February is the annual Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). JDAIM is a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide.
At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, we offer an inclusion program called Breira B’Ramah for campers with mild to moderate learning, social, or emotional challenges. Breira campers live in bunks with typical campers and are integrated into all activities, guided and supported by specially trained staff. This past summer a change was made in our Breira staff model. As opposed to in years past where each Breira camper was assigned a dedicated bunk counselor, in the summer of 2019 we shifted to an “All for All” model, where all bunk counselors in a bunk with a Breira camper were trained for, and tasked with, the support of these campers. This was an important change that allowed for the campers to be more organically integrated into the bunk community. Additionally, many more staff members were given specialized training to prepare them for working with these campers. In Kayitz 2019, because of the shift to this model in staffing, more than 80 members of our staff team received special Breira training, something that will better prepare them for their ongoing work as Ramah staff members and community leaders.
Sarah Cehelyk, a Ramah Berkshires alumna and 2nd year staff member in Kayitz 2019, reflects on her experience this past summer:
Over the past few years, when summer was approaching, I was frequently asked by my friends and family if I would be returning to Camp that summer. When I responded with “yes”, the response was often less than enthusiastic. It was as if I could hear them silently asking themselves, “Don’t you think it’s time to get a real job?” I wish I had a way of showing these individuals, who doubted my choice to return to Camp as a college-age student, that my job makes an important impact on others. This past summer, for the second summer in a row, I was a counselor in Adat HaShorashim, working with campers who are rising 6th graders. Of course, I formed a close relationship with my chanichot (campers) and my co-counselor; two of the main reasons I chose to return to camp for a second summer on staff. But the depth of my experience does not stop at the relationships that form and develop throughout the summer. I believe that one of the most important aspects of my role at camp is to provide support to those who are in the process of exploring their own identities; figuring out who they are now and who they want to become. I’d like to think that I can help my chanichot find their path or direction, even in the span of 7 weeks at camp. These are the moments I find exceptionally powerful – the times when I catch a glimpse of my chanichot engaging in an experience that is shaping the type of people they will become.
Eleven-year-olds are curious, to say the least. Curious about what it will be like to be a B-side camper, a high-school student, and even a college-aged person like their counselors. They are also very perceptive, and while they can often be oblivious or self-absorbed, they can also be very sensitive and attuned to the feelings of those around them.
I had an interaction this summer, which gave me a bit more insight into the mind and thought-process of an 11-year-old. One of my chanichot approached me to tell me that she noticed that one of the girls in our tzrif (bunk) was always alone. This made the chanicha that approached me visibly upset. She wondered why this other camper was struggling to form close relationships. It turns out that the camper she was worrying about was one of our Breira campers, a camper who came to our tzrif needing some extra support. Although we never “outed” these Breira campers to their bunkmates, there are times, like this, when campers notice a peer who is struggling.
Without a prompt and any hesitation, this camper told me she wanted to help. We proceeded to have a 45-minute conversation about what we as a tzrif could do to help this individual who was struggling a bit socially with the rest of the campers in the bunk. She began to list off suggestions; asking this camper to be her buddy at free swim, sitting next to her more often at meals, inviting her into more group conversations, and even specifically asking this camper to walk with her from one activity to the next. To say I was proud of this camper is an understatement. My heart was full. Not only was I proud that she observed this about another camper, but that she came up with a plan to be more inclusive of this camper. These are those special moments when I get that glimpse into the type of person my campers will develop into through the experiences they have at camp.
So, to answer those that questioned my return to Camp each summer – yes, I was going to spend my summers where my job and experiences are meaningful, where my passion and purpose in this world are fulfilled, and where I had the opportunity to help others figure out who they want to be and shape their view of the world around them. I can’t imagine another job that would be quite as rewarding. I feel grateful for the opportunities that Camp Ramah in the Berkshires provided me with for the past nine years as a camper and staff member, and I can confidently say that my leadership skills have stemmed from my experiences at camp. I will never be able to fully thank my own madrichot (counselors), chanichot (campers) and camp as a whole for all the insight I have gained and experiences I have had. Every person and experience has impacted my life and influenced the person I have become and the person I strive to be every day.