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Ramah’s Blind Spot Fuels Inclusion Debate
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The painful story of a blind 15-year-old who was asked to leave Camp Ramah in Canada because he was too hard to accommodate has touched off the latest debate about the inclusion of people with special needs in organized Jewish life.

The Conservative camp movement admits the Ontario camp — one of eight overnight camps in the Ramah network — made mistakes, but says it’s being unfairly maligned in the aftermath.

Solomon Krishef chose to leave Camp Ramah in Canada last week, several days after his family was told on visiting day that the staff could not accommodate his needs for his first full summer. (Solomon had attended four previous one-month sessions.)

Solomon’s angry dad, Rabbi David Krishef, wrote about the incident on his personal blog, noting that among the reasons given were, “Sol takes too long eating his meals and showering, and requires help moving from activity to activity, which he also does very slowly.” The blog post quickly made its way across Jewish cyberspace through social media.

In a second blog post, the rabbi, who leads Congregation Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids, Mich., said the camp had reversed its decision, thanking the director, Ron Polster. Rabbi Krishef praised Ramah campers and staff for stepping forward and volunteering to help Solomon get through the rest of the summer after his daughter, Sara, started a petition drive to keep her brother at Ramah.

“He called and expressed a sincere apology, to Solomon, to me, and to my wife. He took a second look at how staff could be assigned for the second month,” wrote the rabbi on July 19. “Of course, I wish Sol would have chosen to stay, but given what he’s been through, I understand why he has made the decision to come home.”

Rabbi Krishef did not respond to messages left at his temple office or at home.

Rabbi Mitch Cohen, director of the Ramah Camping movement, declined to discuss specifics about the incident, citing privacy concerns, but said it has caused the camp and its policies of inclusion to be maligned.

“We were really baffled by the extent of the lashon hara and the amount of people who commented publicly without knowing anything about the situation at hand,” Rabbi Cohen told The Jewish Week Tuesday.

While he conceded that the camp did not handle the matter “perfectly,” he said “the father’s well-intentioned blog turned into so many letters of support on the one hand for Ramah and so many e-mails of harsh criticism from people who had no idea what they are talking about. When it comes to inclusion we are proud leaders in that area as a movement.”

Ramah Canada, which is two hours north of Toronto, will have about 600 campers in its two sessions this summer, including 20 who take part in its Tikvah camp and vocational program for teens and young adults with disabilities. Rabbi Cohen said he believed that, other than Solomon, there are two other campers who are visually impaired.

Messages for Polster and Ramah Canada’s communication director were not returned as of Tuesday afternoon.

Rabbi Cohen said it was Polster’s first summer as director, but he had previous experience working in Jewish summer camps. According to his LinkedIn profile, Polster, who has a Ph.D. in religion from the University of Toronto, previously worked as director of Jewish Camping Initiatives at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp George.

In his blog, Rabbi Krishef said, “This unfortunate episode appears to be the result of a chaotic transition to new leadership.”

Rabbi Cohen said there is no need to review the camp’s policies or to take any further action as a result of the incident.

Solomon’s departure from the camp comes as a group of 20 Jewish donors and foundation professionals is set to board a bus next week for a three-day jaunt to eight Jewish Northeast camps to look at their level of inclusion and see how better funding can maximize participation.

“The funders see inclusion as important across all spheres of Jewish life and know that camps are an important place to take big steps,” says Avi Zollman, spokesman for the Jewish Funders Network, which has planned the trip for several months.

Elsewhere, activists are looking at the incident as a teachable moment. Writing on eJewishPhilanthropy, Naomi Brunnlehrman, co-founder of the Jewish Deaf (and Hard-of-Hearing) Resource Center, said it “highlights the consequences to all of us when the wider Jewish community continues to perceive access and inclusion as optional and not an integral part of what it means to be a sacred Jewish community.”

Richard Bernstein, an attorney and activist who has sued Delta Airlines, the University of Michigan and others on behalf of people with disabilities, said he was upset when numerous people alerted him to the story, but heartened when Ramah reversed its decision.

“That doesn’t happen too often,” said Bernstein, who is blind. “I give them a lot of credit for realizing the mistake and doing the right thing. I think this is a wonderful opportunity to educate and excite our community about ways to make people with disabilities and special needs feel [included].”

Citing his own experience at a non-Jewish private camp when he was Solomon’s age, Bernstein said, “It wasn’t a big deal. I couldn’t participate in archery or tennis but I felt close to my cabin-mates. People wanted to help me. It created a sense of camaraderie. It’s human nature to want to help people.”




Last Update:

05/20/2014 - 15:20
Camp Ramah, Camp Ramah in Canada, Solomon Krishef
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Conservative Jews could find the answer to their problems in the sincere study of Torah.

To Anonymous above:

OK, so the blind kid is asked to leave early because they don't want to accommodate him. There is a new Director who has pretty much stepped in it. He hasn't contacted the parents with his concerns about Solli, they just give them the bad news on visiting day, of all days. "You have to take him home with you" kind of message. The Director gets bad PR, and backtracks. Rabbi is blamed for lashon hara, but if he hadn't brought the situation to everyone's attention then nothing would've been done. Ramah alumni want him and his kid to shut up and suck it up.

