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NJ Y Camps raises standards to assist celiac sufferers
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NJ Y Camps raises standards to assist celiac sufferers

Staffers welcome Columbia U. experts on genetic disorder

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Leonard Robinson, executive director of NJ Y Camps, right, speaks with Dr. Peter H.R. Green and Cynthia Beckman, leaders of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, at the Jan. 5 NJ Y Camps board meeting at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange.
Leonard Robinson, executive director of NJ Y Camps, right, speaks with Dr. Peter H.R. Green and Cynthia Beckman, leaders of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, at the Jan. 5 NJ Y Camps board meeting at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange.

New Jersey Y Camps has entered into a partnership with the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University designed to significantly raise the bar on accommodating celiac kids at sleep-away camp.

Under the supervision and guidance of the center, the camp is building a separate gluten-free kitchen, and scrutinizing every activity to prevent sufferers from ingesting the grains that trigger the gastrointestinal disease. Other campers will be sensitized to the needs of those with celiac.

Although NJ Y Camps has increasingly accommodated celiac kids for a decade, executive director Leonard Robinson decided last summer that they just weren’t meeting a sufficiently high standard. Now, he said, “we’re doing it right.”

Dr. Peter H.R. Green, the director of the center, addressed the camp’s board on Jan. 5 to kick off an effort to educate and raise awareness among board members and everyone involved.

The initiative means a lot to Nahum Kianovsky of Maplewood, who just signed up his fourth-grade daughter who has celiac disease for two weeks at NJ Y Camp’s Nah-Jee-Wah this summer.

“They are really thinking about every aspect of the day, just like we do, all day long, every day, day in and day out — just like our child does,” he said.

One percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disease that causes gastrointestinal distress and bloating. People who suffer from celiac cannot ingest even a crumb of wheat, barley, or rye. There is no heightened incidence among Ashkenazi Jews; the disease affects all ethnicities evenly.

There are camps just for children with celiac disease, but many parents seek a more inclusive environment. Many Jewish camps accommodate youngsters with the disease, but, Kianovsky said, his research suggests the standards can always be higher.

“Saying you can do it and doing it the right way are two very different things,” he said. He chose Nah-Jee-Wah because he felt it was “doing it the right way,” but also for a sentimental reason — “My wife’s parents met at Nah-Jee-Wah many, many years ago.”

Green, the celiac expert, called the effort “exceptional” in a conversation with NJJN just prior to the board meeting. “I am not aware of any [mainstream] camps doing this to the extent that New Jersey Y Camps are,” he said.

In addition to regular camp sessions, there will be a gluten-free family camp weekend open to families of campers and non-campers. Staff from the celiac center, including Green, will attend.

Green said the conditions being provided by the Y Camps are those that are necessary for celiac sufferers and their families “to feel comfortable. One of the issues with celiac disease is that you are always anxious you are going to get poisoned. It will just give them confidence.”

Pninit Cole, the parent of a camper with celiac disease, has spearheaded the gluten-free effort at NJ Y Camps for three years.

At this point, she said, the Celiac Disease Center is “overseeing everything — they are guiding us and teaching us. They will offer training for kitchen staff, lend us their nutritionist, and provide workshops for the family weekend.”

“We’re helping them put everything in place for the long term,” said the center’s director of development, Cynthia Beckman. “Many, many people want to go to a sleep-away camp that can cater to a gluten-free lifestyle. It’s a huge challenge and a huge opportunity. So we want to be as helpful as possible.”

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