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Rules for Incorporating Diversity and Understanding at Jewish Sleepaway Camp

For many non-White or non-Ashkenazi Jews, sleepaway camp gifts scars rather than life-long friendships. Here’s what staffers and parents can do.

Shoshana Ne'orah Rishon
August 04, 2015

The smell of humid chlorine—or perhaps it was sandy lake water—filled your nose. Ratty towel in hand, you headed toward your swimming destination—a highlight of your day, despite bathing suit insecurities. Friends made over lanyard sessions and mess hall lunches followed you into the water, ready for a splash to cool off on a hot summer day. Later, you ended meals with a table-banging rendition of Birkat Hamazon, spent Fridays making an art project for Shabbat, or just admired the various artistic shapes of the Star of David pendants around your friends’ necks.

Quintessential Jew camp.

These words pale in comparison to the actual experiences, of course, but we’ve all been there, and those days were glorious, weren’t they?

Now consider the following three anecdotes—real experiences involving three different biracial, Ashkenazi Jews that I know:

As your day comes to a close, you line for your bus home, when a younger camper comes up to you and asks, “Are you a goy?” paying no mind to the fact that you’re wearing a yarmulke on your head. And this isn’t the first time it’s happened—it’s the third. This week.

Or the next day, when your mom drops you off in the morning, an administrator glances at her, then swings her gaze over to you and your brother, and proceeds to give you all full-body scan with her eyes, ending in a disdainful look. She thinks you don’t notice, but you’ve just gotten used to not reacting, even though it still hurts inside every time.

Or, later on, when your camp crush comes to fruition, you’re told, “You’re a great friend.” Because even though you’re obviously just as Jewish, your crush could never admit to dating you since you’re “just too different” and his parents wouldn’t like it. Even though almost everything about you two is the same. Except one thing: the color of your skin.

Summer camp should be a fondly-remembered formative experience, the joy of summer. But for many non-White or non-Ashkenazi Jews, Jewish sleepaway camp gifts scars rather than life-long friendships and guaranteed future members of your wedding party.

So what should camps staffs do? And what about parents?

1) Expose and educate. This does not mean forcing the “different” but actually human Jewish children to be the spokesperson and gateway into an entire race or culture. Instead, enable camp kids to read picture books that have faces of Jews from all over the world. PJ Library, for example, offers an excellent multicultural selection. Support them.

2) Invite diversity education speakers and consultants. Consider the following: Jews in ALL Hues is an organization that advocates for the full inclusion of Jewish diversity, and provides training, workshops, and consultations for Jewish professionals. The Jewish Multiracial Network organizes an annual retreat and is a great space to direct your Jewish family of color in order for them to have a place that feels fully like home, and it has a speaker’s bureau, as well. And of course there are the booksmagazine, and other media of MaNishtana, who also speaks at universities, and with Jewish organizations.

3) Discuss current Jewish events without othering. When a child whispers about a perceived difference (such as, “Mommy, she doesn’t look Jewish”) that so many of us hear shushed a few seats away—don’t shush. Instead, explain gently: “Sweetie, most Jews who live in America came from Europe, where people look more like us. But Jews live all over the world and look like the countries they’re from, and some of them came to America, too. Their families lived in a different part of the world during the time when ours lived in Europe.” While this may not be entirely accurate, but it’s much more appropriate (and educational) than a “shush.”

But what if active prevention of racial insensitivity doesn’t work, and incidents continue to occur?

If after these steps have been taken there continues to be a child who has been made to feel “not good enough” by being “othered” just because their tan is deeper than the other campers’ year-round, then members of a camp’s staff need to take further responsibility.

First, do not eschew your responsibility by providing an excuse, and please don’t say anything about “having Black (or fill-in-the-blank-race) friends.” Doing so allows a camp staff member to determine whether or not an offended party should be justifiably offended. Instead, just apologize to the offended camper for the treatment he or she received, and for allowing the camp to be an environment where such a perception could even occur. Then, repeat steps 1-3, in order to continue the entire camp’s re-education.

And finally, remember, we’re all in this together. Aren’t we?

This article is part of a collaboration between Tablet and JN Magazine, a website “here to change the monochromatic monolithic perception of Judaism.

Shoshana Ne’ora Rishon, the daughter of a German Jewish mother and Black Catholic father, is a biracial advocate, interracial & inter-religious family adviser, and general race conversationalist. She blogs, speaks publicly, and runs classes for interracial families on socio-racial identity development. She (reluctantly) lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

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