Elana Naftalin-Kelman has directed the Tikvah program for children with special needs at Camp Ramah of California for a dozen years. She consults with Jewish organizations, encouraging and teaching them how to be more inclusive of special needs youngsters and their families. She is the co-founder of Edah, a Jewish after-school program in Berkeley, where she lives with her husband and their three sons.
Jewish Journal: What is the biggest challenge you face?
Elana Naftalin-Kelman: The challenge does not come at camp but in my interactions with the rest of the Jewish community, and as I talk to new potential campers and participants. I try to help them understand we are an inclusive Jewish community. For many families, it is a new feeling, to be included in the Jewish community.
JJ: What dynamic brought about the new feeling of inclusion?
ENK: This has changed in the last five years. Many (families with special needs children) have not been able to find a home in the Jewish community, whether for a Shabbat service or in a Jewish school. For that reason, Camp Ramah has become their Jewish home where they feel included as a family.
Inclusion seems scarier on the outside than it actually is.
JJ: What has changed in the last five years?
ENK: Awareness in the Jewish community is growing. Professionals are more aware of the variety of needs. Jews in general are realizing our community includes lots of different types of people with a variety of needs. Awareness has a long way to go, but we are better off than we once were.
JJ: Can the attitude change be traced to an increase in the number of special needs children?
ENK: I am not sure whether there are more children with disabilities. But more children are being diagnosed than before. Awareness has grown also because people are noticing a segment of the community has not been served.
JJ: How did the awareness develop and evolve?
ENK: It happens in some communities because parents are making noise. In other places, it is because the kids want it. And because professionals come in, look around and see kids with disabilities not being served. Camp Ramah is one of the pioneers. We have been serving kids with special needs for more than 30 years.
JJ: How has the majority population at Camp Ramah responded?
ENK: It definitely has been an evolution. I tell people that the work we do with our campers and young adults with disabilities is really important — but almost more important is the impact on our typical campers. So a whole generation of campers, my own (three sons) included, are growing up understanding that people with disabilities are part of their Jewish community in a real way that they do not see in their real world.
JJ: Over your 12 years at Camp Ramah and three years in Jewish special education, what have you learned new about special needs children?
ENK: Inclusion seems scarier on the outside than it actually is. The most important word is “yes,” and then to figure out how to make it work. Do not be scared by the challenges in front of you. Seek the help and advice when you need to figure out how to support different types of kids differently. The basis is: Everybody deserves a place in our community. Camp Ramah has done that.
JJ: Have you developed a philosophy or policy to assure that each camper receives maximum opportunities and benefits?
ENK: My philosophy is: I always try to say yes. At Camp Ramah, we try to individualize programs that benefit each type of camper who comes through our door. I meet individually with families. I talk to parents. I meet with teachers and educators to figure how we could we make camp successful for all different types of kids. I work with typical campers, too, to see how we can make camp successful for them.