When Rabbi Yehoshua Gold was asked to fill in one day as a counselor in the Diamond Program, a behavioral modification summer program for children in Far Rockaway with special needs, he didn’t know his life was about to change. Headed for a career in math, he changed course after one day on the job. He came back the next day and stayed on as a counselor. After two years, he switched to special education as a career. Now, he runs Camp Shalom in Teaneck, where this summer he introduced the Diamond program, the first one outside of Far Rockaway.
Camp Shalom is a not-for-profit day camp with the motto “Summer fun the Torah way.” A visitor to Camp Shalom would see an idyllic, typical camp setting, with children playing sports on an open field and working on projects under shady canopies.
Rabbi Gold took over the camp in 2007, and merged his two worlds—camp director and associate director of SINAI School’s Maor High School at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, which serves students who have complex learning disabilities but can manage a rigorous high school curriculum with SINAI’s support, and are on a college track. “I believe strongly that camp is a necessity and not a luxury,” said Rabbi Gold. “Some kids do phenomenally well in school and others excel in camp. It’s an opportunity to help kids grow, learn and (work on) emotional development and social skills.”
That means all children, including ones with special needs who haven’t previously had a chance to participate in such experiences. “Any child who has the ability to follow the day-to-day process and schedule, regardless of school, comes to camp and is part of the bunk,” said Rabbi Gold. “We also have additional support, including shadows, for children who need extra help.”
The Diamond program for children in third through fifth grade adds an additional layer of help. The self-contained bunks participate in all trips and activities at Camp Shalom but are staffed by Diamond counselors who use a point system with rewards to help reshape behavior. For example, a student who walks in line may hear his counselor call out “Five points!” Another student may hear “Minus two points!” for not walking in line.
Camp Shalom has an administrative team of 15 educators, including Rabbi Gold’s wife, Leah, who train the counselors. On day one, the kids are introduced to the administrators who run different aspects of the camp.
Former SINAI students also hold staff positions. Like hiring for any job, the key is to put a person in the right place, to identify strengths and determine where the best fit would be. “There are many roles and opportunities,” said Rabbi Gold, “like sports staff, assisting in the art room or wood shop or in the kitchen.”
The kitchen is run by Five Star Caterers. President Kenny Yager has a long history of involvement with groups who further opportunities for children with special needs. “I have been working with children with special needs since I was 18 years old,” said Yager, “and my children have grown up in the special needs world. Our family has been involved with many organizations that support families with special needs children, including Camp HASC and Yachad.” In hiring for the kitchen at Camp Shalom, Yager chose to have staff with all abilities working for him. “It’s not a chesed to hire people with disabilities; it’s just the way this world should work,” said Yager. “Every single individual in the kitchen has an important role, and does an important job.”
For the past two summers, Yager’s son Daniel managed all the day-to-day operations in the Camp Shalom kitchen. His brother, Eli, assisted him in all aspects of the food program. Daniel has worked for his father in the past, and last year he worked with a student with special needs at BPY. Years of working with kids with disabilities have given Daniel a keen insight into their needs. Daniel said he trained the staff based on his ability to recognize both their struggles and their strengths. “If I see someone struggle, I’ll tell them to try something else. I tell them, ‘if a task is too hard, tell me, and I’ll give you something else to do.’ But that’s true for everyone—not only people with disabilities. Every one of us might have challenges that stop us from doing certain things, but different struggles shouldn’t mean no opportunities.”
Daniel also helped the mainstream staff integrate with those who had challenges. “I helped them learn how to interact, speak with and really work with them in a healthy and constructive way.”
Rabbi Gold longs for the day when Camp Shalom will not be alone in integrating children with special needs into its programs. “This should not be something special; this should be the norm. I tell the staff, the greatest joy as a counselor is seeing kids succeed who haven’t had the opportunity—when you help a child make that shot (in basketball), succeed at woodworking or play in a game and get cheers.”
This article was originally published in The Jewish Link.