Our Camp Director, Rabbi Erin Mason, explains what happened when we ran a separate summer program for those with special needs – and later, one that was fully integrated – in this Dvar Torah she gave at Congregation Beth Am last month as part of February’s Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM).

There was once young shepherd boy who was very poor. One Rosh Hashana, as he tended his flock, he looked longingly at the villagers, dressed in their finest, on their way to shul to daven.

He so wanted to join them.

He looked down at his ragged clothing and thought, I cannot go to shul dressed like this! He looked at his bare feet, and was ashamed. He did not know how to read, and was hesitant to pick up a siddur.

But he felt pulled, and so he made his way to the synagogue with the villagers. He found a seat toward the back of the synagogue and sat quietly, listening to words that “climbed in wisps, soaring upwards into the white light to meet the heavens.”  The more he listened, the more he wanted to pray.  But all he could do was sit silently and listen.

Then he remembered that in his pocket was the little flute he carried, with which he led his flocks.  He drew the flute from his pocket, lifted it to his lips, and began to play the simple melody he used to call his sheep. Of course, a shepherd’s flute has to be very loud, and indeed it was.  The sound of his melody filled the synagogue with its high, piercing notes. 

The people around him looked up in surprise! What was this?  Who was this young boy, dressed in rags, not holding a prayer book, playing his ugly flute in the middle of services on holy Rosh Hashanah?! Immediately a murmur went through the congregation as all heads turned to stare at the young boy, each face with a look of shock and anger. 

But the young shepherd did not even notice!  His eyes were closed as he played his flute, his heart filled with the feelings of his prayer.

“Rabbi, Rabbi!”  one woman cried. “Can’t you make this young boy stop!  He does not respect the prayers!  He is interrupting our service and should leave at once!”

The other angry people murmured in agreement at the woman’s words.  All eyes turned to the Rabbi for his response. But the Rabbi too had his eyes closed! What was he doing?

Slowly, the Rabbi opened his eyes and looked out upon the congregation with great love and wisdom. 

He said, “Do not be angry my friends. This young boy plays his flute as we sing our prayers. It is his prayer, his way of speaking to God on Rosh Hashanah. Listen again, my friends, and maybe you will hear a touch of what he hears.”

And so the people closed their eyes, and their anger quickly melted away. They heard the shepherd play a sweet soft melody for God.  As the music filled the room, the people fell quiet before the melody, listening to the prayer of the shepherd and his flute.

This young shepherd only wanted the chance to pray and to be part of his community. He wanted to feel that connection. And so he did in the only way he knew how – through the music of his flute. Though it did not sound like music to all of those around him, and some clearly felt distracted from their own prayers, once they changed the way they thought about his actions, they were able to appreciate the beauty, the passion, and the way in which this boy found his connection to God.

At camp a number of years ago, we piloted a program devoted to campers who had Autism Spectrum Disorders. We thought that we were providing a program that our families were seeking; integrating these campers into camp while also providing a separate staff and support specifically for them. Interestingly enough, we had trouble filling the program. Overwhelmingly, we heard from our community that what they sought was INCLUSION – to be FULLY INTEGRATED into camp, not in a program running alongside that clearly delineated them as other.

We had nine campers that summer. Of those nine, one spent the next summer fully integrated into a camp session then spent the following couple of summers at Kutz Camp in their Mitzvah Corps program, for teens who have Autism Spectrum Disorders that fully integrates them into the camp experience. Another spent a few summers fully integrated into our sessions.

We heard these families. We now focus on INCLUSION. We focus on seeing each and every camper as made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. They are each unique and special. While extra support is provided when needed, they are no longer part of a separate session. They live in cabin with and have the same activities and opportunities for experience as neurotypical campers.

Each summer, we have a number of staff and professional volunteers who specialize in camper care. We call it our Nefesh program. In Hebrew, nefesh means soul. These dedicated people help to care for the souls of our campers and staff. They speak to each family who has noted a concern or a diagnosis prior to the summer to ensure that each camper is cared for in the best way possible and has an incredible and successful summer at Camp. They work with campers who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and a range of other diagnoses. They also support campers who have severe homesickness and behavioral challenges. As we learn more about our campers, we are able to provide a better experience throughout their time at camp.

A number of summers ago, we became one of the first camps in North America to openly welcome a transgender camper. We did so through countless hours meeting with the family, working with Keshet, a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life, our board, the Union for Reform Judaism, and our sister camps.

Since then, we have welcomed a number of transgender campers and counselors to camp. We now see inclusion programs at most Jewish camps, including dedicated staff and professionals. Camp Ramah has a long standing and fantastic program called Tikvah which specializes in serving campers with special needs, and helps them with job preparation when they age out of that program. Camps across North America are now opening their doors to transgender campers and staff.

“Including others” means providing a space of welcome for those who may not feel welcomed elsewhere.

I have felt the transformation that happens when people are seen for who they are. I have seen the joy in a transgender camper’s eyes when he was told to stop acting like such a boy by a camper who did not realize what his journey had been.

I have seen the look of accomplishment at the end of a session in the eyes of a camper who was sure she would go home early.

I have heard the power of a camper sharing the story of her difficult life journey, working with a rabbi to craft the right message and the embrace that she felt by all.

This is why Jewish camp exists. We make these moments Jewish. That these young people can be who they are in a Jewish setting, that they learn acceptance, love,  respect, and caring on Jewish time and with their Jewish community.

Camp is a place of inclusion, where people can find and be themselves. And like the lesson taught by the rabbi and the shepherd boy, a place where can listen to the melody made by our campers, hear a touch of what they hear, and create a truly sacred community.

Shabbat shalom.