How We're Creating an Open and Inclusive Space at Summer Camp

Inside Leadership

How We're Creating an Open and Inclusive Space at Summer Camp

Teenage girls dressed in white with their arms around one anothers shoulders from behind

For the last few years, URJ Camp Harlam has continually sought to create an open and safe community – an environment that is understanding and accepting, where bias and prejudice will not be tolerated. The leadership of camp – our professional staff, lay leaders, and other stakeholders – have invested quite a lot in our effort to continue to shift our culture to be even more aligned with our Reform Jewish ideology, which believes that every individual is created b'tselem Elohim, in God's image. We have worked hard to develop policies, programs, communication, outreach, and training in order to do all that we can to make sure that Camp Harlam is a true reflection of today's families.

One of the things we have emphasized to our community members is our belief that if everyone is truly created in God's image, everyone can contribute something of value to our community. Excluding anyone from our community diminishes the experience for everyone, and lessens our chance of achieving our goal of a more perfect world through tikkun olam (repair of our world).

There are countless moments I witnessed last summer that made me feel confident our camp community has moved successfully in this direction. Seeing individual campers and groups welcome new campers – campers who are different from them in various ways – and witnessing the excellent work our staff is doing to ensure they are successful feels like great progress toward our goal of an open and safe community.

Of course, there are times when it is challenging. But one of the things that has been most gratifying about this effort is to see how our campers have so naturally embraced this culture, opening their arms and hearts to those around them, those with more significant challenges, and those struggling at any one moment in time.

Take, for example, one of our girls’ bunks, which created its own mini-Chill Zone. In the summer of 2016, Camp Harlam established our Chill Zone, a sensory space that provides campers the opportunity to take a break from the sometimes-overwhelming, overstimulating, 24/7 environment of camp. It's a small, private, quiet space outfitted with a variety of tools, including a bubble wall, stress balls, fidget toys, and other items to keep kids calm and allow them time and space to decompress. For campers with disabilities or those for whom the environment at camp can prove challenging, this accommodation has helped many to succeed at camp – when, under other conditions, they may not be. Our campers, both those who use this space and those who don't, have come to appreciate that every camper needs different things at different times, and we have adopted and integrated our philosophy of "universal design" by creating their own accommodations that many, if not all campers, can benefit from.

Enter the aforementioned girls’ bunk. One session, this girls unit created their own chill zone in their bunk, a physical space for those who need privacy or separation – something all of us at camp need at different times. They were thoughtful enough to outfit this area with lights, books, fidget toys, and other items that can provide some sense of comfort, to create an island of calm in what might otherwise be a chaotic space. These campers internalized our inclusive practices, and they, too, created an open and safe community, a sacred community where each person is valued and where we make accommodations to support those who need them – which, truly, may be any of us, at any time.

Later in the summer, I had the opportunity to visit a boys’ bunk during their evening ritual, with the intention of sharing with the counselors an incredibly moving letter from a camp family. The family spoke beautifully about how meaningful it was for their child to be welcomed and included that summer:

When your child has challenges, it can be exhausting. You're constantly in advocacy mode and you worry a great deal of time. Your heart breaks when you see a typical group of boys his age at the mall or in the neighborhood laughing and having fun because your son doesn't have that level of independence or that group of friends. He's on the outside most of the time, and that is tremendously hard. You know your kid is lovable and has lots to offer, but often you have to fight just to get him in the door.

At Harlam, he is part of the group. He is on the inside, and that makes the hearts of all who love him explode with happiness... Thank you so much for giving him a chance. We are so grateful to you and all of his amazingly wonderful counselors. Harlam is really the most magical of places.

We read this letter through tears and shared our gratitude for the support of the counselors in creating this successful experience. Their immediate response? "It's the kids."

Without accepting any recognition, these counselors credited their campers for understanding and accepting a camper who might be different from them, but who brought joy to the bunk. Moved by their response, we decided to share the letter with the kids, who were beaming as they read the touching tribute. Their responses? "We loved having him in the bunk!" "He was so funny!" "This is just what we do." They shared stories of what this camper gave to them and how they benefited from his participation in their camp community. To them, it was not exceptional that they had been so welcoming; it was simply expected.

Including people, making people feel safe, helping others to be successful – these things we do here at Harlam not just because they are nice things to do for those who might struggle at times or in other places. These are things we are obligated to do because of our Jewish values, and they’re things that we do because we derive great value from the gifts each person adds to our experiences here.

We don't always do things perfectly, and at times, ensuring each child is successful can be incredibly difficult. But our community and all the individuals within it are enriched by both the successes and the learning that comes from these challenges. I'm grateful that our campers have naturally internalized these values, and I hope it will help all of them – and all of us – to continue to make the world outside of camp a more open and safe place for all.

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Lisa David is the director of URJ Camp Harlam, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Kunkletown, PA. She lives in Mt. Laurel, N.J. with her husband, Rabbi Benjamin David, and their children Noa, Elijah and Sam, and is a member of Temple Adath Emanu-El.

Lisa David
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