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How Jewish Camps Welcome LGBTQ Kids—and How They Don’t

Times are changing. Are our sleepaway camps changing with them?

Marjorie Ingall
August 12, 2016
Photocollage: Tablet; original images: Shutterstock/Flickr
Photocollage: Tablet; original images: Shutterstock/Flickr
Photocollage: Tablet; original images: Shutterstock/Flickr
Photocollage: Tablet; original images: Shutterstock/Flickr

In my day, before the Earth cooled, we weren’t terribly sensitive to the ways language could be hurtful. At my Jewish summer camp in the ’80s, there was a child of color whose last name was White; kids joked that his middle name was “Isn’t.” We called a male Israeli dance instructor “the leaping lez.” There was a group of kids with special needs; at night, the boys would taunt one of the campers in an attempt to make him call for shmira, the counselors on safety patrol. He pronounced it “shmiwa,” which made the boys without disabilities howl with laughter.

Today, most humans understand that this kind of blatant mockery is wrong. But there are subtle ways to be hurtful to kids who are part of a marginalized group, and if Jewish camps want to create a true climate of kindness, there’s still work to be done.

As I talked to over a dozen staffers and former staffers at different Jewish overnight camps, it became clear that cultivating an environment that is safe for a given group means cultivating an environment that’s safe for everyone. Camps that are welcoming to LGBTQ kids also tend to be camps that take bullying seriously. Camps that consider how to make children of color comfortable are also camps that think about how to combat body-shaming and anti-feminism. Hiring diverse staff and training them in how to foster pluralism and acceptance and how to handle teasing and cruel words is the beginning; making sure kids know what’s expected of them and how they have a vital role in building a sacred community, a kehillah, is the next step.


A lot has been written about the way Camp JRF, a Reconstructionist camp in Pennsylvania, has addressed the needs of transgender campers. But Camp JRF focuses on being a refuge for all kinds of kids from all kinds of backgrounds. Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, the executive director, told me in an interview, “We need to ask ourselves, How do we create not just an environment that’s not just inclusive, but celebratory? We need to recognize that kids have all sorts of stories, and you don’t know anything from just looking at someone’s nametag. You have to be truly open to kids being who they are.”

Two summers ago, the camp began sending pre-session letters to families about living in a genuinely welcoming community. The letter is explicit about the camp being made up of kids “of different races, cultures, family compositions, and practices.” It says that Camp JRF (like many camps mentioned in this article) worked with Keshet to ensure that the camp was welcoming to campers and staff of all sexual orientations. It also worked with Interfaith Family to teach sensitivity to different familial experiences and expectations, with a specialist in special needs to help integrate kids with different needs into one program, and with Be’chol Lashon to increase its focus on multicultural Judaism. The letter explained words, concepts, and manners that families might find helpful when discussing transgender and gender-noncomforming people: Don’t ask anyone in camp which body parts they have; privacy and modesty are vital in a communal setting. Feel free to ask anyone which pronouns they use, and if you’re not sure, just use the person’s name.

Parents can use transgender issues as a framework for discussing being a good friend in general: Camp JRF encourages them to talk to their kids about a time they felt they didn’t fit in, a personal question that made them feel uncomfortable, and what kids can do to make camp and home a place where everyone can feel good being who they are.

“We’re deeply committed to diversity, and not just as a happenstance situation,” Saposnik said. “We want to be a camp that looks like the Jewish community. The Jewish community is diverse, though much of the organized Jewish community doesn’t look that way.”

I asked Saposnik what he’d do if a white kid called another white kid the n-word in a wannabe-homeboy-like manner, which was common practice at another Jewish camp I was told about. Saposnik literally started stammering. “I-I-I … what? I … can’t even answer that,” he said finally. “It is utterly unfathomable to me that kids would do that.” He finally said helplessly, “We’d have a conversation about cultural appropriation and appropriateness?”

Obviously families self-select for camps that will be a good fit with their politics, their level of religious observance, their own values concerning language and inclusion. The kind of kid who gets sent to Camp JRF isn’t the kind of kid who’ll sound like the horrifying wannabe-homeboy white nebbish in Wet Hot American Summer. And many of us have had the privilege of not having to ponder the need for a community that’s embracing of all kinds of kids and families.

