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The Power of Summer Camp

A week-long retreat in the Poconos offers a fun and immersive experience for children with developmental and social learning disorders—and their parents and siblings

Jas Chana
August 13, 2015

Sixteen years ago a Jewish campsite was founded in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Georgia, called Ramah Darom. One of the novel ideas behind its founding was for to offer an inclusive family experience, structured so that the needs of each member of the family would be specifically catered for. Its founding principle was, essentially, to provide the answer to a simple question: Why should a Jewish-orientated camping trip have to be exclusively for children? Today, Ramah Darom’s pioneering and straightforward model has provided the basis for two inspiring and rewarding camping programs for children and families of children with special needs.

Next week, the Camp Ramah in the Poconos will play host to the Tikvah Family Camp, a 5-day overnight program tailored for “children with developmental disorders and/or social learning disorders, their parents, and their siblings.” The Tikvah Family Camp is currently in its seventh year and the majority of its attendees are returning customers, said Rabbi Joel Seltzer, the camp’s Executive Director. Seltzer describes the relationships between the recurring residents as “inspiring.” Seltzer said he’s had the pleasure of witnessing the children grow up and their families develop. “It’s become a part of their yearly summer experience,” he says. According to Seltzer, the camp works so well because it has been able to build such a strong and sustaining sense of community—and inclusivity.

The initial Ramah Darom family model is as follows: during the first half of the day, parents and children would have separate activities and, in the second, they would spend time together as a family. But this changed when a family attended the camp with a child who was autistic. Geoff Menkowitz, the director of Ramah Darom who oversees all programming at camp, including Camp Yofi, told me that about thirteen years ago, and realizing the camp lacked the resources to effectively accommodate an autistic child, the camp’s organizers teamed up with the education department at Nova Southeastern University, which specializes in autism research to create Camp Yofi.

Camp Yofi became hugely successful because the tailored experience of a family campsite was both highly significant and cathartic for families with a special needs child: It offered the child the opportunity to enjoy a camp experience under proper supervision and care, while providing parents with a break. Parents who “usually can’t get out for a movie night,” Seltzer said, are treated to a series of personal and intimate “moon activities,” which Seltzer describes as a “night on the town sort of thing.”

Tikvah Family Camp was inspired by the success of Camp Yofi’s tailored family model for children with developmental and social learning disorders. The camp becomes a place where both the “triumphs and struggles” of raising a child with special needs can be celebrated.

Seltzer says one of the most significant elements of the program revolves around the siblings who have “created their own communities” at the camp. There, they’re given the opportunity to bond and relate with others who understand “what it is like to have a brother or sister with autism,” Menkowitz said.

Seltzer reminds me that in a family with a special needs child, try as they might, parents often find it hard to direct equal attention to the child that has developed normally. At Tikvah, these siblings “get the chance to shine on their own.”

The vibrancy of the camp is also, in part, due to the 25-35 Israeli staff members who are present each year that come from overseas to spread a love of Israel and the Hebrew language throughout the camp. Seltzer said that the rest of the camp staff are inspiringly willing to stay in the Poconos for the extra week, after the standard camp season, the Tikvah camp runs. They are referred to around the camp as haverim, meaning “friends.”

The community at the Tikveh camp is so strong and the families in residence are so well known, that Seltzer said these staff members effectively become part of the family unit for the duration the camp runs.

The elements of Jewish learning, spiritual reflection and camp fun also come together in a powerful way. One of the highlights of the week, for Seltzer, occurs on Shabbat. The camp holds the “Tikvah talent show” which every family in residence participates in. Because many of the children taking part are on the autistic spectrum, some of the talents on offer are pretty impressive. Seltzer recalls that one contestant could tell the exact day of the week his birthday landed on, each and every year. Another contestant could reel off complex mathematical equations and their solutions, all the time with a “big smile on his face.” Abiding by the rules of Shabbat, no cameras are allowed at the talent show so no pictures are taken. Seltzer says that on one hand, this is a shame, but on the other, it makes the memories all the more special.

He told me about another contestant who took part last summer, a girl who knew the words to the entirety of the Beatles catalog by heart. So last year, the Tikvah family camp closed to the sound of “All you need is love” resounding throughout the Poconos.

Jas Chana is a former intern at Tablet.