If you could achieve anything in the world, what would it be? If you could be anyone in the world, who would you be? And what if everyone around you told you that neither were possible? For close to eight weeks of my year, I have the privilege of working in a place where we make the impossible possible. When others say ‘no’, we say ‘yes’ – and we spend our days and nights finding ways to turn that ‘yes’ a reality.
Camp HASC is a seven-week summer program in the scenic Catskill Mountains for close to 400 children and adults with mental and physical disabilities – although I can assure you that you will find no disabilities here. While during the year many of our campers may feel isolated, at camp everything becomes available to them and most see larger amounts of growth and achievement during these seven weeks than they do during an entire year’s rehab and therapy.
I work alongside some of the finest, hand-picked souls. We are comprised of several hundred child-care staff, waitresses, dieticians, counsellors, therapists, educational experts, medical professionals, social workers, psychologists, behavioral specialists, recreational staff, rabbis, a team of kitchen and maintenance staff, and a kollel of young men. We miss meals, sleep only a few hours each night, and wake early in the morning to ensure that our campers are provided with the highest levels of care and love. How we function biologically is only possible within Camp HASC – because every aspect of our being is devoted to a cause much higher and holy than our individual selves.
In my capacity as a social worker and member of the Psychology/Behavioral Team, I lead groups on social skills, communication, and conflict resolution for campers, meet with campers on an individual basis, and work together with my colleagues to create and implement behavioral plans for campers exhibiting challenging behaviors. I assist counselors who are experiencing difficult moments with their campers and I help make camp that much more inclusive. But what I really do transcends far beyond the scope of my contract or my typical 10am-8pm day.
Perhaps more than anything I’ve ever learned in my formal MSW program or any subsequent trainings or seminars I’ve participated in, my helping-philosophy has been shaped by my time spent within my summer home. Because in reality, I’ve come to learn that Camp HASC is not just a sleepover camp or an award-winning organization: it is a life outlook. It is a belief that each individual – created in G-d’s image – has a spark of holiness buried within, waiting to surface. It is a vision that there are no challenges too large to be capable of being overcome. It is a dream of success as being the culminating result of individuals coming together to bring more light and more love to others regardless of upbringing, communal affiliation, or personal beliefs. It is the mentality of never giving up: never giving up on campers, my clients, or myself.
I’ve also come to internalize that we do not do chesed here. Chesed in an act of kindness one bestows unto another: a relationship between giver and receiver. Chesed occurs when a benevolent individual does more for another than what is expected. Instead, in Camp HASC we live together for close to eight weeks, both giving to each other and learning more about ourselves from one another. And because there are no expectations of a fixed normality, no standards to judge ourselves or others against, we are all able to devote our efforts to constantly bettering ourselves as we gradually mend our fragmented, collective whole. Instead of forming a therapeutic relationship with my clients consisting of a bureaucratic contract of which I am the expert on their diagnosis, I strive to create partnerships which allow both of us to grow together.
The Masters of Kabbalah teach that in reality, we are each a soul trapped within a body, and it is this casing that holds us back from fulfilling our dreams and aspirations…or so we think. In Camp HASC, we focus on what lies beneath this shell, on the essence of every individual – campers and staff members alike. When scientific hypotheses predict that our campers should not be able to walk because they are wheelchair-bound, dress themselves independently because they have difficulty controlling their muscles, or play sports, ride horses, swim, or attend school because of he behavioral or developmental challenges that they face, we tell science otherwise. We push our campers because we know that they have a hidden potential buried within waiting to be actualized and illuminate the world around them.
Life is what we choose it to be; it consists of the relationships we choose to form, the growth we choose to make, and the people we choose to transform ourselves into. Holiness knows no limits. The only thing holding us back in life is ourselves. When others say ‘no’, say ‘yes’!
Jonah S.C. Muskat-Brown (MSW) is from the Greater Toronto Area and is a social worker in the Camp HASC Psychology Department. He draws inspiration from a broad scope of Torah sources and professional theorists, and utilizes both to see the inherent worth in each individual. He is passionate about breaking down barriers between people, and strives to inspire others to become their fullest selves possible and never to settle for the lives others dictate they ought to live.
