Friday, July 20, 2012

Jewish Summer Camp and Customer Service

This Shabbat we read the double Torah portion Mattot-Masei. Last year, I wrote a d'var Torah for this Shabbat extolling the virtues of Jewish summer camp. This year, Jewish summer camp is on my mind again.

On Wednesday night, Rabbi David Krishef, a Conservative rabbi in Grand Rapids, Michigan, did what any father would do. He advocated on behalf of his son. Rabbi Krishef published a long exposé on his blog that detailed what his family had endured over the past few days after being told that his 16-year-old son Solomon, who is blind, would not be able to spend the second part of the summer at camp. The reason the new camp director at Camp Ramah in Canada gave for this decision was that Solomon required more assistance from the camp's staff members than the camp could adequately provide. The bottom line was that the camp could no longer effectively accommodate a camper like Solomon, even though he had spent several successful summers at the camp in previous years.
Photo on  Camp Ramah in Canada's website of Solomon Krishef with a staff member

Rabbi Krishef's blog post went viral. Well, at least in the Jewish community it did. Several people (myself included) posted a link to the blog post on Facebook and watched as dozens of people commented about this travesty and dozens more shared the link on their own Facebook pages. In the end, the camp director reversed his decision welcoming Solomon back to camp, although the 16-year-old blind teen weighed the decision and ultimately determined that after all the commotion he would not return for the remainder of the summer.

Of course there is probably much more to the story than what Rabbi Krishef blogged about. The camp director didn't make his decision in a vacuum and it must have been a difficult decision to come to. But it raises several important issues about summer camp and keeping the publicity about camp positive.

The most important rule about summer camp is that the campers are safe and having fun. Solomon's safety was not compromised. The camp director said the blind teen took too long at meals and in the shower and there wasn't ample staff coverage to assist him. These problems can easily be remedied. Mistakes were clearly made and there was poor "customer service" coming from the camp.

I felt bad sharing Solomon's plight when I posted the link to Rabbi Krishef's blog on my Facebook page because I knew it would have negative consequences for this Ramah camp and the new director. [Full disclosure: In 2005 I served as Rabbi-in-Residence at Camp Ramah in Canada, and my friend was suddenly and unfairly released of his duties as director last year.]

The lesson in this is that every camp director needs to realize what it means to be in the customer service industry. Like any business, camps need to advance and be innovative. The leadership also must recognize the power of social media in the 21st century. Social media reigns king and that means that if a customer isn't happy with their service at Best Buy or Starbucks, they will take their rant to the social networks where it will be "liked," commented on and shared across other networks exponentially. As demonstrated by the angry father of a blind teen with a blog, this is also the case at Jewish summer camp.

Jewish summer camp means Jewish parents. While it may be fair to describe some of these parents as neurotic, the fact remains that all Jewish parents care deeply about the livelihood of their children. That means that they want their children to all feel special, safe and secure while at camp. No parents want to hear that the camp can't accommodate their child for any reason.

Today is the first day of the new month of Av according to the Hebrew calendar. It is the beginning of a period of mourning for the Jewish people as we recall the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, this Hebrew month is often called "Menachem Av" because we desire comfort during this sad period. Camp Ramah in Canada will also require menachem as it deals with this matter internally and externally (a petition was signed by campers and staff appealing to the director to let Solomon stay). 

I'm glad that the camp director reversed his decision and apologized to Solomon and the Krishef family. That was a good resolution. But the lesson has to be learned. In the 21st century, it is not enough for a camp to have a program for special needs children and teens. It must seek to accommodate all children and help them feel safe and happy at camp. Camp directors must lead by example and always seek to do good and to make wise decisions. They must try to always accommodate.

It is often said that a parent is only as happy as his saddest child. So too it is for summer camp directors. Try to keep all your kids as "happy campers" and the camp will be a happy place too.

Shabbat Shalom.


Anonymous said...

Rabbi Krishef's narrative certainly points to several mistakes the camp made - the most glaring in my opinion was there was an apparent lack of communication with the parents in advance of the camp's decision to ask Solomon to leave and they did not utilize the parents as their partners in solving the challenge of having Solomon in camp. They also apparently "bit off more than they could chew" in accepting Solomon for the whole summer OR they simply did not put into place ample accommodations and support for him (given the fact that he'd been in camp the previous five years, they should have known what to expect.)

That said, and speaking as a former staff person of the camp, I have no doubt that the camp administration did their best to provide Solomon with what he needs. It may be that the timing of a new director undermined the ability of the camp to properly prepare for Solomon's experience at camp. It may be that Solomon's functionality in camp is slightly different than what his father describes. In any case, Ron Polster has a proven track record as a Camp Director and Camp Ramah in Canada has a stellar reputation (a well-deserved one) and that seems to have been overlooked in most of the posts.

Rabbi Miller mentioned in his post a point we need to keep at the forefront... The camp should "seek to accommodate" all Jewish children, but the reality is that no institution can be expected to always be able to do so. Just take the financial implications as one example of this - having a blind camper in camp costs significantly more than an average camper due to the accommodations necessary. Would the camp have gotten blasted if the camp had said in advance of the summer, we simply don't have the budget available to provide what your child needs? It may have. But that's ridiculous.

