How Inclusion Helps Us Realize Our Dreams: My Visit to Greene Family Camp

“Bring your Lexus to Bruceville Texas.” 

These cheerful and yet unfamiliar words provide a perfect backdrop to my week at Greene Family Camp (GFC).  We sat in front of a campfire, with four men leading.  First, Loui Dobin, the camp’s energetic powerhouse of the director, whom I met only last year when I started my inclusion work, and yet who fits so many of the adult male archetypes from my camp childhood that I feel like I’ve known him much longer. 

Then, Loui’s son, whom I didn’t even get to meet, but who, as a lifetime camp person who has now transitioned in the professional world, I feel like I know.  On the other side, Dan, a song leader whom I just met but with whom I already feel the easy connection of a camp friendship, and Noam, one of my oldest friends, who doesn’t know the song any better than I do, but is affably playing along, like you do at camp.

This is a metaphor for the week that I’ve just finished.  Surrounded by new friends that feel like old friends, by camp fixtures that evoke all of the wonderful memories of my own safe spaces that I wrote about here and here, camp stories that though not my own feel like I could have lived them, and just enough drop ins by my old friends to tie it all together, my time at GFC really allowed me to explore how the very inclusion that I wrote about for children works for adults too.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my original contact with GFC was about bringing my inclusion programming to the children, the staff, and and education summit for Texas youth professionals which capped off the week.  All of these things happened, and they were fabulous.  But they only tell part of the story.

As I was making my initial plans with my old friend Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, we envisioned something greater.  What if, instead of coming in for a marathon of inclusion programming as has been my custom at summer camps, I actually joined the camp family is a faculty member for a week?

I must’ve said “are you sure you can handle me for that long?” at least a dozen times.  But we decided to do it, and so, as of the first Monday of camp’s second session, I was guiding several units of campers in creating their Britot Kehillia, the governing contracts for the bunks, and by Tuesday, I was going into individual cabins to teach campers their Shiurim, or Jewish lessons.  Together we learned about the Jewish concept of Hineni, which the camp interpreted as being there for each other.  I got to watch as the campers wrestled with the ideas, embraced them and made them their own.  Slowly but surely, we formed connections, such that they invited me to their talent show on the night before I left, some of the boys wanting to put on an act specifically for my benefit.

After my inclusion program with the counselors in training, I feel like we enjoyed a strong bond, with them coming up to me at all times, for a chat, a high five, a quick connection.  Somehow, I know that I slipped some life advice in with my disability advice and I think that’s what resonated.  The feeling is mutual, as the energy and enthusiasm gave me hope for the future

I swam with kids, I ate with kids (at least one of the nights when I dined with the rising 10th graders), and I had the singular honor of being belayed on a high ropes course by a bunk full of preteen girls, delightfully chronicled here, with video below.   Someone wiser than me will have to decide whether the kids were more moved by the experience, or I was.

My incorporation into the community was more than just the campers.  Invited to the leadership team meeting because it was an honor extended to all guests, I was privileged to be able to offer some of my own perspective on the issues that the team was facing, and privileged to continue to share what little wisdom I had with the senior staff whenever the opportunity arose. 

Though I’m sure that some parts of what felt like the team’s attentive listening had more to do with the wonderful respectful people that they are than any special contribution of mine, I do feel that, at several key times, maybe I contributed a little bit.  Certainly, I felt a part of the community, driven to do what I could.

I’m very aware of the effort that went into giving me that feeling.  I’m aware of the tireless efforts of a team of senior staff, none of whom, with the exceptions of Loui and Ana, who departed before I arrived, had ever met me in person before I entered the gates, gave freely of themselves both before and during my visit to make sure that I could seamlessly integrate into a new environment. 

Whether the constant companionship, the endless offers of water to drink, or Mamtak, the GFC word for candy, to eat, or the invisible efforts evident in the fact that I was in a new place for eight days and nothing went wrong, I know how much commitment was devoted to bringing me in, and thus enabling me to give of myself to the community.  In the Reform Movement, we like to speak of audacious hospitality.  I can’t imagine a hospitality much more audacious than this.

And what did it mean for me?  As earlier blogs have chronicled, I had a truly amazing experience as a camper at the Eisner camp as a child.  Between Eisner, the URJ’s Crane Lake camp, and the URJ’s Henry S Jacobs camp, I’ve also got to experience, in some measure, what it is to be a special guest at camp, to teach the campers.

But I seldom speak of the road not taken in my life, the Rabbi that I probably would’ve been had not the realities of a young college graduate in a wheelchair made me feel that that path was unattainable, and the joy that I would’ve felt to follow in the footsteps of my father and my mother, teaching young children at camp.  This week GFC gave me an opportunity that I’ve never had before, the opportunity to participate as a full camp faculty member, to bring my knowledge and love of Judaism, not just inclusion to young Jewish minds.

This, then, is the sum benefit of my inclusion experience at GFC.  I hope that I was able to bring my Jewish knowledge and my inclusion knowledge to a whole new group of young people (and young at heart).  I hope that I was a good friend to people throughout the week, and I know that they were true friends to me.

But more than that, my wonderful inclusion at GFC, a place that, though new to me, now feels as familiar in some ways as my true spiritual home in Great Barrington, allowed me to realize get another dream.  I wrote a few years ago how camp helped me to have all the experiences of a full childhood.  It seems that the same can be true in adulthood as well.

I have returned home virtually in awe of the lengths to which I was helped to participate this week.  Truly, GFC gets to assume a place in the pantheon of treasured places in my life, right along with the camps that did so much for my childhood.

I also feel a renewed commitment to the power of inclusion, to help us give of our talents and realize our goals.  I often speak about the fact that we can’t truly appreciate the benefits of inclusion until we practice it.  We may never know to which kids I made a difference this week, but I will surely know that the difference that they made for me. 

Last week was transformative, enriching, and fulfilling at a level that my paltry words can only partially embrace, all because the GFC family is entirely sincere with the invitation to  “Come on with Me to GFC”.