Parent Quiz! A Little Humour
You know you are a parent of a child/ adult with disabilities when;
Check each statement that applies to you ;
- You drink an entire bottle of vodka when your caregiver quits. Any then you tell her she can have all of your jewelery, the car and the condo in Florida if she’ll stay.
- You think wandering around the Mall by yourself for half an hour is a vacation.
- You are convinced that families with ‘typical’ children are from another planet.
- Your family has been prohibited from flying on all major airlines in the Western hemisphere.
- You speak to at least 5 professionals per week about your child.
- You use a minimum of 2 time-outs daily (preferably for yourself)
- NOTHING embarrasses you in public anymore, not even when your child asks strangers if they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim.
- You have just made the 52nd call about POSSIBLE summer plans for my child
- Can you spell R-E-S-P-I-T-E
- Your idea of time to yourself is laundry, carpooling, dishes (note-visit to washroom not listed)
- You start to hyperventilate at the mention of a PD day (professional development=NO SCHOOL)
- Your child’s teacher tells you of a new therapeutic technique that would be oh so useful-if only it were used by a parent who truly understood and appreciated it!
- Your social worker replies to your urgent call by saying, “we’ll do lunch!”
- Wheeltrans has mistakenly dropped your child at the wrong community centre-but there will be another one in 3 1/2 hours
- The Jewish community understands and is open to your needs as a parent
- At the hemlock hour (4:00 pm-6:00 pm), you can cook dinner, do homework, with up to 3 children, toilet your child with disabilities, talk to the plumber on the phone, sew the hem of a uniform and make a snack for the babysitter
- You discover at the end of a parent teacher interview that you have been discussing the wrong child.
- One specialist said, ‘This operation will definitely help your child.” Another specialist admitted , “The operation is useless and will just cause unnecessary pain.” The third specialist complained, ” We don’t do that operation in this country.”
- Your son’s favourite book – ‘Barney Says Please and Thank You’ book is right next to his men’s size large underwear. Your daughter wants to go to Second Cup for coffee but would like it in a Winnie the Poo mug.
- On the bookshelf in your bedroom, the book, ‘Marital Bliss’ is lost between ‘Autism Through The Lifespan’, ‘The Original Social Storybook’, ‘Teaching The Autistic Child’, ‘Retraining The Brain’, ‘Teaching The Tiger’, ‘More Than A Mom’, ‘Autism Solutions’, etc……
- Run do not walk to the nearest bathroom and luxuriate in a drawn bath until you forget the names and ages of your children
- Double your dose of prozac/ valium/ cups of coffee
- Tell your children that their real mother in South America would like them back…and start the parenting process again…
Scoring Under 10
- Did you understand the scoring process
- Lower your dose of prozac/ valium/ cups of coffee
- You are the new facilitator of your support group
- Run to the nearest walk in clinic and check for pulse, respirations, reality
- You can easily handle 1-2 more children
DISABILITY” EMPOWERS US; “SPECIAL NEEDS” WEAKENS US
(Written for The Jewish Press‘ Building Blocks Magazine, September 2016)
“Special needs” terminology is insidiously poisonous. This euphemism seems innocuous, but, in actuality, it corrodes and undermines the very strides for dignity, respect, and equality for which disability activists have crawled up the U.S. Capitol steps, effected the longest Federal agency sit-in in American history, and undergone arrests for civil disobedience at bus stations, legislative offices, and university campuses. It keeps us, people with disabilities, separate (special) and in a disempowered position (needy) relative to others. By referring to people with disabilities as “special needs populations,” society reinforces the charity (chesed) model of disability based upon neediness, a disempowering paradigm.
Need and Relational Inequality
Most people, especially in the frum community, are not familiar with the history of disability activism. Historically, we have been perceived to be, and most often have been, in the position of being in need, dependent upon the kindness of our families and of strangers. We have not been in control of our own lives and have been perceived as and treated like perpetual children (as evidenced by the title of this fine magazine, “Building Blocks”). This has led to a state of ‘relational inequality’. Someone with “special needs” is by definition a person in a needy position relative to the other and is prone to be related to as such. Disability activists rose in the 1970s to tirelessly fight against pity, paternalistic attitudes, discrimination, and to remove all barriers to full participation in society. Identifying us in relation to our needs contradicts our strivings to elicit true respect for who we are and what we offer.