One thing that has bothered me throughout this whole thing... I am the parent of a child with ADHD. We go through periods where her behavior is under control and then we also go through periods where she's insufferable. If I was told midsummer that a camp could no longer accommodate her because her PHYSICAL condition was affecting her participation at camp, and impacting on her counselors and peers, no one would have seen a blog like Rabbi Krishef's or the type of responses it received. Most of us would have accepted that the intense group living environment of camp is simply not appropriate for everyone. The undertone of all the posts have been that the camp and the director were being insensitive or discriminatory towards blind people. But that's not really what's going on here.

The bottom line is that the Jewish community ought to consider what resources we are going to put into assisting children who do have challenges. Most of what this whole situation boils down to is money (and better communication between camp and parents.) I'd be curious to know if there are scholarships available for blind children which will allow them to have positive and safe experiences in Jewish camps (or other physical disabilities.) Perhaps the Foundation for Jewish Camp should consider exploring this.

Matthew Orel said...

Thanks, Jason. It's a resolution, but it's bitterwseet: The camper is going home on Sunday, and it never should have come to this. This wasn't a lack of resources or money, it was a lack of imagination, a lack of will, and most of all a lack of effective communication.

In some quarters, I see Ramah Canada people (including current staff and even board members) rushing to defend the reputation of the camp and its director before considering the welfare of the child. As recent national headlines should have demonstrated, this is exactly backwards: The child *always* comes first.

That said, I am encouraged that Dr. Polster appears to have genuinely learned from his mistake. It takes a mensch to admit error, especially a big error, and to make sincere efforts to correct. And while it may have required a harsh public rebuke to get to that point, it seems to me, nonetheless, to be real progress.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

To clarify: While I stated that Jewish summer camps should try to accommodate all campers, I recognize it's not always possible. In this case, Solomon had been attending the camp for several summers and was successful. What was different this summer? Was it the 8 weeks instead of 4 weeks? Was it the new camp director? Was it the long overnight trip? Who knows exactly, but it wasn't handled well.

If it cost the camp an extra $2500 to hire a staff member to give Solomon 1-on-1 attention this summer, I'm sure 5 donors would have come forward with $500 additional contributions. Would it be fair that one camper "costs" the camp extra money? No, but life isn't fair and special needs children cost the parents, the community, and organizations more money. That's life.

A PR shit storm costs more than $2500 to fix so it's a matter of a director and a board analyzing the pros and cons of such a decision.

Dr. Ron Polster has a proven track record as a camp director and Jewish educator. He's still human and prone to error. I'm glad he saw the error of his ways and he apologized. Now, let's hope other Jewish summer camps will learn from this mistake. No, we can't accommodate EVERY child, but we better try our best at every opportunity.

Dani Gillman said...

I'd like to think that there are some groups out there that include ALL kids of ALL abilities in ALL activities because it's the right thing to do, not out of fear of public backlash. Despite her disabilities, a little girl like mine deserves to be with typically developing peers regardless of the extra resources necessary. How can any organization (especially a Jewish one) say that any child isn't worth the extra efforts?

Evan Salama said...

How can you provide good customer service when the wonderful people who work so hard, like you (who actually DO the work) are under the control of a "board" who makes decisions based on their ideas and egos... without being in the trenches themselves. (I'm obviously talking about the ramah board here but this extends to other places too).

Rabbi Jason Miller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Here is a statement from Rabbi Mitch Cohen (Director)and Sheldon Disenhouse (President) of the National Ramah Commission:

Statement from the National Ramah Commission

Our moral and religious compass supports inclusion of all members of our community, regardless of their personal challenges or exceptionalities. Ramah has always prioritized the value of inclusion, and continues to be a pioneer in this area with new programs and initiatives. It is our belief that all Jewish institutions including schools, synagogues and summer camps need to emphasize this value within our communities.

However, each individual's situation is unique and unfortunately, there are times when the importance of inclusion conflicts with the circumstances of a particular camper, staff member, or the rest of the camp community. Decisions in such cases are taken very seriously and discussed directly only with those involved. We at Ramah cannot comment publicly on this or any other individual case due to concerns of privacy.

We understand the sadness and pain these conflicts can create. However, we find it unfortunate that one perspective, however well-intended, has created the false impression of injustice or anything other than caring staff and leaders charged with supporting many people safely.

We appreciate the notes of concern and support we have received from those who have read about the recent situation at Camp Ramah in Canada. To those who have reacted to one blog post with harsh conclusions, without firsthand knowledge of the situation, we would hope that you can understand that sensitive matters like this one are often more complex than presented. Public reactions by those with limited knowledge can be dangerous and hurtful, particularly to those dedicated staff members who work so hard to care for our children.

Camp Ramah in Canada and Ramah camps throughout North America have an outstanding record of inclusion. We have been accommodating children with special needs, educating the entire camp community (and beyond) about the boundless gifts of difference, and have been raising needed funding to extend our program to children with exceptionalities for decades.

The Ramah Camping Movement will continue to nurture inclusive Jewish communities that embrace the value of difference.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Director
Sheldon L. Disenhouse, President

National Ramah Commission | 3080 Broadway | New York | NY | 10027

Brenda Gayson said...

As a parent, I would feel the same way too if the same thing happened to my son especially if he has a "special case". Though I empathize more with Rabbi Krishef, I understand the director's side. It's not as if it's his personal decision to do that. That's why for me, whenever I'm looking for school holiday activities for my kids, I make sure it can accommodate my children's needs and concerns.