By Rachel Dubowe, URJ Camp Newman’s Nefesh Director

Rachel Dubowe has acted as URJ Camp Newman’s summer camp Nefesh Director for the past two years, and this year, we’re excited to announce that she’ll be our year-round intern, helping to make our camp more inclusive of campers with special needs. As part of her role, she’ll be writing a curriculum guide for our community of parents, students, families with special needs, and reviewing our systems to ensure we are as inclusive as possible. Rachel is currently getting her Masters in Jewish Education from the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles with a special focus on the special needs community at camp and in the larger Jewish world.

Rachel Dubowe (middle) with her summer Nefesh staff, Shai Ohayon (left) and Samantha Collins (right)

In 2014 at the URJ Biennial, Rabbi Rick Jacobs introduced the newest buzzword for Reform Judaism—Audacious Hospitality.  He spoke of a jarring experience during a synagogue visit in which he was subject to harsh tones of exclusion and felt unwelcome.

Fast forward to 2017 where Audacious Hospitality is now an initiative and department of the URJ and offers resources and education in four specific areas—general hospitality, transgender inclusion, disabilities inclusion and membership engagement. The department also includes leadership development, and resources for outreach and engagement.  As the Reform movement is constantly growing and changing, audacious hospitality serves to fit these moving trends that have become integral to our movement.

Audacious hospitality is a genuine need in our community today and a gracious initiative. I want to focus on our camps because not only do I believe in the power of camp but this is where our Jewish children meet other Jews, learn about Judaism in the context of nature, are free to experiment outside classroom/synagogue walls, form their Jewish identity and have a chance to live Jewishly for a summer.  Jewish summer camp is a unique experiential education experience that ALL of our Jewish children, including those with disabilities, should be able to participate in.

In 2014,, a non-profit organization that works to empower people with disabilities, published a report on Jewish families with children with disabilities.  The report stated that: “According to the U.S. Census, 18.6% of Americans (approximately 1 in 5) have a disability. Because Jews carry genetic risks and on average have children later in life than any other demographic group in America, it is likely that the percentage of Jews with disabilities is higher than the national average.” This report also stated that: “[…] Jews with disabilities are far less engaged religiously than are Catholics, Protestants, or Evangelicals.”

While these statistics fall in line with the efforts put forth from the Audacious Hospitality initiative, there is still the challenge that lies within our camps. This challenge is brought to light by the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s 2013 Jewish camp survey on disabilities, which showed that 46% of the Jewish families that they interviewed had been turned away from Jewish institutions because their child has a disability. Another finding in this survey was that: “The field of Jewish camp is serving 2,340-2,590 children with [disabilities] […]” This is not a small number.  And as Jews we have an obligation to notice and recognize this number, these families, and these future campers.  Inclusion is a Jewish value as we talk constantly about welcoming the stranger and what it means that we are all created in God’s image.  So let’s make sure our camps fit into this Jewish value.

As a proud URJ camp alum and current URJ camp staff member, I have witnessed campers with disabilities make their first friend, be accepted in t’fillah for the first time and want to interact with Jewish world around them. These are moments that give me goose bumps every time I think about them and inspire why I do what I do.  Audacious hospitality is for these families and for these campers.

I have had the honor and pleasure of serving as URJ Camp Newman’s Nefesh Director this summer and last summer.  Nefesh is our camper care and inclusion program that works with a team of mental health professionals to ensure the safety, success and happiness of everyone at camp. This is a challenging and necessary staff role. Our camps need to be able to confidently tell every family that their child will have a successful summer at camp and an inclusion coordinator helps to make this happen. When we involve all children at camp, we are involving our future Jewish leaders.

Inclusion is a Jewish value. As a Jewish people, it is our responsibility to ensure that our movement’s camps hold this value. Jewish camp is so often the place where our children, teens and adults form a connection and plunge into who they are as a Jew. We have put so much work into this incredible and professional effort of Audacious Hospitality, which has made remarkable strides within the realm of welcoming the stranger.

Now we have an incredible opportunity to turn these efforts towards our camps, so that we all may believe in the power of camp. In my role as intern this year at URJ Camp Newman, I look forward to exploring camp’s potential to be more inclusive and fully accepting of those with special needs – so that every child who wants to be part of the camp experience can.