Solomon Krishef was thrilled to learn that this summer he could go to his Jewish sleepaway camp for eight weeks – twice as long as the previous four summers.
It was not to be for the Michigan teenager.
During visiting day in the middle of the summer, his family says, the camp director told them that one month was enough for this year because “the camp couldn’t meet Solomon’s needs.”
Almost 16, Solomon is blind and requires help moving around the camp and taking part in certain activities.
When Solomon’s father, Rabbi David Krishef of Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids, Mich., wrote in a July 18 blog posting about his son’s experience – and his family’s anguish – the response became the talk of the Ramah community.
A day after his first post, the rabbi wrote a follow-up saying that word had spread – thanks in part to a petition drive launched by his 12-year-old daughter, Sarah – and the director, new this summer, had apologized and said his staff could, in fact, accommodate Solomon for the full session. Solomon, however, decided not to return to the camp for the rest of the summer.
The incident has many wondering how well Jewish camps accommodate youngsters with special needs – whether they be cognitive, developmental, physical, emotional or any combination – and what kinds of challenges are facing the camps.
The need is clear. Autism diagnoses, for example, soared more than 45 percent from 2002 to 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the number of children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has risen 66 percent in 10 years, according to a Northwestern University study.
“It’s hard to achieve a level of competence in meeting all needs of children with disabilities,” acknowledges David Ackerman, director of the Jewish Community Centers Association’s Mandel Center for Jewish Education and a former camp director.
“Jewish camps have come a very, very long way, certainly in the last 30 years, definitely the last 20,” he says. “Many more camps are offering programs. In general, camp is more accessible than it’s ever been and we should feel good about it.”
On the other hand, Ackerman adds, “If you’re the parent of a child who can’t be accommodated at the camp you want, it doesn’t matter what the field is doing. It’s heartbreaking. We’ve come a long way; we still have a long ways to go.”