Owning Our Disabilities
Disability, in contrast to need, is a demographic attribute with no relational or interactional implications. We with disabilities do however challenge the concept of normality and socially-defined notions of perfection. We move, communicate, receive and process information, behave, or respond to social cues and environmental stimuli differently. We are perceived as different and, yes, as having a disability relative to others, regardless of whether or not we need reasonable accommodations, assistive yielded eons of prejudice towards people with disabilities. Millions of people with “hidden” or “obvious” disabilities worldwide have been shunned, hidden away, mentally and physically tortured, and murdered. Even in the frum community, we have historically been kept behind bedroom doors, disowned, and sent to residential institutions, in part due to social ostracization or the fear of such.
In America, Jews, Black people, and Women have effectively fought prejudice by proudly owning their identities. Akin to these groups, the Disability community, boldly claims its identity; the very identity that has marginalized us. Furthermore, within the Disability community, we have Deaf, Autistic, Blind, and Mental Health communities, etc. Each sub-community has its own identity with shared world-views, experiences, expressions, aesthetics, and frustrations. We embrace our disabilities. Social stigma, prejudicial discrimination, and lack of access and accommodations are the common experiences that unite our sub-groups into a unified sociopolitical identity. I am a Jew with a [physical] disability. An identity-first Jewish disability activist would say “I am a Disabled Jew.” As a sociopolitical entity, we collectively acquire esteem, power, and influence in our strides to become integral to our communities.
“Special Needs” Undermines Our Respect and Power.
The term “special needs” is used to obfuscate disability. “Disability” is a term that disturbs those who don’t know disability history. But, in fact, “special needs” weakens us; it emphasizes our needs; thereby highlighting our reliance upon others.
Moreover, the term “special” not only sets our needs apart from others, but by extension, the person becomes “special” and differentiated from the mainstream. How many times have you seen the phrase “special children” in this magazine as well as in other publications? In psychology, this is called “reaction formation.” A person who we once pitied or feared somehow becomes special, amazing, or saintly. But in reality, we still pity or fear that person on some level.
Disability activists, including myself, call upon media outlets, such as the Jewish Press, as well as service providers, community leaders, and caregivers to cease using the terms “special” and “special needs” when actually referring to people with disabilities. Let’s confidently own our hidden and obvious disabilities and bond together in unison to command respect from our peers who have not yet joined our demographic.
November 28th, 2016
Jews with Special Needs: Strengthening Community Through Inclusion
by Rabbi Mitch Cohen
“Those with special needs shouldn’t have to follow us. They can, in fact, lead us. Let’s empower them and give them the chance to be our full and equal partners in our Jewish community.”
The full story
There’s a picture in my office from a Bar Mitzvah that took place about 15 years ago. It’s of a boy named Brad, being called to read the Torah for the first time at Camp Ramah in Canada, where I was director early in my career.
There are such moments across the Ramah network of summer camps each year, and I remember them all. But this one has particular resonance and meaning, and I want to be reminded of it. Brad has Down syndrome. His synagogue had determined that he couldn’t have a Bar Mitzvah because he could not properly recite the brachot. I’m quite sure that this decision, back in the mid-1990s, was not made on the basis of anything other than a lack of perspective, resources and knowledge about those with special needs.
But despite all of the 21st century political correctness in our discourse, public accommodations in our infrastructure and spirit of inclusiveness in our society, those with special needs, like Brad, are still locked out of so many moments of meaningful involvement and growth.
Within the Jewish community – at our camps, our schools, our synagogues and other community organizations – this has been no less of an issue than in the mainstream culture.
But as a people imbued with a commitment to social justice and fairness, we share a special charge to address it through strong advocacy, new thinking and robust funding and execution of programming across the Jewish landscape.
Since that seed was planted, Ramah has expanded its special needs offerings exponentially across its network, with our foundation and philanthropic partners, to serve Jewish youth with autism, mental retardation, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other developmental, learning, mobility and social disorders.
Programs include family camps, vocational training, and even trips to Israel, including one this February, for our youth with special needs. Constant is the immersion of Jewish youth with special needs into the camp population, so they can feed off the energy of other campers, and so others – campers, counselors and American, Canadian and Israeli staff – can feed off them as well.
