When 20-year-old Shaked Meishar finished her military service and applied to become a summer camp shlicha through The Jewish Agency, she figured that she would spend her time at camp presenting Israel’s historical and cultural nuances to typical Jewish youth. But the Agency’s response took her by surprise.
“The Jewish Agency asked me if I would like to work with special needs kids at Camp Ramapo,” Meishar recalled. “At first I thought that special needs kids would not always be able to comprehend what it means to be from a different culture. But after I saw the slide show of Camp Ramapo, it didn’t matter.”
Located in upstate New York, Camp Ramapo is a residential summer camp that serves children ages six to 16 who are affected by social, emotional, or learning challenges, including children with autism-spectrum disorders. The camp, supported by UJA Federation of New York, provides a critical service to these kids.
“The kids know they have special needs, but they feel left behind in terms of friendships and adult relationships,” camp director Mike Kunin explained. “Not being like other kids can cause a lot of emotional pain and that’s what we try to address. These are kids with no friends. They don’t have playdates and they don’t get invited to birthday parties.
“Parents feel powerless in the face of this. There is no sadder parent than the parent of a kid who has been rejected. Kids who feel good about themselves do well, and because of the success they have here, kids feel good,” explained Kunin.
The camp provides everything a camper would experience at a mainstream camp – hiking, sports, singing, boating and arts and crafts. However, it does so through highly-individualized programming and a great counselor to camper ratio.
This year 13 shlichim have come from Israel to work at Camp Ramapo, Kunin said, adding that during his 20 years at Ramapo, these Israeli imports have often been his strongest counselors. The Israelis’ maturity relative to their peers and ability to handle the rigors of working with special needs kids coupled with their natural compassion make them ideal counselors for an emotionally challenging and physically exhausting environment like Ramapo.
“This is as tough a job as you can get, unless you’ve been through the IDF,” Kunin laughed.
Shlichim are also eager to reexamine their own assumptions about working with kids with special needs and to be creative, when needed.
“Each and every person can communicate and express themselves in their own ways,” Meishar said. “I have high expectations for everybody. If somebody doesn’t want to go on a hike, I have to try to convince them – because they can do it.”
Meishar brings the same approach to her role as an Israeli emissary.
“I had to change my goals. I thought I would come to the States to recruit for Birthright and Aliyah. But my time here became about getting kids to know that I am from a place called Israel and to help them understand what that means.
“You can find little ways to bring these kids closer to a connection with Israel. The campers really want to learn. Maybe because of me, they will go to Israel at some point in their lives and that would be big.”