Jewish Journal


December 6, 2012

The Bright Lights of Inclusion



As we get ready to celebrate another 8-day marathon of carbs, candles and explaining to our non-Jewish colleagues why we aren’t taking off time from work, it’s hard not to compare this year’s Hanukkah with those of the past.

To paraphrase from a major Jewish holiday, Why is this Hanukkah different from every other Hanukkah? For parents of children and young adults with special needs, I feel that we have moved the communal discussion from a marginal issue in the Jewish community to a much more mainstream concern. The passionate flame that so many parents and families have kept alive for years is growing bigger all the time. The recent two-day national conference after the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly on “Opening Abraham’s Tent” is one shining example of this.

Another sign of this shift in collective consciousness was that the JTA (the Jewish global “wire service “) today included a special Hanukkah feature on “8 tips for an accessible Chanukah” from Gateways Access to Jewish Education, a Boston-based agency for Jewish special education. The tips are creative, inexpensive and easy for every family/Jewish organization to incorporate into their celebrations and parties.

Here in Los Angeles, many of us were thrilled when The Shalom Institute/Camp JCA Shalom chose to award Elaine Hall with the “Vision Award” at last week’s gala, under the evening’s overarching theme of “Celebrating a place where everyone belongs”.

Elaine Hall is the mother of Neal, a Camp JCA Shalom camper who has non-verbal autism and communicates mostly by typing on his Ipad. Elaine is also the founder of The Miracle Project, a non-profit that uses drama as a social/recreational modality to reach children and teens with special needs, along with their typical peers. Neal is now working at the camp once a week, helping to harvest fruits and vegetables from their organic farm.

Neal, now 18 years old, attended JCA Shalom camp for the first time many years ago with our son Danny, and another two boys with developmental disabilities. We had turned to Bill Kaplan, the Executive Director of Shalom Institute and Joel Charnick, Camp Director, to test out a new model of sending kids with more severe disabilities to camp with their own aides, paid for by the family or by a state-funded Regional Center.

Although they hadn’t developed the infrastructure for such a program, Bill and Joel said yes to our request, and together created a warm and supportive camp environment. Since then, the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in Ojai has welcomed campers such as Danny who require an aide, and even added a family camp called “Ohr Lanu” for the parents, siblings and children who have special needs.

As the teens of today grow into adulthood, there is still much to be done to create the needed residential, employment and social programs under Jewish auspices but it does feel good to see the lights of inclusion glowing brighter all the time.

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