URJ Camp Newman will host a summer session for Jewish kids with autism

In the rolling hills near Santa Rosa, at a place where thousands of URJ Camp Newman campers have flocked for more than a decade, history will be made this summer.  

For the first time, Camp Newman will host Camp Nefesh, a weeklong “camp within a camp” tailored to Jewish youth, ages 11-17, with autism spectrum disorders.

For most of these kids, it will be their first time singing Jewish songs by a campfire, bunking in a cabin with new friends, spending a week away from their families and experiencing a summer camp based on Jewish values. Camp Nefesh runs Aug. 13 to 19.  

Ruben Arquilevich

“There’s no opportunity that currently exists in Northern California for children with special needs to attend Jewish sleepaway camp,” said Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of Camp Newman. “It’s a mitzvah to provide and points to the value that we’re all created in a divine image. All Jewish kids who want to attend camp should be able to, regardless of special needs.”

Developed in partnership with the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, the program’s mission is to honor the unique characteristics of every camper and create individualized accommodations while providing access to Reform Jewish camping. Between 10 to 15 campers is considered a “full camp,” Arquilevich said. 

Campers will be grouped in their own unit with specially trained staff and will participate in modified camp activities. They will interact with the larger camp community for meals, communitywide

programming, and celebration of Jewish ritual and worship.

“We want them to have a greater sense of self-esteem and a greater positive image, specifically as Jews,” Arquilevich said. “To be independent from their parents and primary caregivers and create their own community and friendships is very powerful.”

Flora Kupferman

Trained counselors and professional staff will be present and supporting campers, who will join in daily Camp Newman activities such as art, drama, dance, sports, swimming and music. Worship, ritual, song and other spiritual activities will enhance their exposure to Judaism.

“We always find that people who work with kids with special needs get as much out of the experience as they give,” said Flora Kupferman, the BJE’s special-education consultant, who recently organized a camp for families of special-needs children. Afterwards, she added, “A counselor thanked me for the opportunity to work with these kids. There’s nothing better than that.”

The genesis of Camp Nefesh dates to more than three years ago, when Arquilevich and Kupferman first discussed partnering their organizations for a camp of this nature. The need was apparent, so they ramped up fundraising efforts to cover the camp’s costs, which would outweigh income from individual camper fees of $1,000 per child.

Elana Naftalin-Kelman, director of special education at the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, was brought on as a consultant for Camp Nefesh. Naftalin-Kelman, who lives in Berkeley, runs the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in Ojai, which is designed for Jewish kids and teens with learning, emotional and developmental disabilities.

She assisted with programming for Camp Nefesh, worked with Camp Newman staff to ensure the campsite would be set up for special-needs campers and talked to parents of potential participants. During the next few weeks, Naftalin-Kelman also will screen prospective campers to see that they’re a good fit for the experience.

“We see a lot of growth and independent living skills develop,” Naftalin-Kelman said of her Tikvah campers. “Any time a Jewish institution can open its doors to children with special needs, it’s a good thing.”

For more information about Camp Nefesh and funding opportunities, contact Flora Kupferman at (415) 751-6983 ext. 122. Applications for financial aid will be accepted through midnight Friday, June 4.