by Rabbi Michael Torop of Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg, Florida and a member of the Camp Coleman Clergy Advisory Board, and Rabbi Betsy Torop of Congregation Beth Shalom of Brandon, Florida
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.
We were beyond blessed that Bobby Harris, director of Camp Coleman, was willing right from the start to ask the question “how can we make this work?” rather than focus on the challenges and obstacles. Extra counselors in cabins, talented social workers, a stable staff that came to know Gideon and see his beautiful spirit grow over the years, and a culture based on kavod (respect) and kehillah (community) has allowed Gideon to find his home at Coleman every summer for 10 years. The focus has always, always been on what Gideon needs and what will be best for him, and we firmly believe that in helping him, the entire camp community has benefited.
It didn’t take long to realize that as Gideon got older, he fully expected to do everything that his camp community of friends was doing – going to Israel, spending the summer as part of Machon (a counselor-in-training program) and maybe even being a counselor. As challenging as it had been when Gideon was young, these challenges proved even greater. There are things – as every parent of a disabled child knows – that highlight the differences between your child and his or her typical peers. While we have never wanted to say to Gideon that he couldn’t do certain things, it was clear that his limitations and disabilities were going to close some doors to him; it was also clear to us that his talents, gifts and needs, could hopefully open other doors.
Gideon did go to Israel with his Coleman peers (although he refused to get on the camel!). He did one of the two months of the Coleman Machon program, experiencing the leadership learning but not the hands-on, in the bunk training involved. And then we asked, “what’s next?” It seemed only right and necessary that Coleman would be part of the next stage in Gideon’s life journey. So, in partnership with Bobby Harris and the Coleman community that is our family home, the Chadash program has been born. “Chadash” means “new,” and this truly is a new opportunity, a new path – one that can help give young adults with disabilities tools and skills for life success.
The focus in Gideon’s life outside of camp is on beginning to build the skills required for independent living and employment. While Gideon cannot be a camp counselor, there are many, many other jobs that go into creating a community from office to kitchen, to laundry to supply organizing. It is our deepest hope that the Chadash program will grow into a place for supervised job training and living for young adults with disabilities – like our son, Gideon. Vocational opportunities and experiences for young adults with disabilities are essential, and the Jewish community has a role to play in helping the disabled members of our community become independent, responsible, contributing members of society. If we truly value each individual as a reflection of the divine, than our sacred communities – our synagogues and schools and camps – need to have a place for everyone. We need to help each individual Jew grow into the person that he or she is uniquely able to become. The Chadash program is a new path into that ancient and sacred mandate.
Along with the spirit of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, we are so thrilled to announce the Chadash program for young adults ages 18-24 with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Chadash will provide vocational training in a supervised work setting along with an opportunity for the participants to join in a wide range of recreational, social, and educational components of camp life. Our Camp Director, Bobby Harris, shared the following in a press release that went out on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism:
Over the past several years, Camp Coleman and other URJ camps have taken steps to ensure that campers with developmental and intellectual disabilities can fully participate in our camps. Because of these efforts, we now have a population of young adults with disabilities who want to remain or become part of our camp staff. Not only will the Chadash program teach important skills that these young people will be able to take away from camp, but the entire camp community will also see how the Reform Movement recognizes the contributions of every individual.