Celebrating Pride Shabbat at Camp Gesher

Courtesy Camp Gesher

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The Value of Inclusion

When I went to summer camp, it wasn’t a safe space to come out as a queer woman. A generation later, my daughter’s camp shows how much has changed.

Elana Moscovitch
August 04, 2023
Celebrating Pride Shabbat at Camp Gesher

Courtesy Camp Gesher

Before our daughter left for Camp Gesher, a Habonim Dror camp in Ontario, we received a parent handbook that included a new section on the camp’s gender-inclusion policies. My brother had shared it with me because he was active on the board and felt proud of the work they had done to educate staff and parents and put these policies on paper. When I looked at the handbook, I saw that the language was similar to other gender-inclusion policies in the Reform camp movement, articulating the values of inclusivity and LGBTQ-positivity that the staff had already demonstrated. We knew that Gesher’s progressive, socialist values would make it a good fit for her. We weren’t disappointed. When we dropped her off at camp earlier this summer, she was given a name tag and asked to choose her pronouns from a sheet full of labels with different options. I was not surprised when she picked “she/her” without any hesitation, as her own identity as a girl has never been ambiguous.

Still, I was personally touched by this small effort to help LGBTQ+ children and staff feel like they belong at camp. After all, I identify as queer myself, and I wasn’t always comfortable being out in Jewish contexts as a teenager. These issues are important to our daughter, too: She has two moms, and when she first started elementary school, she was the only one in her class with same-sex parents. She has had to explain more than once that she doesn’t have a dad—not because he died, but because we used a donor. So this has been an important issue for our whole family, long before it was time for camp.

When we introduced ourselves as her two moms to the first counselor we met at Gesher, she told us she was queer, too. This also made me happy, because I knew her counselors would be accepting of her family structure and I could see the glow on our daughter’s face as well.

Before we even drove out of the parking lot, I stopped to chat with a queer couple (two women) whose son was attending camp for the first time. They looked a bit nervous, so I reassured them that he would love it. One of the other moms said that her own experience at camp when she was a child wasn’t so great, “especially when girls started getting into boys and makeup.” I could identify with this experience: It framed the feeling I often had as a teenager of not “fitting in” at camp in a new way, and I realized that maybe I felt this more acutely because I knew I was different, even before I was out to myself or others.

My first summer of camp, I was 9 and going into fifth grade. I loved the girls in my cabin, and the friends I made swimming and water-skiing and participating in peulot (activities) about Israel. But then my family spent the next summer in Israel, and when I returned for the summer before seventh grade, I had a terrible time. After a year in Israel, I was experiencing a bit of culture shock. Israeli kids were different—they cared less about clothes and appearances. In the Toronto Jewish community, having the right clothing was important and my parents were against buying me brand names, so I didn’t have the “right clothes” for camp. Plus, I was in the middle of that gawky and awkward stage of wearing glasses and braces.

But on top of that, there were also camp traditions that reinforced heteronormativity, such as weekly dances, and the “mock wedding” we had for a girl and boy in our unit. The campers talked a lot about crushes and “dating.” I didn’t connect with the other girls in the cabin, and they didn’t really get to know me, either. When they made up a cabin song, the line about me that they chose to rhyme with “Shauna’s always snoring” was “Elana’s very boring.” I knew I wasn’t boring (not to the friends who really knew me) but it hurt, nonetheless.

The following summer, my parents gave me permission to attend Camp Tel Yehuda, a Young Judaea camp in New York state, with my two closest friends from our year in Jerusalem. A boy two years older than me asked me to be his girlfriend, which thrilled and surprised me. His name was Jared. He was from Texas. I had someone to walk me to dinner and we stayed a couple all summer. When we made out on the back steps of our cabin, he tasted like toothpaste. The girls asked me questions about him and I got to have private chats with our counselor about “how far to go” with him. Having a boyfriend elevated my status and made me more popular. I was surprised by how little supervision there was of our activities. If my parents had known what was going on, they would never have let me attend this camp.

