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Saturday, November 29, 2014

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Blog prompts camp to reverse decision about blind camper

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Ron Polster

Camp Ramah in Canada and the Jewish community learned a lesson this week about the power of social media.

Rabbi David Krishef, a Ramah parent, blogged about the Utterson, Ont., camp’s decision to send his blind son, Solomon, home early, because it couldn’t accommodate the boy’s special needs.

The decision was reversed yesterday, the day after the blog entry was posted and shared on Facebook and Twitter, prompting dozens of emails to the camp and its oversight body, the National Ramah Commission, to protest the treatment of Solomon, 15, by the camp, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement. Rabbi Krishef’s blog can be found at http://embodiedtorah.wordpress.com.

Following the camp’s new decision, Rabbi Krishef, who is spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids, Mich., posted a followup blog entry last night. In it, he wrote that camp director Ron Polster had apologized and reassigned staff so that Solomon could remain at camp for the rest of the summer.

As well, the rabbi apologized “for the damage I have done to the reputation of Camp Ramah in Canada… I did so only because I thought it was the only way that I could effect change.”

In response to a comment that criticized him for “airing dirty laundry,” Rabbi Krishef wrote that because he was only informed of the situation Tuesday night and was not able to address it until Wednesday evening, he had only two days to take action before Shabbat.

Rabbi Krishef wrote, “Maybe I could have sent a note only to my private rabbi network, and not posted on Facebook or Twitter. But this is my son, and if I delayed too long, it would have been too late.”

Before the decision was reversed, Solomon was scheduled to leave the camp this Sunday on visitor’s day, the day before the second session begins. In the end, that is what Solomon has decided to do.

In an email to The CJN, Rabbi Krishef wrote, “I know that this is probably futile, but it is not my wish that you write a negative story about Ramah. The fact is that Ramah has been great for my son for five years and has bent over backwards to accommodate him. That has been their consistent attitude – this incident was an aberration, and the poor decision was reversed.”  

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s National Ramah Commission and a former Camp Ramah in Canada director, told The CJN that “social media is a great tool for great camp PR. In this case, however, it provided too many people with easy access to a public forum in ways which have been hurtful.”

He commended camp director Ron Polster, who has been with the camp only since June 1, as “a wonderful, caring human being.” Polster, who succeeded Michael Wolf as director, spent five years as director of URJ Camp George before becoming director of Jewish camping initiatives at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto from 2007 to 2011.

Rabbi Krishef’s initial blog entry, posted July 18 at 9:23 p.m., showed only one side of the situation, Rabbi Cohen said.


Rabbi David Krishef

Rabbi Krishef wrote that Solomon, who was attending Ramah for his fifth time, loves camp. He had only attended for one session in the past, but this summer his program required a full summer’s enrolment.

In his initial blog entry, Rabbi Krishef wrote that Polster “decided that the camp was not willing to either hire an additional staff member or redirect a small amount of current staff time” to help Solomon. The rabbi said that some of the reasons for the decision were that Sol omon takes too long eating and showering, and requires help moving from activity to activity.

He said that he and his wife were not contacted about the issues, and that they could have provided some solutions. He also accused Polster of betraying Ramah’s values.

At least one of the 124 commenters noted that Solomon’s picture is on Ramah’s website, next to information about eligibility for camp ( campramah.com/about.htm ).

In a July 20 statement to Ramah constituents, Rabbi Cohen and Sheldon Disenhouse, president of the National Ramah Commission, wrote that Ramah “has always prioritized the value of inclusion… To those who have reacted to one blog post with harsh conclusions, without first-hand knowledge of the situation, we would hope that you can understand that sensitive matters like this one are often more complex than presented.”

However, they wrote that they could not comment publicly “on this or any other individual case due to concerns of privacy.”

Ramah camps have “an outstanding record” of inclusion, they wrote.

Camp Ramah in Canada has offered a program for campers with special needs – the Tikvah program – for almost two decades. The program has 17 campers this summer.

“All the Ramah camps are committed to inclusion,” Polster said. “That continues to be the case.”

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