So why did it take four decades after Ramah helped to make special needs programming a priority for the issue to percolate to the top of the communal agenda? The answer is not all that important, although I presume it’s the maturing of a grassroots issue, and momentum created by Ramah camps and by schools and other institutions throughout the Jewish community where special needs programming and education has taken many shapes and forms.
But now it’s time for the community to look at Ramah’s models and those of others, support them with long-term funding, create an environment for collaboration, and allow special needs programming within the Jewish community to grow, become a part of the mainstream, and stand as an example to our broader society.
Back to Brad for a moment. After his triumph at Camp Ramah in Canada, his Jewish involvement grew. He ignited more Jewish observance in his own home, and he became a regular at
synagogue, inspiring his family to do the same.
This ripple effect is a constant and so often noted. The child or young adult with special needs – accepted, encouraged, and embraced at summer camp – is a catalyst for Jewish observance and education among siblings, parents and others.
Those with special needs shouldn’t have to follow us. They can, in fact, lead us. Let’s empower them and give them the chance to be our full and equal partners in our Jewish community.
Rabbi Mitch Cohen, Director, National Ramah Commission
From ADVANCE: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference,
My brother Gabriel and I both have autism. Noah, on the left, does not. I was diagnosed in October 2004, at the age of eight. Gabriel, four years younger than me, was diagnosed just prior to this. It has been an interesting experience having a brother who is also on the spectrum.
While we are very different, over the course of our lives, our relationship has changed numerous times. And we are finally, at the ages of 20 and almost 16, becoming close.
Named for an Angel
Gabriel was born on October 18, 2000, at Huron Valley Hospital in Commerce, Michigan. My initial reaction to gaining a second sibling was typical for a four-year-old… my logic was I already had a brother, so why would I want another one? But, over time, Gabriel began to grow on me.
I will never forget one night when he was about nine months old. For my fifth birthday, my parents had bought me brand new pajamas. I think they were designed with some Disney character. I was in my bedroom, with my mom and Gabriel. Somehow, I made him laugh so hard that he vomited all over me. I was five, so I got angry. But by the next day I forgave him.
I also remember having a CD I would ask my parents to play in the car, which featured some typical early 2000’s pop group, singing their version of Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. I remember singing over it to Gabriel. Because, for the first few years of his life, he was my world.
Things changed when I was eight. After participating in a study at Detroit Children’s Hospital at the insistence of my therapist, a psychiatrist concluded I had Asperger’s Syndrome. This came soon after Gabriel had been diagnosed.
I almost immediately resented having autism, and because Gabriel had been diagnosed first, for whatever reason, I saw it as his fault, somehow. What can I say, I was a kid. It took me until my senior year of high school to accept that part of him and myself.
As we grew up, after my parents divorced, my dad moved out and I was bar mitzvahed, I saw it as my job to help alleviate how autism was affecting him. I would lash out whenever I thought he was acting ‘odd’, as defined by some part of my mind.
For a very long time, I actually disliked my own brother. I think it was due to the fact that, as the years went by, I saw in him behaviors I had exhibited at that age, and because I wanted to forget my past, I didn’t want him to go down the same road I had. So I was, frankly, horrible to him for most of his life.
At some point I realized that I did not want to spend my adult life having my little brother, whom, once, I had adored, hating me for how I treated him as a child. It was already starting to happen. I regretted all the time I spent taking out my own personal frustrations on him.
Acceptance came when I turned 18. As I began to find myself, I could accept all of who I was, and with that, I could accept Gabriel. Acceptance, however, does not always bring peace. After my freshman year of college, when I came home and Gabriel was completing middle school, I finally made peace with him. He’s my little brother, and nothing can change that.
With both my brothers, I have found that as we change with each passing year, our dynamic as brothers changes as well. I’m on the edge of my second decade, Noah is about to be a sophomore in college and Gabriel will be 16 in five months. We’re older, but not necessarily wiser. The three of us are still learning about who we are, and what we want in life. But I think that we’re learning together.
About Max Granitz
Max is a 20-year-old college student who just so happens to have Asperger’s Syndrome. He will be a junior at Grand Valley State University in the fall, where he is working towards a Bachelor’s in Writing. He is an intern at the Friendship Circle of Michigan, and has been a part of the organization since 2004. Aside from writing, his interests include reading, the performing arts, and history.