When one thinks of the yom tov of Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, one envisions hakafos, the dancing and celebration of the Torah, the aliyos that the children get, and the little boys standing under the tallis for Kol Hane’arim. Zman Simchas Toraseinu–the time and season to show an appreciation for our gift of the Torah and express our happiness for being chosen to be the keeper of the Torah.
For many children and adults with special needs the picture of yom tov is very different. Rather than going to shul and participating in the festivities, they are often left at home. If they go to shul, they are generally left out of the celebrating, usually standing on the side as observers rather than actual participants. There is usually little or no excitement and no way to express any happiness and joy during the chag. There are not many shuls to which they can go, where they can feel a part of the festivities. Many of the families cannot get to shul when their children have behavioral or sensory issues that may be aggravated in an unfamiliar environment or may not be tolerated by others.
The amazing and dedicated staff of Camp HASC ensured that over 125 campers, including little children and young adults, were very much a part of the yom tov celebration. Starting on Sunday of Hoshanah Rabbah morning, campers and staff headed upstate to the beautiful campgrounds of Camp HASC. At the bus stop there was a feeling of excitement as campers broke into big smiles as they reunited with their counselors and friends. Parents kept on expressing their gratitude for the break that they would be getting for a few days. A break is so desperately needed from the full time physical and emotional care that they give their children on a daily basis. They would also have the opportunity to give their children a real yom tov experience.
As soon as the campers arrived at camp, the magic of Camp HASC was back in full force. The campers settled into their bunks and reunited with friends. Campers quickly rebonded with their counselors. The campers were back at HASC, where their disabilities disappeared and everyone focused on their abilities. Everyone was busy engaging in a variety of planned activities and the playgrounds of camp were full. The campers in wheelchairs were back on their adaptive swings, swinging in the fresh autumn air. The campers enjoyed rustling through the leaves, hearing stories, and singing songs. Campers walked around camp grounds collecting leaves with which they made collages. Everyone was back “home.”
All the campers went to shul for yom tov. Most of them had not been in shul from the time that camp ended even though they love being in shul. While in most shuls the sounds that some of the campers make are considered annoying and disruptive, at HASC they are seen as the campers’ means of communicating with Hashem. Even campers that do not know how to daven held siddurim and machzorim and “davened.” The meaningful “Amen” that they recited was full of feeling and probably went straight to the Kisei Hakovod. As the singing started, they clapped and danced along. There was dancing throughout the davening. There was true simcha, just the way it should be in all shuls. There were hakofos during which campers were held on counselors’ shoulders, where they danced along and rejoiced in the simcha of the Torah.
The scrumptious yom tov meals had more singing and dancing. Around the large dining room, all the campers and counselors danced and sang well into the night. Even the campers who were wheelchair-bound were full participants in the dancing! A dvar Torah was given by one of the campers whose face shone as he was applauded with cheering and dancing. He sure felt like a super star.
On Simchas Torah, the hakofos were enhanced by the campers and staff dressing up in cheerful costumes. Some of the staff and campers dressed up as sifrei Torah, giving even the female campers a chance to “dance with the Torah.” Hakofos songs included the camp song as well as a variety of Uncle Moishy songs. Everyone was included in the dancing! Campers in wheelchairs were lifted out of their chairs and put on counselors’ shoulders. Some of the campers were given aliyos, saying the berachos so proudly! One of the young men that had an aliyah came over to tell me, “I did it!” Other campers were given the kavod of actually holding sifrei Torah for the hakofos and “leading” the hakafah!
The highlight of the yom tov was during Kol Hane’arim. Several taleisim were tied together to be able to cover the many campers. While there were children and adults with autism, cognitive disabilities, and multiple physical disabilities, during Kol Hane’arim everyone was just a child of Hashem, under that talis, rejoicing together with Am Yisrael!
Campers and counselors celebrated neilas hachag with a big goodbye party in the sukkah. Once more there was lots of singing and dancing and plenty of goodies for the campers.
As yom tov was coming to an end, one could feel the longing of everyone there to be able to extend this “heaven on earth” experience for a little more time. Unfortunately we could not extend the yom tov.
After returning from camp, I realized that Camp HASC is so much more than just a summer home. It is a place that, in the middle of the festive season of the chagim, opens itself up to allow individuals with special needs the opportunity to participate wholeheartedly in the yom tov experience and feel the magic of HASC! Yasher koach to the staff of HASC and those who worked tirelessly to ensure that the Simchaton was the success that it was! v