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Putting in the Legwork, Local Boys Day Camp Rallies Around Disability Acceptance

Hamaspik’s Camp Neshoma Meets Camp Yachad for 7th “Integration Day” Soccer Game

July 16, '15

By Mendy Hecht, Hamaspik Gazette

What could be more educational for typical kids than learning how to integrate with special-needs kids?

What do parents of kids with disabilities want more than their precious kids being accepted and embraced by typical kids?

And when’s a better time to teach kids to overlook disability, accept and get along than summer?

That was the motivating spirit behind a watershed decision made by seven summers ago by Rabbis Shlomo Eisenberger and Avi Wachsler.

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Since the summer of 2005, Hamaspik of Rockland County has been running Camp Neshoma, its day camp-themed After-school Respite (ASR) program for kids with disabilities. The camp-style program was conceived by then-Day Services Director Yoel Bernath, now Executive Director of the successful Hamaspik Choice managed longterm care (MLTC) program.

Since 2005, Rabbis Eisenberger  and Wachsler have been running Camp Yachad (which means “together”), a summer boys day camp boasting a sizable sum of campers each year and one of several dozen serving Rockland County’s Orthodox Jewish community.

As it turns out, the two venues have one common denominator: Mrs. Hadassah Reidel.

Mrs. Reidel (née Eisenberger), the rabbi’s daughter, worked at the Women’s Division of Hamaspik of Rockland County’s Day Habilitation (Day Hab) program a good few years ago.

At the time, the then-Hamaspik Direct Support Professional (DSP) thought that both groups of boys would be a natural fit—that by bringing them together, Yachad would be living up to its name in yet another way. She was right.

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“They greeted us so nicely when we came off the bus!” recalls Yitzchok Grunstein, Hamaspik of Rockland County’s ASR Director.

Mr. Grunstein is recalling the moment of around 11:45 a.m. the morning of June 29, when a group of young Camp Yachad teens clustered at the door of the Hamaspik transportation vehicle that had pulled up at Manny Weldler Park in the heart of Monsey.

That spacious green park, rented tents and all, is the annual summertime launch pad for Camp Yachad. The camp rents the outdoor space from the municipality, setting up several party-like giant tents, portable office trailers and other temporary hardware on the periphery of one large field to turn the area into an operating day camp program.

On that day, the field normally crawling with dozens of boys of all ages all playing baseball, football, volleyball and other athletic sports, and all at the same time, also was shortly hosting a furious game of soccer.

But it wasn’t any ordinary round of the popular international sport. Pitted against the most of the 17 boys from Hamaspik’s Camp Neshoma, the dozen-plus Camp Yachad campers quickly realized that their counterparts were far more competitive than thought capable of.

In moments, an affected delicacy gave way to a healthy, boyish combativeness whose visceral roughness was only matched by Yachad’s suddenly real respect for their opponents— and which, perhaps counterintuitively, furthered both programs’ overarching goals of disability integration.

Camp Neshoma won the match, by the way—and not just because the Yachad boys were being nice to them.

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Is Camp Yachad becoming more accommodating with each passing year?

“I do see every year that they’re more involved,” responds Rabbi Eisenberger, or “Rabbi E.” as he is affectionately known, to the Gazette’s query.

Not only are his campers and staff alike more involved with special needs each summer, but they get more involved from summer’s start to finish, too. As it turns out, Camp Neshoma visits Yachad twice each season—once at its start and once at its conclusion.

The so-called “Integration Days” are also part of the camp’s mission to impart Jewish social-justice values to its campers. Known in Orthodox circles as chesed, literally “kindness,” any act of chesed campers are “caught” executing at Yachad is rewarded with a slip; collect enough slips by week’s end and you can collect a prize.

Apparently the chesed that is integration is rubbing off on camper Avrohom Yosef Green, 12.

“I like it that they had a good time,” he says. “They look forward to it a whole year.”

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This would be the 7th consecutive summer during which Camp Yachad and Camp Neshoma have been meeting up.

The process is fairly straightforward. Come each summer season, Rabbi E. is contacted by Camp Neshoma staff. The two exchange programming dates, negotiating possibilities until hitting upon a day and time that works for both.

Once finalized, Camp Neshoma’s impending visit is cemented into Camp Yachad’s schedule, included in scheduling notices sent home for parents and pumped up in preceding days to campers.

Small wonder the young men were excited when Camp Neshoma pulled up for its third visit under Coordinator Grunstein.

But besides playing a serious ballgame, campers of Neshoma and Yachad sat down post-joust to share in a one-on-one arts-and-crafts activity, with the boys pairing up to create take-home items marked with each one’s personal color and style.

And that each Camp Yachad camper comes away with new, or renewed, appreciation for individuals with special needs goes without saying.