But you may have a queer kid and not know it yet. You may have a kid who’s being bullied for perceived difference … and you might not know that, because your kid hasn’t told you, because your kid doesn’t think you’re tolerant. And you may be raising a bully or someone who stands by silently when bullying occurs because you haven’t given your kid the tools to mensch up. Jewish camps are in a position to help.


Rachel Weiss, who is now the rabbi at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston in Illinois but spent six years directing programming for LGBTQ Jewish families at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah and advised Camp JRF, had some suggestions for making all kinds of kids at all kinds of camps comfortable. “One thing is to remove gender labels about what to wear,” she said. “You can say that kids wear white on Shabbat—dresses or pants or polo shirts or skirts—without saying which children of which gender should wear what.” She added that counselors should be trained in how to respond when someone says “that’s so gay,” or “which one’s your real mom?” (The correct response: “Both are her real mom.”) Counselors should be alert to assumptions from white kids that kids of color aren’t Jewish, that they’re adopted, or that they’ve converted. Camp directors need to remember that the camp’s culture can change completely with new staff members (“and international staff may not have the same cultural competencies as regional staff,” Weiss noted). There may be vast differences in cluefulness among American counselors.

There are vital lessons in having LGBTQ adults on staff, she noted. “At Camp JRF in 2006, my wife and I had an aliyah on our anniversary,” she said. “Kids asked, ‘Are you legally married?’ and that started a conversation and then a letter-writing campaign. People consciously and unconsciously model behavior all the time—you need to show them what diverse, engaged Jewish adults look like. That gives kids inspiration.”

“It starts with the staff,” agreed Jamie Simon, associate director of Camp Tawonga in Northern California. “We have staff members who use ‘they’ and ‘zie’ as well as ‘he’ and ‘she.’ Ten years ago, we thought we were being very progressive when we said ‘Girls can get dirty!’ ‘Boys can cry and be strong!’ But that’s not enough. It excludes trans kids and gender-fluid kids. Last year, we had a boy who was born with a vagina who was in a girls’ bunk—at the final campfire he came out to the whole camp. This summer he came back in a boys’ cabin.”

I asked her about how the camp deals with sexually charged, heteronormative activities like dances. (Another camp director I spoke to said that she’d eliminated them entirely.) “We create an environment in which people can dance with whoever they want,” Simon said. “They can dance with counselors or with their whole bunk. We take it out of a sexualized place entirely. No one at camp should feel pressure to wear makeup. Everyone should feel able to wear jeans, skirts, or ties. We talk to female staffers about not focusing on their physical appearance in front of kids; instead, they talk about what their body does: It lets me hike up a hill; it lets me give hugs to friends. We’re intentional about the messages we send.”

That intentionality is carried through to language. Simon avoids all binary language; she doesn’t address the kids as “boys and girls.” (“I was just told I say ‘hey, guys’ to mixed groups,” she confided. “I’m trying to say ‘hey, friends’ instead.”) The camp makes sure that its sports specialists aren’t all men and its art and dance staffers aren’t all women.

When bullying does occur, counselors know to speak to unit heads, who may bring in the camp’s therapists to work with the bullies. “Kids want to be kind and thoughtful, but sometimes they’re just not educated yet,” Simon said. “If you give them a little context and love, they usually want to be better. And when they don’t, we usually find it’s because of the parents. The apple doesn’t fall from the tree.”

I tried to delicately point out that Tawonga, by virtue of its location, probably attracts a population that’s already onboard with its mission. Simon interrupted, “I do presentations for other camps, and they always say afterward, ‘We’re not San Francisco!’ But the way of the West is the way of the world. We are the future. Get on the train now or it’ll pass you by. Yes, most of our parents are already onboard, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you not to get onboard.”


A driving concept behind Eisner Camp is hineini. It means “here I am.” Abraham and Moses both said it when God reached out to them. It means “I’m present; I’m paying attention; I want to be counted.”

