Dear Kutz Camp,
You may remember me as the awkward teenager who participated in the Regional Board track at Kutz in 2009. You may also remember me as the girl who went for walks every morning before programs started, requested extra Tamiflu pills and insisted that my future husband was on North American Board. I look back on those days with fond memories, and am still thankful for my counselor who handpicked lice out of my hair during the last days of the summer.
I’m pretty sure I reached the peak of coolness when I was 17. I was the Programming Vice President of NFTY-GER, a North American youth group for Reform Jewish teens. I was also the president of my local temple youth group. And I participated in my last summer as a sleep-away camp camper at Kutz before becoming a counselor the following summer at Eisner, the camp that I grew up attending. These experiences helped define my Jewish identity, refine my leadership style and improve my confidence.
For my younger brother Michael, 17 looked quite different. He had been attending the same school that he had attended since childhood, and would continue to attend until the age of 21. He had attended a day camp for kids with special needs for a few summers, but being isolated from other campers was not ideal. He was able to attend Kutz Camp for a few years when he was younger, but quickly outgrew the counselors in age and stature. He had not been a part of youth group, did not hold a leadership position and could not fully participate in all of the amazing opportunities that the Jewish world has to offer. For many young adults with autism, like Michael, these Jewish milestones are harder to reach.
Autism did not and does not prevent Michael from celebrating Judaism. He participates fully in family holidays, reading from the Haggadah, fasting on Yom Kippur, saying the Chanukah blessings and singing the prayers at Friday night services. My parents worked with our temple to create a program that expanded Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutoring to those with different needs, affording him the opportunity to become a Bar Mitzvah. From his perspective, the Jewish world provides song, dance, tradition and family.
Yet, leadership opportunities, job positions and young adult engagement programs have always been out of reach. So often, the self-defined “inclusive” Jewish community does not actually include people like Michael.
Three summers ago, Michael returned to Kutz Camp for the last time as a camper, where he grew up attending the Gibush special needs inclusion program – a program that celebrates full inclusion in all aspects of camp life. We knew his camper bliss would have to end at some point – he aged out. He absolutely loved camp, and could not understand why the counselors were crying as they said goodbye. My parents were devastated, having very few options for summer programs, let alone Jewish summer programs, as he entered into adulthood.
Two summers ago, you changed his life, and my family’s life, forever.
You created a work program for him at the same camp that had allowed him independence, Jewish learning and fun. Michael had never worked before and had just graduated from his school, which was already a big routine shift and stress-inducer. You said that you did not want to see him go, that you wanted him to join your staff. And he flourished as a member of the Welcome Center team, helping with faculty arrivals, sorting packages and mail, being up at the canteen in the afternoon to sell snacks. And Michael was a regular on your daily runs into town to the post office where they even know him by name. You took a big risk and created an experimental program.
Of course, creating a new program requires extra attention to detail. All of the other counselors were briefed on Michael: his limited diet, his abilities, what he would be doing over the summer, etc. They greeted him with open arms, as they had when he was a camper, assuring my parents that he was, in their eyes, a staff member just like them. He had a great summer experience, interacting with campers and staff, living as an independent adult, participating in song session, Friday night services and Saturday Havdalah. And just like the other campers and staff, he was sad to leave his new friends.
This summer, you accepted Michael on staff again, along with two other former campers with special needs. You expanded your program, granting a life changing experience to three deserving adults and their families.
Kutz Camp, you demonstrated what Jewish values in action looks like.
Jewish tradition teaches us that we have a duty to treat people with civility and humanity, and mercy and kindness. We must work together to provide accessible and equitable opportunities for all Jewish changemakers, and strive to ensure that accessibility is not an obstacle. I know that my brother and his peers are leaders in waiting. It will just take a little bit of adapting and experimenting to make their rise a reality.
So thank you, Kutz. Thank you for changing my brother’s life, for providing him with a second home, for giving my family the gift of his happiness and for allowing me to share a special “sleep-away camp” bond with my younger brother. My parents, my youngest brother and I cannot thank you enough for taking this risk.
Michael’s sister, Sarah Glickstein