Parksville, New York, is home to the celebrated Camp HASC for children and adults with special needs. Just about everyone in the Jewish community knows someone who has been a camper, counselor or support staffer at this place that has been dubbed “Heaven on Earth.”
Before the campers arrived last week, counselors and other staff members—veteran and rookie alike—moved in for their orientation, which amounts to a whirlwind of training over several days on every possible topic relating to the care of their soon-to-arrive charges. By all accounts, this is a highly intense week, with workshops and discussions covering the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual facets of the work.
As this year’s orientation draws to a close, staff is summoned to the shul building, where they will hear from Mrs. Katzin, mother of long-time camper Yaakov. More than any other feature of orientation, this speech will be remembered as a defining moment of what it means to work at Camp HASC.
Mrs. Katzin starts off by saying what an honor and privilege it is for her to be addressing the group. She is qualified to address staff, she explains, because she is a mother to a child who qualifies to be a camper. “I specifically wanted to speak to you all from my heart and tell you about what it means to be a parent” of a HASC camper. “I know that HASC stands for Hebrew Academy for Special Children, but I am standing in a room full of people who are special counselors, and I know that nobody can even imagine—I can’t imagine—what brings you here. For me, it is just mind-boggling.”
Before having a child of her own with special needs, Mrs. Katzin shared that she was—“guilty as charged”—among those who were uncomfortable looking at individuals with visible disabilities, and that she too did the “handicap look-away” but her life’s journey has changed her outlook. With kindness, Mrs. Katzin added, “I don’t judge anybody who has had those awkward moments…there might be some people here who are a bit nervous about meeting these kids for the first time, and I’m there with you also.”
Mrs. Katzin talked about a realization she had when Yaakov reached the age of bar mitzvah. For typical boys and girls, it means “you become responsible for the choices that you make; my son can’t even choose to do something wrong, he can’t choose between good and bad, so how can he choose to do a mitzvah?” So she thought about David HaMelech, who said “v’ani tefillah,” “I am a prayer” and not, “ani mit’palel,” “I daven.” His whole being was tefillah. Along those same lines, she thought about a mitzvah; what is a mitzvah? “A mitzvah connects us to Hashem. When Yaakov’s counselors take care of Yaakov, they are connecting on such a deep level because he is the mitzvah—he embodies the mitzvah.”
Mrs. Katzin spoke about the Tefillat Ha’derech she recites on the drive from her Brooklyn home to Camp HASC, which concludes with “v’Yaakov halach l’darco,” Yaakov went on his way, “vayif’g’u bo malachei Elokim,” he encountered Hashem’s angels. None other than malachei Elokim meet up with her Yaakov when he gets to Camp HASC. “I really feel you are malachim—you are on a mission, and you are out of this world with what you do.” To say she is grateful and has hakarat hatov toward staff does not even come close to what Mrs. Katzin feels because “I respect you, I do not take you for granted one iota…and you fit the description of malachei Elokim.”
The prayer continues, “vayikrah shem hamakom hahu Machanayim,” Yaakov called the place he came to “Machanayim,” meaning two encampments. To Mrs. Katzin, Camp HASC is like that—the place where heaven meets earth, where two camps converge, “like there is Camp HASC in the heavens and a Camp HASC down here, and this is where the two connect…and you are doing holy work. It might look like changing and dressing people, bathing them and pushing them around—but this is holy work.”
Mrs. Katzin initially sent Yaakov to Camp HASC because she thought it would be a fantastic experience for him. And of course, it is. But she also sends him “because I need this break; because when you do all these things for my son—and I trust you to take care of him and keep him safe—that enables me to be free for seven weeks.” If not for Camp HASC, she and her husband would be unable to travel together this summer to her son’s wedding in Israel. The enormity of that touches every heart in the room.
Mrs. Katzin concludes with wishes for “you all to have an amazing summer” filled with tremendous connections to the campers.
By Davida Goldstein