by Rabbi Michael Torop and Rabbi Betsy Torop
The first summer after we arrived in the region, we began to serve as rabbinic faculty at URJ Camp Coleman. After a long day in the car, we arrived at Coleman for the first time at dinnertime. We walked into the chadar ochel (dining hall) with Gideon, who had just turned six, and our two other children (ages 4 and 18 months). We were thrilled to be there and instantly felt at home when we walked in. Gideon buried his head in his father’s lap and covered his ears against the din of 500 campers eating dinner.
Gideon is on the autism spectrum and has some intellectual disabilities as well. The noise of the chadar ochel was just the first of many challenges that he faced at Coleman – the place he has come to love more than any place on earth. We are both products of NFTY, and Jewish camping has been central to our lives in every way. It never occurred to us for one minute that our URJ camp wouldn’t be the place that our children “went home” to every year. But it was clear early on that Gideon would need some help. His self-care and language skills were well below age level and his inability to read social cues made us worry that he would be the target of teasing. The thought of just putting him into the mix of a boys bunk was terrifying.