Forget About Harvard: We’ve Got Camp HASC

By Abraham Bree

Published on 

Originally penned while sitting in traffic on State Route 17 after an inspiring summertime visit to Camp HASC. Subsequently featured in Hamodia Magazine. 

Want to know where you can meet the future leaders of world Jewry?

It won’t be at a Dale Carnegie Training Seminar, or at Harvard’s Executive Leadership Program, or in the Management & Leadership aisle at Barnes and Noble.

You’ll find a future torchbearer of Jewish continuity inside a noisy dining room, arduously hand-feeding a little boy with Muscular Dystrophy, each spoonful of pureed applesauce garnished with a heaping dose of unbridled love and heartfelt care.

You’ll find a prospective commander of communal responsibility on a sunny playground, pushing an oversized wheelchair-accessible swing, piloted by a smiling little girl with Cerebral Palsy.

You’ll find hundreds of ambassadors of spiritual stability in a gargantuan swimming pool, cloaked modestly behind the scent of chlorine, as a child raised on Lee Avenue in Williamsburg is gently wheeled down the sloping ramp by a counselor raised on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.

In other words? There’s a unique place, tucked discreetly behind the hilly topography of the Catskill Mountains, where you’ll get a behind-the-scenes look at the premier Jewish Leadership Program that’s home to the next generation of communal caregivers; young leaders in training who are the hearts and souls of our collective Jewish future.

Yes, I’m talking Camp HASC, people.

While many know about Camp HASC for its legendary work in helping special needs children, most folks don’t realize that it’s also the Beta 1.0 version of a powerful leadership incubator. Quite unintentionally, Camp HASC has created a bold preparatory platform that makes Harvard’s Executive Leadership Program appear amateurish.

I had the privilege of meeting dozens of teenage Beta 1.0 students – all cleverly disguised as counselors, waiters, shadows, and lifeguards – who’ve enthusiastically (and perhaps unwittingly) signed up for an elite summer syllabus on Jewish leadership.

During my visit this summer to Camp HASC, I watched them in action from the distance. I spoke to them up close. I got a glimpse into the life of these caring, giving, thoughtful teenagers who’ve willingly traded the leisurely pastimes of summertime for eight intense weeks of playing, chasing and, sometimes, babysitting, severely disabled children who, up until a few short weeks ago, were complete strangers.

“I don’t think I ever worked so hard in my life,” Yoni Davidowitz told me with an embarrassed chuckle, as Heshy, his little camper, clung tightly to Yoni’s arm. “And I also hope my parents down in Miami don’t expect me to come home and start making my bed neatly every morning. Being Heshy’s counselor, I’ve gained a sense of real responsibility that I never dreamed of before. I need to be at Heshy’s side all day, all night, all the time. If he has a meltdown or gets spooked, I can’t just run away. I need to stand there and figure out how to deal with his problem. So I am really learning lots about myself and about other people. This summer was a huge eye opener and I’m thrilled that I ended up here.”

Does Yoni plan on doing this again?

“Yes, totally. I actually came here because my cousin was a counselor at Camp HASC for a few years, and his stories really intrigued me. So I figured I’d try the job for one summer and then cross it off my bucket list. But after only a few days here, I got hooked. Probably for life. Some of the older guys come back here after they get married, and live in bungalows on the campground. I would love to be one of those guys, as long as my wife is okay with it. Actually, because of this summer, I saw that I want to be a giver and not a taker. I’m realizing that I’ll need to eventually find a girl who will share that passion of giving. But I’m only sixteen, so I have more time to deal with that issue. For now, I want to focus on making Heshy’s summer the happiest one he’s ever had. If I succeed, it’ll keep him going all year long.”

Indeed, Yoni was only one of the many counselors I spoke with that day who echoed feelings of genuine compassion; heartfelt thoughtfulness; spirited warmth.

At a time when self-centeredness in considered an attribute and rebelliousness appears to be all the rage, it pays to turn off the radio and turn on the GPS for a leisurely trip to Parksville, New York.

The wooden buildings dotting the simple campgrounds of Camp HASC aren’t as glamorous as, say, Harvard University’s famed Widener Library or Beck-Warren House. But the passionate souls of the counselors and junior counselors laboring within are unquestionably Ivy-League.

Because the key to acquiring genuine leadership doesn’t begin in a college classroom… it begins with a spoonful of pureed applesauce.

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