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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Special Needs Camping

Submitted by Woodlands Community Temple, the Special Needs Camping Committee of the URJ North American Camping System, Temple Beth-El, Spring Valley, NY; Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, Abington, PA; B'nai Shalom V'tikvah, Ajax, Ontario; Temple Emanu El, Orange Village, OH; Temple Kol Ami, Thornhill, Ontario; Temple Shalom, Aberdeen, NJ; North Country Reform Temple, Glen Cove, NY; Temple Anshe Hesed, Erie, PA; Temple Beth-El, Ormond Beach, FL; Congregation Keneseth Israel, Allentown, PA; Temple Sinai, Rochester, NY; Temple Beth Tikvah, Roswell, GA; Temple Emanu-El, Edison, NJ; Temple Kol Tikvah, Woodland Hills, CA; Congregation Shir Tikvah, Troy, Michigan; Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, Chappaqua, NY; Temple Beth Abraham, Tarrytown, NY; Congregation Beth Israel, Austin, TX; Temple Shir Tikvah, Minneapolis, MN; and (Temple Shir Shalom, Oviedo, FL; Temple Sholom, Scotch Plains, NJ; Temple Beth El of South Orange County, Aliso Viejo, CA; Congregation B'Nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT; Temple Emanu-El, Utica, NY; Union Temple of Brooklyn, Brooklyn, NY; Temple Sinai, Stamford, CT)*
to the Union for Reform Judaism’s 70th General Assembly


Since the 1951 founding of the first regional camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, the Union for Reform Judaism has been committed to the power of Jewish summer camping as a transformative and life-changing experience. The mission of the URJ Camping System is to enrich and transform lives by strengthening Jewish identity, imparting Jewish knowledge, instilling Jewish values and cultivating lifelong friendships within a vibrant and fun community of living Reform Judaism.

Today there are 12 Union for Reform Judaism camps throughout the United States and Canada. They fulfill the mission through a commitment to core values:  Ruach (spirit), Kehilah (community), Talmud Torah (lifelong Jewish learning), Tikkun Olam (responsibility to repair the world), and Kavod (respect).

Over the years, many thousands of Jewish children have had the opportunity to live their Judaism and enjoy the pleasures of summer spent in a camp setting.  These campers have become rabbis, cantors, educators, and lay leaders in the Reform Movement. Second and third generation campers and staff now fill the ranks of the URJ camps.

Yet, for children with special needs, camp attendance is often difficult.

“Special needs” is an umbrella term that encompasses a large array of diagnoses. These can include medical, mobility, sight, hearing, behavioral, developmental, learning and/or mental health issues. Each child is unique and their specific abilities and disabilities can present a challenge when attempting to provide a fulfilling and mainstream camp experience. The URJ has approached these challenges through a number of different methods.

Since 2004 each URJ camp has had an Inclusion Coordinator as a member of the camp professional staff. These individuals work with parents, caregivers, and camp staff to plan for and provide an optimum mainstream camp experience for many children with special needs.  Through intake procedures, ongoing communication, and support, the inclusion coordinators work to ensure the success of campers with special needs.

The Mitzvah Corps Tzofim program at Kutz Camp pairs a teen with autism spectrum disorder with a NFTY peer to create a unique and individualized camp experience. Begun in 1994 this program has had enduring success in honoring the uniqueness of each camper. Participants enjoy a “camp within a camp” experience, participating in all aspects of a Reform Jewish camping experience.

Camp Simcha, a family camp based at Green Family Camp for families with children on the autism spectrum, was piloted in August of 2007.  Although successful, Camp Simcha was cancelled beginning in summer 2008 because of low enrollment numbers.

A Special Needs Camping survey has been widely distributed throughout the Movement with the hope that the results, which are still being collected, will provide the URJ with insight into the kinds of programs that would be most meaningful to potential special needs campers. This survey and other knowledge is a direct result of our partnership with Nova Southeastern University.

The URJ and its camping system remain committed to a Jewish camp experience for all children, including those with special needs. The Special Needs Camping Committee, in partnership with the Youth Division Staff, the Jewish Family Concerns Task Force on Disabilities and the Camp Directors continue to work to find meaningful ways to meet the needs of those families and children with special needs.

Although much has been accomplished, more can be done to reach additional children and families, serve a wider variety of special needs, encourage stronger congregational involvement, and explore additional resources to support this work.

“Blessed are You, O God, who creates a variety of Creations.” Judaism finds holiness in people of all shapes and abilities.

THEREFORE, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

  1. Reaffirm its commitment to providing a Reform Jewish camping experience to the children of all our members, including children with special needs by:
    1. Increasing the visibility of existing URJ programs through greater marketing, and publicizing the existence and role of Inclusion Coordinators at URJ camps;
    2. Improving staff training programs on special needs; and
    3. Continuing the URJ partnership with Nova Southeastern University and/or other groups with expertise.
  2. Initiate steps within the next 12 months to develop additional programs for children with special needs within the URJ camping system in a manner which serves the affected population of member congregations.
  3. Begin implementation of such programs within 24 months of the adoption of this resolution.
  4. Develop and implement a campaign to inform all Union members of the availability of special needs camping programs.
  5. Solicit grants from foundations and individuals to support the expansion of special needs camping programs.



Mitchell Gordon

November 7, 2009
11:18 AM

Member, Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough, MA and Brotherhood President

I am pleased to see the URJ take such a firm and important stand on special needs access to and inclusion in summer camp. Although my children do not fall into this category, this past summer was their first summer at a URJ sponsored camp - Camp Eisner. And without the support of the URJ and my congregation our kids could never have had this amazing and life changing opportunity. Thank you. It is crucially important that all children have the opportunity to be part of Jewish summer camp, and I think this resolution takes a strong step towards this end. I have been an advocate for special needs children and a teacher for more than 30 years. I worked mostly with youngsters with cognitive disabilities, and served for several years as the President of an ARC board of directors in New York, a member of the board in Massachusetts, and as an active fund raiser. What has often concerned me though is what appears to be the absence of people with developmental/cognitive/intellectual disabilities from our congregations and religious schools. Where are the autistic children or the children who would need an aide in their public school classrooms? I don’t see them in our classrooms and sanctuaries. Perhaps it is a matter of resources, perhaps it is a concern over disruption, and perhaps it is any of several other matters. Let me say once again, I recognize the value of this resolution and its passing and I applaud you all for it. In addition, I urge the URJ to embrace this very special population and make sure that they too have as much opportunity to be part of our sacred communities, our worship, and our Jewish learning as any other member or guest in our congregations. Find ways to help them to be part of our classroom sand our congregations. Help them to be there, so like Abraham when God calls out they can say, “I am here.” So once again, congratulations. And once again, there is more work to be done.


Gail Napell

January 21, 2010
03:07 PM

Special Needs access and inclusion to summer camps

I too am so delighted to see this resolution. In the past few years two children with special needs have been asked to LEAVE our local Jewish Summer sleepaway camp because it was unable to accommodate them. We didn't even attempt to send our daughter, who is developmentally disabled, as the proposed accommodation was for us to pay a second tuition to send a "friend" with her to "watch" her, and we simply couldn't afford it. Our children with special needs hear constantly, at synagogue and religious school, that summer camp is the fun, cool, Jewish thing to do. How beautiful it would be if our children with special needs were included in this experience rather than pointedly excluded. Most of our area Jewish Day schools already exclude children with special needs; how positive for ALL students if they could see a model in which these children are embraced rather than shunned. We're with you and appreciate your efforts! l'shalom


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