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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, FEBRUARY 1, 2013 By Gil Shefler NEW YORK (JTA)--Is there a more enthusiastic camper in the world than Ezra Fields-Meyer, a 17-year- old with high-functioning autism and a regular at Camp Ramah in Southern California? Not if you ask his father. Tom Fields-Meyer says his son's annual visit to the rural retreat in Ojai, 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is a much-anticipated opportu- nity for Ezra to spend time with all kinds of children in a fun and nurturing envi- ronment. "The four weeks he goes to Ramah and is away from us are really the four best weeks of his year, which is a little bit hard for a parent to say," Fields-Meyer said. "The kids in his program are almost celebrities. I think camp is great for all kids, but espe- cially for those like Ezra." A summer camp experi- ence can be transformative for kids like Ezra, but many Jewish camps believe that special-needs kids--along with other minority Jewish populations, like Russian Americans, Israeli Ameri- cans and the children of Jewish camps seeking to bring diverse groups under the same tent interfaith marriages--are severely underrepresented in the Jewish camp system. "Break down the percent- age of kids from various backgrounds who attend and the numbers are not where we want them to be to reflect the broader Jewish commu- nity," said Abby Knopp, vice president of program and strategy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a group that seeks to exPand access to the Jewish camping experience. In a conscious effort to promote diversity, Jewish summer camps are working to boost the participation of minority communities in the camp experience. According to FJC, of the estimated 72,000 youths who attend nonprofit Jew- ish camps each year, ap- proximately 1,000 are special needs--a blanket term for children and adolescents with a range of disabilities including Down syndrome, autism, paraplegics and visual impairment. Only 3 percent to 4 percent of children from the Russian Jewish community attend camp, though they represent 15 percent to 20 percent of Jewish children overall, the FJC said. The percentage of Israeli-American kids who attend camp is about the same. Interfaith children comprise about 18 percent of Jewish campers, though their fraction of the larger Jewish youth population surely is much higher. Camps have taken a nflm- ber of approaches to inte- grate special-needs children, ranging from full-immersion programs in general camps to creating specific facilities uniquely for them. Ezra Fields-Meyer at- tended a mixed program at Ramah. During the day he took part in the same activi- ties as the wider camp popu- lation; at night he stayed in separate sleeping quarters. "[Ezra] can go go the same camp with his two brothers, be part of the same commu- nity, but also acknowledge he has different needs," Tom Fields-Meyer said. Some camps have taken inclusivity a step further. At Camp Ramah in New Eng- land, special-needs kids have the option of a full immer- sion program that includes shared accommodations. "About 12 years ago, families asked if we would consider an inclusion pro- gram," said Howard Bias, the head of the Tikvah program at Ramah New England, in Palmer, Mass. "What they meant is to take the kids and have them be part of the program with the main- stream kids." In response, the camp in- vited Spencer'Salend, an ex- pert on inclusive classrooms at the State University of New York at New Paltz, to draw up a curriculum for the joint program. Two kids--one with Down syndrome and one with autism--took part in the pilot eight years go. Now, as many as 12 disabled youths participate each year. "The idea was that if we started younger, their bond [with the other campers] would be greater," Bias explained. "We had some very different outcomes. Some have come through the whole program having a great experience. We've had some that have been difficult." Despite some disappoint- ments, Bias says the initia- tive on the whole has been positive and productive. But Rabbi Allan Smith, the for- mer head of Union for Reform Judaism's camp network and now the director of a Jewish camp for special-needs kids in Pennsylvania, says special needs kids who spend sum- mers with peers with similar disabilities come out much more confident and better prepared to interact with mainstream children. "My position is don't play games," Smith said. "Don't do tokensim and put kids into an environment where they are doomed to fail." Another priority has been bringing more Jews from the former Soviet Union and their offspring into the camp fold. Part of the challenge there is introducing the camp idea to a community that doesn't fully under- stand it. "If you look at most of the kids who go to camps, their parents went to camp, too," said Knopp. "There is a 100-year-old tradition here in America that Russian- speaking Jews are unfamiliar with. Families in the Former Soviet Union sent their chil- dren to camp, but they don't understand the importance of sending their kids to Jew- ish camps." Israeli-American parents also shy away from sending their children to overnight summer camps for similar reasons, the FJC said. Many PAGE 15A Donors struggling to defray the rising costs of Jewish camp By Gil Sheller Judaism and becomes an the more abstract sense of attending his movement's NEW YORK (JTA)-- Spending the summer at Jewish overnight camp once was a spartan affair, often little more than a collection of ramshackle buildings scattered in the woods by a placid lake. Those were the days. "Today it's all about the toys," said Rabbi Allan Smith, the former head of the Reform movement's camp network and a 46-year" veteran of the summer camp business. "You have a go- kart track, a climbing wall, a swing, a Burma bridge. "When I was a kid, 90 