Jewish summer camp a haven for special needs kids

Autumn may be upon us, but for 18 local Jewish children the glow of summer will not soon fade. They were the lucky ones attending the first Friendship Circle Summer Camp.

The camp paired Jewish special needs kids one-on-one with teenage counselor/mentors for two weeks of wet and wild fun. It gave the kids an opportunity to enjoy a Jewish-flavored experience too often unavailable for them.

“These kids are not able to go to regular camps,” says Nechama Schusterman, who runs Friendship Circle with her husband, Ezzy Schusterman. “They get overwhelmed, so camps are not geared for them. We’ve had parents complain that there’s nothing for their kids in the summer. We said, ‘Let’s go for it and give them a chance to go.'”

Ranging in age from 5 to 14, campers faced a variety of diagnoses, from developmental disabilities to autism to bipolar disorder. For two weeks in August, they came to Los Altos Hills’ Congregation Beth Am for days of swimming, sports, crafts, music and field trips.

With so few options for special needs children, parents were thrilled to have Friendship Circle Summer Camp.

“As he got older it was more difficult to find camps,” says Julia Elman of Los Altos of her 12-year-old son Spencer, who attended the camp. “As a parent of a special needs child, I was most happy he was well taken care of and in a safe environment. You can’t put a price on that.”

Though the counselors were high school students, all had been trained before camp began, and a psychologist was on hand to help them deal with the challenges of working with special needs kids.

“We had two therapists from Pace [a special needs school in San Jose],” says Schusterman. “They gave a thorough training about how to communicate with the kids, how to understand them best. The volunteers asked a lot of questions.”

The teens were put to the test right away. In the first days of camp, one child with bipolar disorder threw shoes and screamed “I hate you!” at the staff.

“By the second week he really trusted his buddy,” recalls Schusterman. “He became a helper for all of us. Another child was very shy at first, but by the second week the child was hand in hand, arm in arm with the mentor.”

Spencer Elman, a developmentally delayed seventh-grader, had no such problems. His mother says he is very outgoing, and he had attended Friendship Circle winter camp last year. “The kids working [at the camp] were great,” says Julia Elman.

As a bonus, the camp featured plenty of Jewish content, something relatively hard to find for special needs kids. The theme for the summer was “The Six Days of Creation,” which inspired various activities. Friday brought Shabbat activities, such as challah baking, and one Friday the teen volunteers wrote and performed a Shabbat play.

“They were very accepting of everyone’s personal choices about Judaism,” notes Elman. “I feel Spencer’s learning the things all Jewish kids should know.”

The camp is sponsored by tuition, donations and a grant from the Northern California Grantmakers. Friendship Circle is supported through grants from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Koret Foundation, the Fox Family Foundation, the Myra Reinhard Foundation, the Special Kids Fund and individual donors.

For Schusterman, this summer’s trial run bodes well for more Friendship Circle camps in the future. She has dedicated her career to Jewish children with special needs, so the summer camp will play an important role in her work.

“We’re brought up to make a difference and help in any way we can,” she says of her Chabad background (her father, Yosef Levin, is rabbi of Chabad of the East Bay). “I do have a particular love for children and programming. And I love taking something and growing with it.”

For more information about Friendship Circle, contact Ezzy and Nechama Schusterman at (650) 858-6990, or online at www.friendshipcirclepa.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.