November 21, 2019

Friendship Circle LA Provides a Jewish Camp Experience for Kids with Special Needs

Menachem Gruen and Anna Grinberg Photo courtesy of Friendship Circle

The Santa Clarita Aquatic Center, GlowZone, Sky High, Scooter’s Jungle, Boomers and Knott’s Berry Farm. These were just some of the locations 45 local Jewish kids with special needs attended during their weeklong camp from Aug. 5-9, thanks to Friendship Circle Los Angeles (FCLA).

Established in 2003, FCLA provides a full range of social, recreational, educational and Judaic experiences for Jewish children with special needs.

Seventy-four volunteers worked with campers ages 5-25, taking them on various field trips, traveling on buses, singing Jewish songs and helping them form new friendships.

“[We had] more volunteers than campers [because] some campers are best suited to have two volunteers to make the day a little bit easier for them, whether it’s because they’re in a wheelchair or because they need two sets of eyes looking out for them to make sure they maximize their ability to enjoy every activity,” FCLA Development Director Gail Rollman told the Journal. “We want to make sure that every kid is safe.”

To ensure that safety, Rollman said, “We always have several behaviorists with us. We also have to make sure not only do we have the executive directors of the [organization] — [Rabbi] Michy and Miriam [Rav-Noy], who head Friendship Circle — but the director of the camp and the volunteers.

“We want [the kids] to feel like they’re typical kids,” Rollman added. “Many of them have siblings who are already going to camp and they see them having a good time. Our kids like feeling a sense of belonging, feeling included. [Camp] is like a rite of passage in the summer. [It’s] a time to explore, to broaden your horizons.” 

Rollman said FCLA also wants its teenage volunteers to see that kids with special needs are really just like them. “They all want to have a good time, they want to celebrate their Judaism, they want to make friends. We want the volunteers to also learn more about what it’s like to have a special need. The volunteer should grow as a teenager and learn more about those who are different from them, but also find out and realize that we’re all the same.” 

“Reaching out, giving someone a high-five, a fist bump, a shake on the hand and a hug, it connects you to someone. Physical touch is something that everyone understands, whether they can communicate verbally or not.” — Jacob Shofet

An FCLA volunteer for four years, 17-year-old Jacob Shofet said, “Because I have the pleasure of being a more seasoned volunteer, Rabbi Michy pairs me up with [buddies] who are lower functioning. At times, it can be challenging. One of the best techniques that I’ve learned from our behaviorist is [that] physical contact works wonders. Reaching out, giving someone a high-five, a fist bump, a shake on the hand and a hug, it connects you to someone. Physical touch is something that everyone understands, whether they can communicate verbally or not.” 

Jacob said he hoped his special needs buddy understands that he’s not alone. “Someone told me this metaphor, [that] sometimes it feels like they’re stuck behind an aging brick wall and every once in a while the bricks become loose and you’re able to catch a glimpse of what they want, who they are. It’s your job to shake the foundations of this wall and to really be able to reach out and set them free.”

Chana Leah Schuraytz, who has been volunteering with FCLA for 10 years, said, “I want my buddy to enjoy a camp experience like any other child. I try to make sure that every activity is accessible to him in a safe way in order to achieve that goal. I want him to be tired at the end of the day, but a ‘good tired,’ and to be excited to come back the next day.” 

Each year, the camp has a Jewish theme. “This year, the theme [was] based on charity and giving to other people,” FCLA Program Director Miriam Rav-Noy said. “We [had] a food drive and [the kids] made charity boxes. … That’s been really nice, to give the kids something that they can walk away with as a tangible experience in their Judaism.”

Having volunteers and kids from all Jewish affiliations, Rav-Noy added, “is such a beautiful thing to see everybody coming together in this common goal. Seeing volunteers stepping out of their comfort zones and really going the extra mile and going above and beyond to be able to connect with their buddies — it’s just priceless.”

Melissa Simon is a senior studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Jewish Journal summer intern.