percent of the camps were by a lake. Today if you don't have a pool you're a loser. Kids don't like lakes, they're dirty." Such amenities may make camps more appealing, but they don't come cheap. Parents can expect to shell out anywhere from $600 per week per child at one of the less expensive nonprofit camps to $2,000 per week at some of the pricier options. For families already strug- gl!ng to cover the costs of Jewish education during the school year, sending a child to camp might be one expense too many. In a bid to help defray the cost, the Foundation for Jewish Camp has awarded more than 43,000 grants to attend a nonprofit summer camp. The grants can be up to $1,000 per family. "We believe summers at Jewish camp are an impor- tant component in one's Jewish identity," said Jeremy Fingerman, the foundation's CEO. "Camp teaches a joyful important building block for a Jewish future. We believe families challenged economically should not be penalized." The high tuition at Jewish camps, which directors at the camps agree is consid- erably costlier than at their Christian counterparts, is cause for concern among those who fear that a potent identity-building opportu- nity is slipping away from middle-income families. For Debra Hollander o Shaker Heights, Ohio, send- ing her children to Jewish camp is a top priority, despite the costs. "Our three kids go to secular education schools, so for us Jewish camping became even more impor- tant," she said. A 20tl study commis- sioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp lends credence to Hollander's view of Jewish camps as important shapers of Jewish identity. According to the study, Jewish camp alumni are 30 percent more likely to donate to a Jewish charity; 37 percent more likely to light Sabbath can- dies; and 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue. "The anaJysis indicates that [camps] bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat lighting candies to using Jewish websites and to ap- preciate the value of Jewish charity," the study conclud- ed. "Secondly, they bring an inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in identifying with fellow Jews in Israel." The FJC, which has a mission to increase the number of Jewish camp- ers, is working to identify ways for camps to reduce costs. In recent years it has coordinated the sharing of resources, encouraged the development of alternative revenue sources and helped camp directors improve their managerial skills "through a program the organization likens to "an MBA in camping." One of the most impor- tant elements in helping camps stay on stable footing, the foundation believes, is boosting enrollment. "Camps that are full are profitable and reinvest back in scholarships," Fingerman said. "So there is a power in numbers, and we're working hard to get them full." Other organizations also have taken steps to make camp more affordable, par- ticularly for less-affiliat- ed families and first-time campers who might be less sold on the value of the camp experience. The Avi Chai and Zell foundations jointly made a $600,000 donation to Ramah to help the Con- servative movement's camp network attract first-timers. "We're calling it the Ra- mah Open Door Program, where we're opening up to less Jewish-affiliated fami- lies," said Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Ramah's national director. Paul Reichenbach, the director of camp and Israel programs at the Union for Reform Judaism, said a sig- nificant number of children summer programs also re- ceive scholarships. While camp directors agree that the costs of Jew- ish overnight camps are high, they offer varyin ex- planations as to the reasons. Some say it's the relative abundance of staff--a ratio of one supervisor for every two campers, according to Cohen. Others point to the salaries of directors, which average about $125,000 per year at nonprofit camps, according to public tax fil- ings. Directors at Jewish for-profi'ts can make even more. Perhaps the biggest factor driving costs, however, is the Jewish community's relative affluence'and the resulting , expectations. "What [Jewish camps] provide may be higher with regard to facility, to program options, with regard to staff structure," Reichenbach said. "And we are dealing with a community that has a certain expectation for quality." Despite a growing recog- nition of the importance of making tt/ition affordable, Reichenbach predicted costs would continue to appreci- ate at a rate of 2 percent to 5 percent each year. "We live in the real world," he said. "In the last few years our practices have reflected the rise in the cost-of-living index, the cost of energy, of food, of transportation. Right now we are doing the best we can to stay even." ADVERTISEMENT.. Visit OneHappyCamper.org to find a Jewish camp and see if your child lualifies for a $1,000 grant. of them go back to Israel for the summer to visit relatives. Jewish camps have had more success attracting the children of intermar- ried families. Though the FJC pegs the percentage of Jewish campers with only one Jewish parent at about 18 percent, Paul Reichen- bach, the director of camp,p and Israel programs at the Union for Reform Judaism, says that up to 40 percent of children at some URJ camps have at least one non-Jewish parent. Reichenbach says camp curriculums must be sensi- tive toward children of mixed faiths or they risk becoming alienated from the commu- nity. He says the language in some brochures and the content of some programs were adapted to reflect this change. "While we are all for Jew- ish values," Reichenbach said, "we have to recognize we are dealing with kids that are far more pluralistic than they used to be 20 to 30 years ago." ADVERTISEMENT" Visit OneHappgCamper.org to find a Jewish camp and see if your child qualifies for a $1,000 grant. 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