A Camp that brightens the lives of special children from all over the globe

“It was a fantastic experience for our son. The relief that your summer program provides to our family is immeasurable. Knowing how much Ephraim gets out of camping experience socially, spiritually and academically”.

E. Zussman, Denver, Co

Two Camps, One Heart
By Bassi Gruen

Right off exit 96, deep in the Catskill Mountains, two camps share grounds and activities, Camp Ruach Chaim and Camp  Kochavim. Both camps play baseball, hockey, tennis, handball, and basketball. Both go swimming daily. Both have terrific learning programs, exciting trips and cool arts and crafts. There is only one small difference between the two; Camp Ruach Chaim is for kids who have Down's Syndrome and other disabilities, while Camp Kochavim is not.

This amazing shidduch  began three years ago when Rabbi Simcha Scharf, Belgium-born and currently living in Williamsburg, had a dream of establishing a camp for high-functioning special-needs kids. R' Scharf had already opened a yeshivah, Banim La'makom, for such children the year before. His yeshivah is on the top floor of yeshivas Torah V'daas. The students of Banim La'makom eat and play with the students of Torah V'daas and both groups gain from the arrangement. Summer, though, was a real problem. Two months out of school often caused the boys to lose a great deal of what they had learnt over the year. There had to be a solution.


A Soaring Summer Success
R' Scharf is a man of action. He spotted an advertisement from Camp  Kochavim offering space on their grounds. He immediately contacted the director, who gave him a "yes" that very same day. That first year, there were over a dozen kids, and enrollment grows each year. This summer, CRC will be enjoyed by thirty five boys, ages 9-27, coming from England, France, Holland, Belgium, Eretz Yisrael, and all over the United States.
"Life for a special kid is so full of failures," says Shani Plotzker, the mother of a CRC camper. "We hear them say, 'I can't read well, I can't do math, I can't write clearly.' Camp gives the kids a summer of non-stop success. They do absolutely everything their brothers and sisters are doing in camp. Sports, trips, color war, crafts – they can do it all. It gives them an incredible feeling. My son couldn't hold a ball before he went to camp. He came home dunking baskets!"
Dovid Plotzker is not the only one to learn new skills in camp. One mother was pleasantly surprised to find her eighteen year old son biking when she came on visiting day. He had never been able to cycle before. Another mother was amazed at how much her son had learnt with his rebbe. The kids learn to make their beds, clean up the bunk and care for themselves.
"Aside from all the many things camp teaches," says Shlomo, a counselor in CRC, "learning to be independent, to manage on one's own away from home, is probably the biggest benefit."


A Packed Program

The camp day is packed. Wake up is at 7:15 a.m., although early birds get to join the Cocoa Club. For the uninitiated, the Cocoa Club is a pre-davening learning session, accompanied by hot cocoa, a real treat in the cool mountain air. CRC davens and eats breakfast with Camp  Kochavim.

Then comes a learning session with the campers divided according to their abilities, into small groups of five or six. They learn Chumash,  halachah and  parshah,  taught by teachers who have received special training for the job. They then move on to first activity, usually sports, followed by second activity. "A lot of the kids would be happy just to relax on the grass," admits R' Scharf, "but I don't let them. My goal is to keep them busy and active all summer long."

Lunch, canteen and rest period start the afternoon, and then the action resumes. A dip in the pool is followed by sports together with CY. Every day one bunk in  Kochavim has an activity with Ruach Chaim. Minchah is followed by another learning group, this time focusing on skills like reading, writing and math. After supper the younger bunkers drift off to sleep, but the older ones enjoy night activity with  Kochavim. Then it's off to bed, so they can be refreshed for a new day of fun.

Mutual Benefits

The many activities the two camps share bring about a win-win situation with each camp learning from the other. The kids in Camp  Kochavim get a chance to interact with children who are not exactly like them, and become more sensitive and caring. The "regular" kids in this camp have some really special  middos R' Scharf reminisced about a CRC camper whose birthday was during the summer. R' Scharf provided a cake, but it was the twenty  Kochavim campers, who came by and sang for their friend, that made the party complete. When  Kochavim has a basketball game at night, they always make sure there is a CRC camper on the court, and help ensure he gets a basket. The cheering which follows is thunderous. 
While the  Kochavim campers are learning to appreciate every  Yid,  the CRC campers have role models to learn from. They watch the  Kochavim kids talk to each other, play ball and sing  zmiros  on Shabbos, and in this way pick up tricks and skills from them. The parents of the campers have the joy of knowing that their son is part of a regular camp, and don't have to face the pain of seeing their son isolated from mainstream society.


Caring Counselors
Who are the people who make all this possible? The counselors are hand-picked for their golden hearts and skills with children. A number of them have a sibling with Down's Syndrome, so they know how to deal with these special  neshamos.  There is one counselor for every two campers, to make sure the kids have all the help and supervision they need. If a camper is sick, his counselor accompanies him to the infirmary. The counselors also stay right near their campers in the pool and on trips, to make sure they're safe and happy.

Sometimes there are problems. A child who refuses to eat, or one who eats too much. A child who is afraid of the water, or scared of the dark. Then the counselors work their hardest at helping find a solution. A chart, a prize, or a story – they keep trying, until they find the key to help this camper overcome his difficulty.

They are led in their efforts by the head counselor, the dynamic, devoted R'  Avrumi Rosenthal He and R' Scharf, the director, are available around the clock to help the campers and counselors. "Sometimes, at one o'clock in the morning I get this feeling that something isn't right," relates R' Scharf. "I go to the bunks and find a kid outside with his counselor because the kid refuses to go to sleep. I'm able to persuade him to go to bed and can then sleep myself. Sometimes it's just a blanket that fell off the kid. I cover him and leave." R' Scharf personally dispenses all medication, a complicated and time-consuming job in a camp like this. "The kids love him," Mrs. Plotzker tells me. "He's like a magnet for them. He knows just what to say and how to say it. Once, when he heard about a family that had just given birth to a baby with Down's Syndrome, he immediately went over to the hospital to give them encouragement."


A Time to Relax

During the year, special kids must labor mightily to master the basics most kids learn easily. Understanding the words on a page may take tremendous effort. Holding a pencil in the correct position for writing can be a true challenge. Camp is a time to relax. The learning sessions ensure that what they have already mastered isn't lost, but the rest of the day is pure fun. "You can do it." is the message. And with the help of the counselors and the  Kochavim campers, they do. They climb up walls fifty feet high, they play hockey, they water slide into the pool. Things they never would have normally tried, they successfully accomplish.
Right off Route 96, deep in the Catskill Mountains, is a very special camp. I suppose we can say about Camp Ruach Chaim, the same thing a grandfather said about his special-needs grandchild's classroom. "You can feel the  malachim  in the air."


 Rabbi Scharf can be contacted at  718-963-0090, or (cellphone) 917-754-0011.