When we started the URJ Kutz Camp Teen Inclusion Program (Gibush), an inclusion program that fully integrates camp participants who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I had no idea that almost three decades later, I would become the parent of one of the Gibush participants.
My son, Ayal’s journey has been anything but smooth. For years, Ayal was under-diagnosed with auditory processing issues with expressive and receptive language disorders. At the age of eight, he was diagnosed with ASD, albeit just days before we moved to Israel on a two-year sabbatical, where he was thrown into a Hebrew speaking public school (with a full-time aide to help him both with language inadequacies as well as with social/behavioral challenges). When we returned to the US, my husband and I enrolled him in a school that specializes in ASD, which is located an hour away from our home, well worth the two-hour commute each day.
Since Ayal was six months old, he’s spent part of every summer living on faculty row at Kutz, participating in the kids’ club, and enjoying significant “Ima-Son” time. When he turned 12, he became eligible to participate in the Gibush program, but I wasn’t ready for him to leave the nest just yet. As Ayal has matured and gained the ability to express himself, it became clear that he is lonely. He doesn’t want to be isolated in a solely autistic community. He doesn’t want to be perceived as different, abnormal, or “other.” He wants to socialize with all kinds of kids—becoming a Gibush participant was a welcomed opportunity for him to explore new relationships in a familiar and safe environment.
So, this year, my husband and I decided it was time for him to transition out of faculty row and into a participant cabin. I was a nervous wreck; Ayal was anxious about the change, too. The first few days were challenging as he and the Gibush staff experimented with a variety of schedules, activities, bunk placements, and potential friends.
Being Ayal’s Ima has given me a deep appreciation and understanding of the campers in our Gibush program. The spectrum is wide and as I’ve been told many times,“to know one autistic kid is to know one autistic kid.” We take great pride in crafting each camper’s experience based on his/her needs/desires/interests. And most importantly, our Gibush campers are never sectioned off or excluded from the program that our neuro-typical participants experience. Never. They might choose a different activity if something doesn’t appeal to them (options are always available) but the choice to opt-out is in their hands alone.
As a veteran faculty member at Kutz, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing countless loving interactions between our Gibush campers and our neuro-typical participants. This year we served more ASD campers than ever before—they constituted approximately 15% of the total participant population during several camp sessions. In every class that I have facilitated, Gibush campers were included in the roster. Our staff and faculty are universally kind and patient with the Gishbushnikim and our neuro-typical participant population quickly adjusts to the integrated group activities, discussions and program development with complete acceptance and compassion.
During my time at Kutz, I ran a daily one-hour learning lab teaching Israeli Dance to a self-selected group of teens. The first week was fairly typical—approximately 25 participants with about four Gibush teens participating. The second week was less typical—with only six participants, four whom were Gishbushnikim. The group consisted of two teens who were almost nonverbal, one teen who had never danced, two teens who had taken the class the previous week, and two neuro-typical kids who were both accomplished dancers in other dance modalities. To my delight and surprise, it turned out to be one of the most memorable and cherished teaching experiences I’ve had over the past three decades. One of the Gibush teens who repeated the lab ended up teaching the class several times since she knew the material so well. She‘d spontaneously exclaim, “I LOVE Israeli Dance SO MUCH!” (And she does. A lot.) Her enthusiasm was contagious. This is only one example of the unexpected, precious interactions that profoundly impact the entire community.
I suppose that a visitor might be taken aback by some of the behaviors that our Gibush participants exhibit sometimes, but to those of us who are part of the community, we don’t even notice. Perhaps if a Gibush teen was back in his/her home congregation and started to speak loudly in the middle of a tefillah, he/she might be ushered out of the sanctuary. At Kutz, it has become normative and expected behavior, completely accepted.
Our Gibush Teen Inclusion Program is abundantly successful because of the extraordinary vision of our Kutz Leadership Team, the amazing Gibush staff, and the willingness of our entire community to commit to an integrative experience, a blessed addition to the camp of 52 years.
My family and I are eternally grateful that Ayal has found a community that embraces him, celebrates him for exactly who he is, and gives him an opportunity to explore relationships with a diverse population of Jewish teenagers from around the world.
Lisa Tzur, Kutz Camp Council Chair