. At the core of our mission is the intention to make every summer experience a transformative Jewish experience. If we think that we cannot provide that for a family, it is our obligation to try to facilitate a better match for that child so that each and every Jewish child can experience Judaism in that way.

I have always felt a sense of pride that I run a camp in which inclusion is a priority. Camp is a place where every child can explore, take risks, grow and become the best version of themselves.  I am proud that we work to include as many children in this transformative Jewish experience as possible.

I welcome conversations on this topic and any others related to Camp. Please feel comfortable sharing your thoughts with me.

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Pinat Ha’Seifer: Bring Books to Camp

kamensAlthough Noah Kamens had his Bar Mitzvah in March 2015, his Bar Mitzvah project was delayed. This summer Camp is helping launch Noah’s Bar Mitzvah project: Bring Books to Camp. As an avid reader, Noah noticed that Camp’s sifriyah (library) has a very limited selection of books written in English. Many campers love to read, too. Therefore, Noah has set out to create an English library corner in thesifriyah and in Beit BreiraPinat Ha’Seifer. Each side of Camp will have an ample supply of novels and non-fiction reading for all to share.
In order to get a large diverse supply of books, Noah is asking each camper to bring at least 2 books, on their reading level, that can be shared and enjoyed by other campers. Each camper should remember to select books and deposit them in the special bins at the Camp bus stops. Noah and Camp will take care of the rest!
Thank you for making this project a reality!
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Breira B’Ramah

Leslie Tubul

Breira B’Ramah is a highly valued program of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. Breira is a fully integrative inclusion program for campers with learning, behavioral, emotional or social challenges, that are often unseen.  As Breira B’Ramah campers are largely indistinguishable from their peers, they are integrated into bunks in all edot and participate in all camp activities with minimal modifications. The campers are able to be successful at camp thanks to the support of caring and talented counselors, serving as their shadows, mentors and coaches. Counselors who work in this program do so because they believe every child deserves a chance to have the Ramah experience they, themselves, experienced.  These young adults are committed to providing support to campers who would otherwise not be successful at Camp without Breira.

Among countless other reasons, families send their children to Camp Ramah to make friends and build lasting relationships. Challenges associated with these goals are magnified for campers in the Breira program. As these campers oftentimes have difficulty with the skills required to build and maintain friendships, Breira staff work hard to facilitate positive social experiences for campers.  Counselors participate in a week of specialized Breira training sessions, receive weekly group supervision, and meet individually with the program director throughout the summer. They also have opportunities for professional guidance, mentoring and assistance as needed. With the help of the Breira Director, counselors learn to promote social skills, teach techniques for managing conflicts, and improve strategies for emotional regulation. Much of their work focuses on helping campers improve their interpersonal skills, their ability to successfully resolve conflicts and to help them to stay organized in their bunks and throughout their daily routines.

Breira’s intake process for new campers is comprehensive. It includes discussions with parents about each child’s strengths, challenges and coping strategies, as well as consultations with the professionals who work with these children year-round. This allows Breira counselors to receive feedback and techniques specific to the camper they are working with. Counselors also learn to plan ahead and anticipate challenges. By working proactively, they can reduce their campers’ anxiety, help campers cope with transitions or unexpected changes in schedule, prevent behaviors from escalating and avert crises. Breira counselors brainstorm and rehearse coping strategies with their campers, enabling them to successfully navigate difficult situations and build self-confidence.

The number of campers in the Breira program has steadily increased in recent years.  However, due to the intense supervision required for the program to be successful, we are limited in the number of campers that can be accepted into the program, with an average of ten to twelve campers each session.  Our program, now in its 15th year, has enabled campers from as far as Chicago, Ohio, and Florida to have a normative camp experience in a nurturing environment, guided by Jewish values and practice. We are blessed to have the support of the National Ramah Commission, as well as our own camp leadership, as we move forward in our mission to provide a Ramah experience to all campers.

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Didi Kalmanofsky: Alumni Spotlight

My experiences as a madrich in the Breira program were some of the best and most meaningful of all my camp memories. When I first floated the idea of joining the Breira tzevet before my JC summer, I knew that I believed in the program’s mission and was excited to share in it. However, I had no idea what I was actually signing up for. During shavua hachana, we spent hours as a tzevet running through a range of diagnoses our campers might have (most of which are unlikely to apply to any one camper), and play-acting a number of scenarios (most of which happened at least 75 million times). I left these meetings nervous, but also determined. I saw my future summer being full of problems to solve, and I was ready to work for the good of “my camper.”  I expected nothing in return.

That all fell away when kids arrived on opening day, and “my camper” turned out to be a living, breathing human being who loved reading and watermelon. I watched him grow and develop and fall and get up again. And with every step, I grew up with him. The ultimate lesson, I believe, learned through being a counselor, is that the work we do for others, and the care we provide them, is what camp is really about. By helping others, we elevate our own lives. The Breira program gave me an opportunity to do that work and provide that care, and in return, I gained more than I ever could have imagined. For the three summers I spent as a Breira counselor, the countless hours outside too-noisy rooms on too-hot days, and the incredible chance to share in someone’s improbable camp journey, I am grateful, from the bottom of my heart.

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A Cochavim Camper: A Catalyst for Change

Meredith Englander Polsky

I am often asked how I got involved in Jewish inclusion, and the answer is always the same: Camp! (Now that I think about it, that’s the answer to a lot of questions people ask me!) It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been 20 years since I ended my summer camp career. I always considered myself to be a “tzevet lifer,” starting out as a JC and continuing on to be a two-time Rosh Edah, program coordinator, Yoetzet – and somewhere in there, a counselor in the Gan.

At the start of my second summer as a Rosh Edah, I got onto the bus to introduce myself and greet my new campers. “Hi! I’m Meredith!” I heard a little voice with a big personality call out, “Like I care!” I looked up and saw “Josh” for the first time and suspected that he would be my most challenging camper. In that instant, though, I knew instinctively that he would also be my favorite.

I was right on both counts. Josh struggled with his friendships with other children in his bunk, had a hard time discerning social cues and his hyperactive behavior often interfered with the group dynamics of these 8-year old boys. Josh and I spent a lot of time together and quickly developed a close bond. “Quickly” proved to be critical – because after 6 days of camp, Josh was sent home. We simply couldn’t accommodate his needs; he was interfering too much with the overall functioning of the bunk, and he required too much individual support from a Rosh Edah whose job was to oversee all of the campers and counselors.

That October, I called a (Camp) friend who was a teacher at the Jewish Day School Josh attended and I eagerly asked how Josh was doing. “I don’t know,” he responded, “Josh was kicked out of school.”

I had just graduated from college and was unsure what my next steps would be – until that phone call. In an instant, I knew for certain that I needed to devote myself to enabling the Jewish community to be inclusive of children like Josh. Josh’s parents tried to give him the best of what Jewish camping and Jewish education had to offer – and they were rejected at every turn. I saw clearly that this was a paradigm that had to change.

Four years later, I helped create Matan, a now successful non-profit organization in its 16th year. The world of Jewish inclusion has shifted drastically during that time. More and more people are taking notice that the Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all learners and campers. Inclusion is a right; not a privilege, not a mitzvah project, not an issue of “us” and “them”. I can think of no better example than camp’s commitment to Breira B’Ramah, a program that originated shortly after “Josh’s” experience. Camp continues to shape lives in so many ways. For me, it shaped much of who I am personally and everything I am professionally.

Oh, and if you’re reading this and you think you’re Josh, I’d love to catch up with you. And say thank you.

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