I didn’t fully realize I was queer until I was a counselor, though by the time I was 16 I felt annoyed that I had to endure all the boy/girl flirting and hooking up, and felt lonelier than I would have if I’d thought there were other kids who might be gay—or that this was even an option for me. I was barely even out to myself, although I secretly wrote in my journal about my crush on our mifakedet (female officer), who taught me to shoot a gun. If these issues had been talked about at all, I might have realized that my lack of interest in boys or flirting was because I was gay. Perhaps there would have been other kids whose gender or sexual identity was also not cis-heteronormative who would have come out—and I could have come out sooner than I did.

My daughter’s camp has taken an intentional approach to educating their counselors and training them around issues such as consent and sexual assault. Pre-camp, the staff attended workshops by Canvas Arts Action Programs, an arts-based social justice organization that facilitates workshops for staff and campers on consent, sexual assault, gender inclusivity, and intersectionality. The Toronto-based organization was founded by two former Habonim Dror campers, Miriam Selik and Ayla Lefkowitz, who have made it their mission to make camps and schools safer and more inclusive. My daughter’s camp director told me that they no longer have dances like they did when I was a camper, where boys and girls were expected to couple up. “We expect kids to have their first relationship at camp, even their first kiss,” she told me, “but we don’t have to sanction it or create environments that put pressure on or establish norms of heteronormativity that exclude gender-queer kids.” Instead, they have weekly Israeli folk dancing and whole-camp dance parties. My daughter wrote to us from camp that she stayed up past midnight dancing. The first Shabbat had a Pride theme and the photos that were posted on the website showed kids wearing all kinds of clothing, from button-downs to skirts. Dresses were no longer mandatory for girls, as they once were. Many kids were waving or even wearing Pride flags.

At school, our daughter chose to be one of four kids on the Pride committee, and befriended the only out nonbinary student in her middle school, an eighth grader. She has always been at the forefront of advocacy for queer, nonbinary, and trans kids, even correcting me with a roll of her eyes when I occasionally misgender someone. She hasn’t mentioned getting to know the other kids at camp who have same-sex parents, but it must feel good to her to have counselors who identify as nonbinary, queer, or transgender, and who accept her family structure. She has often complained that she is the only one with same-sex parents at her school. At camp, I saw several same-sex parents in the parking lot, in addition to the lesbian couple who parked beside us.

There are clearly more opportunities now as compared to when I was young for campers to be out and themselves and to engage in sexual exploration or dating whomever they are attracted to. Last summer, a 16-year-old camper at Gesher was able to come out and have her first relationship with a girl. This would never have been possible for me when I was a camper.

I love that progressive Jewish camps are being so intentional about educating their staff and creating a culture of belonging.

If it had been like this when I was younger, I wouldn’t have felt like I was so different from the other kids my age. I would have explored my identity and acknowledged my romantic and sexual attractions much earlier. I wouldn’t have been scared to come out to the staff at Camp Miriam, or felt I had to hide my identity at Camp Solelim, where I felt I had no one to talk to all summer. I would have had many more allies than I did, and opportunities to date women at a younger age and explore these relationships the way heterosexual teens my age were doing.

Even after I came out, I felt like I had to choose between my identities: I could be either Jewish or queer, but not both at the same time. Going out dancing at lesbian bars on Shabbat made me feel guilty; talking about my strong connection to Israel or my religious beliefs with my queer friends often felt wrong. This caused me to feel like I was never fully myself. I denied aspects of my Jewish identity in order to be out as queer, and it took me years to reclaim them. Now, Jewish queer, nonbinary, or trans kids can fully be out and themselves at camp; having a gender-inclusion policy in writing means that when parents are choosing a camp for their children, they can be reassured this is a Jewish space where the kids will feel safe—and able to be themselves.

Elana Moscovitch lives in Toronto, and works as a teacher and social worker.