“We talk about our mission statement on the first day with the kids,” said Louis Bordman, the camp’s executive director. “Hineini is being visible and strengthening Jewish identity and self-esteem and our community. And we talk about our responsibility when we leave the gates of camp. Be the one. Be the one to prevent bullying. Be the one to feed the hungry. Don’t stand idly by—that’s a mantra here.”

Eisner, which is affiliated with the Reform movement, stepped up to what hineini meant when Hannah, a transgender camper who’d been known by the camp as a boy for three summers, asked to come back to camp as a girl. “We asked NFTY and URJ to say hineini,” Bordman said. “It’s living the values we preach.”

Again: A comfortable space for Hannah means a comfortable space for everyone. “If you’ve created a loving, warm, caring and principled community, a new kid will feel welcome even if they’re in eighth or ninth grade,” Bordman said. “On the first day of camp, the oldest campers pass the Torah down to the youngest campers—it’s passed by 900 people, and then the four youngest and four oldest kids place it in the ark. We talk about the Torah as our holiest artifact, but it becomes holy when we act holy and make the space holy. That’s how we live Torah. It only comes to life through us; otherwise, it’s just parchment and wood.” After the welcome ceremony, kids go back to their cabins and create a brit kehillah [community contract] with a mission statement and rules that they hang up for the whole session. “Every Shabbat they go back after lunch and review it with sichah—guiding questions—about how they lived this week,” Bordman said. “We all need to learn the skills to say ‘I really appreciated when’ or ‘it really hurt my feelings when’—that’s putting into action the values we talk about, giving kids opportunities to practice.”

This summer, Eisner stopped labeling sections of camp the “boys’ side” and “girls’ side.” Now it’s emet [truth] and chesed [kindness]. “I think emet sounds more masculine and chesed somehow seems more feminine, but I wanted to push the boundary further,” Bordman told me. “So emet is the former girls’ side and chesed is the former boys’ side.”


Probably unsurprisingly, many more Reform and Reconstructionist camps were eager to speak to me for this story than Conservative or Orthodox camps. I’ve certainly heard of Conservative, Orthodox, and pluralistic-but-with-a-halachic-bent camps that have good intentions … but they’re not quite there yet in terms of action. (As one director said of the possibility of having transgender campers, “We’ll discuss it if it comes up, but it’s a nonissue right now, so why go there?”) And, of course, one’s interpretation of Leviticus can have a serious impact on just how welcoming one is to LGBT youth.

I was happy to talk to Rafi Daugherty, a trans man and former Keshet staffer who now works at Ramah Outdoor Adventure in the Rockies. (He spoke to me as an individual, not as a representative of Ramah.)

Daugherty pointed out that a camp emphasizing hiking and rock climbing may be inherently less gender-binary-obsessed than some other camps. “We have lots of tomboys here because they like sports and getting dirty,” he noted. “But the boys here can feel comfortable wearing nail polish if they want to. We have a counselor with a mustache and beard who wears a skirt on Shabbat. It’s a safe space. And we’re careful about language. Our camp director always says, ‘write home to who loves you,’ not ‘to your mom and dad.’ You might live with one parent. They’re just words, but they mean a lot to kids who don’t fit into the norm.”

Daugherty said that, as with Camp Tawonga, Ramah Outdoor Adventure staffers are discouraged from talking about “my boyfriend this, my boyfriend that.” (I could hear his eyeroll over the phone.) “We can talk about identity, but it’s not all about pairing off, regardless of gender. That separates us from the community.”

He wistfully noted that some people think it would be great “if all the things that were mandatory for boys were mandatory for girls, too—tallit, kippot, tefillin. It would close a gap.” But Ramah camps are affiliated with the Conservative movement, and that’s not the policy. “I understand that,” he said.

I asked him what he thought of camps addressing LGBTQ issues only as they arose. He was not a fan. “You don’t know who’s there,” he pointed out. “You don’t know who they’ll be when they grow up. I lived 20-something years as an Orthodox Jewish girl; none of the camps I went to knew they had a transgender kid. A lot of [LGBTQ] kids stray from Judaism because they feel they don’t have a place here, but if they go to an accepting camp they’ll be able to say, ‘I can be a Jewish person and an outdoors person and a queer person, and it’s all OK.’”


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.