A Cochavim Camper: A Catalyst for Change

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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.