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A summer adventure for unique teenagers
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A summer adventure for unique teenagers

Travel camp offers kids with special needs a tailored approach

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

On their Aryeh United adventure, local teens visit Arches National Park.
On their Aryeh United adventure, local teens visit Arches National Park.

When it was time to send my son to summer camp, we had our choice of Jewish camps, which have proliferated in the wake of studies documenting the correlation between Jewish summer camp and Jewish identity. 

We could choose from among camps of every denomination or none, general or specialty, Judaism lite to Judaism intensive, nearby or distant. 

For my daughter, it was more than a little different. With some special needs but almost ready for the mainstream, she falls into a gap seldom met by “mainstream” camps or the too few camps that accommodate kids with major and minor disabilities. The Conservative movement’s Tikvah program at Camp Ramah is recognized as a pioneer in the field, along with programs offered by Yachad: The National Jewish Council for Disabilities, affiliated with the Orthodox Union. But these aside, the options are limited, especially for teens.

That is exactly the gap Yoni Glatt hoped to fill as founder of Aryeh Adventures, a summer travel camp for teens sponsored in part by the Orthodox Camp Lavi. Starting three years ago, it has offered Aryeh United, a nearly two-week-long trip for high functioning individuals with special social, cognitive, and/or emotional needs. The trip is described as “integrated,” in that it includes teens with special needs as well as peers known as “mentors.” 

“There’s just not a whole lot in the Jewish world out there especially for higher functioning kids that involves travel,” said Glatt, who during the year serves as youth director at Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston, where he lives.

Aryeh, which has applied to become part of the Foundation for Jewish Camp umbrella, offered two trips for teens with special needs this summer, its second in action. One group headed out west at the beginning of July for 12 days in Zion National Park, Arches National Park, and Bryce Canyon. Activities included hiking and horseback riding, water parks, amusement parks, the Las Vegas strip, and Universal Studios in Los Angeles. 

Another will head south to Smoky Mountain National Park for whitewater rafting, hiking, and horseback riding, as well as World of Coca Cola and the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, and finally a water park and Universal Studios in Orlando, toward the end of August.

For Glatt, a big part of the Aryeh United trip is fostering friendships, whether among campers or between campers and their mainstream peers. “It’s very difficult to get kids to hang out together,” he said.

Glatt, a 32-year-old father of two, has been working with kids with disabilities for much of his adult life. Before attending Queens College, he had been involved with Yachad.

For three years he worked with children with varying challenges at OHEL Bais Ezra, a Brooklyn-based service for Jewish families and children with special needs. He also has two nephews with disabilities.

Glatt named Aryeh Adventures in memory of his uncle, Ed Lichtschein, who was 35 when he was killed in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. (Lichtschein’s Hebrew name was Aryeh.)

“He had no kids and we had a very special relationship. I was devastated when he died,” Glatt said. “The second-to-last time I saw him, we passed a bunch of teens in a circle picking on a 12-year-old. My uncle was a very timid guy, but he stood up to those kids and gave them a piece of his mind and then took the kid out of the situation. It turned out the kid was autistic and had wandered away from his parents.” 

Even at Etz Chaim, where Glatt has been since 2010, he’s seen how heartbreaking it can be for some teens. 

While Orthodox by affiliation, Aryeh United is attracting a pluralistic crowd from the New York/New Jersey area, as well as from as far away as Florida and California — a reflection, according to Lisa Tobin, director of disabilities initiatives at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, of a dearth of options for Jewish families looking for camps serving kids with special needs.

Earlier this year, an FJC study of special-needs accommodation at residential camps revealed a need for training, funding, and advertising. Only 36 percent of camp directors said their camp offers a program for individuals with special needs or disabilities, although 79 percent said they actually serve campers with some need for accommodation whether or not they have a designated program. 

“We are working to have more kids with disabilities at camps, and they will age into these travel programs,” Tobin said. “Our goal, overall, is to see more children with disabilities attending Jewish camps. For us, success is not only measured among campers with disabilities. What I’m seeing is that the number of people impacted goes way beyond the campers — the whole community is strongly impacted. Bringing them in keeps them in the Jewish community and allows children to grow up in an environment where having people with disabilities is a normal, natural thing.”

Parents are able to search for residential camps accommodating children with disabilities at the FJC website, jewishcamp.org/find-camp. (For local options, see sidebar.)

The 30 kids on the July Aryeh United trip included 14 with disabilities and 16 mentors, including seven from New Jersey. Of the NJ youngsters, two attend public school, one attends a private out-of-district placement school, one goes to Golda Och Academy, two attend Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, and one attends Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth.

Although we are not Orthodox, we didn’t blink at Aryeh Adventures’ denominational affiliation. Nor did we worry that the program is relatively new (compared with my son’s camp, intentionally pluralistic and now celebrating its 70th anniversary). As Tobin put it, “Parents will go wherever their children’s needs are being met.” 

Now that our daughter has returned from her 12-day adventure, we know we made the right choice. The first week back she spent an hour on the phone with a friend she met on the trip, and the two already have hung out together. According to Glatt, the pair is well matched. 

We are thrilled to see her interacting with friends the way all teenagers do, something other teens and families might take for granted. She has already said she would like to join Aryeh United again next year — especially if her friend returns as well.

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