How is writing a check going to help that? Please, enlighten me.

I know this boy and his family. My feeling is that inclusion is essential in the Jewish community. Inclusion should be for every Jewish person. This would include sexual orientation, denomination, disability, etc. Jews around the World need to be united, especially considering the fact that Tisha B'Av is coming. That is the only way we will see a restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Where is the outrage about the more pervasive barriers that keep many participating in our movement?  By this I'm referring to the economic barriers which keep us from being a truly inclusive community.  How many of those who were quick to vent their indignation would sit down today to give more, to give until it hurts a little, to personally take a stake in righting wrongs that they protest as being sad and offensive?

It's easy to stand on the sidelines and second-guess those who try, and sometimes fail, to make our Jewish community more perfect.

Ramah Canada, and other camps in the Ramah system should be commended for recognizing and making a commitment to breaking down barriers to inclusion, both physical and financial.  Does this mean that they've perfected this?  Hardly, as the challenges of addressing long-standing and pervasive societal problems often requires more support than they can muster. But they are taking a leadership role.

How should we respond?  Is it fair to shoot arrows at those who try, and sometimes fall short?  Or should our response be to open our hearts with compassion to those who are willing to take risks and suffer missteps along the way to making our community a better one? Rather than criticize those brave enough to try, why can't we pick them up when they fall or, better yet, join together with them in this effort?  

If you're outraged that enough isn't being done I've got a suggestion:  put your money where your heart is.  Don't stand on the sidelines.  The least you can do is to write a check.  The best you can do is to get involved in leading the way, standing out front in trying to make our world more perfect.

I am a teacher of blind children. I am Jewish. I also send my own children to a Conservative Jewish Day school. Many of the children attending the school also attend camp Ramah, though a different one than this young man. Considering my perspective, I was disappointed to say the least, about this situation. It makes absolutely no sense to me at all. Of the many hardships and adversity my students cope with on a daily basis, I would expect a Jewish camp to have the utmost understanding, patience and fortitude to do anything possible for Solomon to enjoy and fully participate and complete his camping experience on a positive note. Surely the camp administrators are aware of the many agencies for the blind and other agencies where they could go to for advice and assistance. There is no excuse. They should be ashamed. It is disgraceful.

Heather - I find it difficult to understand how you have detailed enough information - from both sides - to make an informed statement that "There is no excuse. They should be ashamed. It is disgraceful."

Just reflect on that before you malign a Camp's administrators and staff who, collectively, have one of the stronger records of inclusion of any non-special-needs camp in the Americas, including for the particular child at issue over the past number of years. Also, understand, that vision issues may not be the entirety of the challenges to have this particular camper safely enjoy the summer program.

The child's father is a Conservative rabbi who is not a stranger to the Camp. He took an issue public out of anger and frustration because of a decision made with specificity - not a general prohibition on blind campers. He ignored a network of personal contacts that could possibly have resolved the very personal issue, but he chose expediency and decided to shame the new director with his half of the truth in a manner which would result in uninformed postings like yours which vilify the Camp.

What is YOUR excuse for not volunteering your time at the Camp to help them with their staffing needs for a more intensive outdoor camping program at this child's age? Do you bear part of the burden? Do you think that teenagers (that's who the counselors are) are always suited to deal with all the needs of your children at the school you teach at? What if you need more staffing? How is that to be done in the midst of a summer (unless, again, you are volunteering to work for a few dollars an hour for the rest of the summer). How about the child's father? He's part of the movement - why isn't he up at Camp volunteering his time and experience?

It is very easy to complain and have righteous indignation without having any information but that which is fed to you. You should ask yourself whether you really think that Camp Ramah of Canada is so evil that it just wanted to dump some blind kid out of its program because he can't see (yet keep other kids with vision impairment and a full program of special needs campers) - or whether there were other circumstances which, due to confidentiality concerns binding the Camp, led to the decision not to have this child stay 2 months (on a more rigorous program) instead of the 1 month that he traditionally stayed in past years.

Ask yourself whether this public shaming (again, without the benefit of full facts) makes other camps more likely, or less, to bear the extra staffing and administrative costs and challenges to properly and safely deal with certain special needs. And who would you blame if this child were injured (even though the camp decided, in this particular case, that it could not meet the child's needs this particular summer)? I presume you would be as indignant at the Camp for their "negligence" and say how un-Jewish they were to allow that to occur.

In the end, the Camp capitulated to intense pressure - but not for the "right" reasons. The Rabbi won his personal battle, but slimed his reputation in course of a disgusting smear campaign.

So put your money where your mouth is and fund programs at the Camp so that needs like this child's can actually be met safely. I am sure that the Camp would greatly appreciate the help so that it does not have to reluctantly make decisions like it did. Your post makes them out as malicious haters of children with disabilities. Nothing is further from the truth. And caterwauling like this, without knowledge, is just slander.

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