Photo: Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe
Deafness, Summer Camp And Inclusion
By Rabbi Rebecca L. Dubowe
January 22, 2017, 8:37 pm
The New York Jewish Week
The warm early-morning sun was up and everybody was still sleeping. I quickly glanced at the daily schedule that was posted on the wall nearby the cabin’s entrance. There was kitchen duty, morning t’filah, chugim sessions including shirah, art and journaling, working with the horses, going horseback riding, swimming or hanging out by the pool, free time to read, Israeli dancing with the entire camp community, dinner and then an evening educational program.
Because I knew the schedule, I knew exactly what was happening and where I needed to be every single day from morning to evening. However, once the sun went down, my schedule became very dark and quiet. I felt like there was this thick black wall that divided me from everyone else. I am deaf and a full-time lipreader. I need real practical light to communicate with everybody including my bunkmates, friends and family. In order for me to follow a conversation, I must be able to clearly see the other person’s face.
Sitting around the campfires or going on a night hike while the naturalist would tell us stories was always daunting for me. Once the lights were turned off in the cabin, my connection to my camp bunkmates was immediately cut off. I often wondered what my bunkmates talked about. I would ask the counselors, but their response would be, “Oh it’s nothing important.” This phrase is one the most common and demeaning responses people can say to a deaf person or to others who may have special needs. It is insulting. You may tell me these little snippets of conversation are not important, but as a teen it was the most important conversation that I wanted to hear. I wanted to know about their day, I wanted to know which cute boy they liked, I wanted to know what they were going to wear or I wanted to hear a funny joke. Most importantly, I wanted to be accepted and be cool just like them rather than be known as the one who was deaf and could not participate in the traditional nighttime rituals that only happen at camp.
Of course, I found a way to cope as I told myself who would really want to put up with all the teen drama especially after a long day in camp? That was my mantra that I repeated to myself every night and as a result, I woke up every morning feeling quite refreshed and rarely overtired. Fortunately, my sense of humor kept me going and I knew that there were other activities that I greatly enjoyed in camp.
Today, the Jewish Camping world has aggressively sought out ways to invite children and teens of all abilities to attend their camps. They have made some remarkable strides and are continuously collaborating on finding more creative ways to make camp fully accessible in different ways. Yet there is still a great need felt by many of my friends in the special needs community to really feel accepted or be a part of the Jewish camp community. There are still too many obstacles—both mentally and physically—that must be addressed.
As a rabbi, I have fully supported and embraced the importance of sending our children to a Jewish camp and that means all children should have the same opportunities. There is still much work to be done, until then, we must make every effort that all children will be able to reminisce and share their loving and positive memories of camp throughout their lives.
And, if I could relive my camp memories, I imagine keeping my iPhone next to my bed in the cabin while my bunkmates and I text each other back and forth all night long about the gossip of the day and never getting a wink of sleep. Now that would be cool!
Rabbi Rebecca L. Dubowe serves as an intentional interim rabbi for Moses Montefiore Congregation in Bloomington, Illinois. She was the first female deaf rabbi ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. An inclusion advocate, she speaks often on the subject of inclusion and acceptance of families with special needs, especially within the Reform Movement and the Jewish community-at-large.