Celebrating Shivyon: Keshet’s Equality Project for Jewish Day Camps

April 1, 2024

By Keshet

Shivyon: Keshet’s Equality Project for Jewish Day Camps, a partnership of Keshet, the Jewish Day Camp Network, and the JCC Association of North America recently concluded its inaugural cohort year. This piece, a collaboration of partners, recounts what participants have gained from the experience and how they are shaping their camps into communities of belonging. As we celebrate the progress made by these Jewish day camps across the country, we invite you and your Jewish organizations to bring this vital work into your local Jewish communities. 

Shivyon: Keshet’s Equality Project for Jewish Day Camps, a partnership of Keshet, the Jewish Day Camp Network and the JCC Association of North America, just completed its first ever cohort. Shivyon is Keshet’s flagship educational program, offering a full year of dedicated learning and coaching for organizational change. 

Together, Aaron Greenberg, CEO of the Jewish Day Camp Network, Joy Brand-Richardson, Director of Training and Professional Development at the JCC Association of North America, and Hannah Henschel, Associate Director of Cohort Learning at Keshet, worked with each camp to build and support an LGBTQ+ equality working group. Each group completed a camp-wide internal assessment to identify areas of strength and growth. Keshet staff then hosted a day of learning with all the cohort members, both as an introduction to the project and as a way of establishing working relationships across organizations. Afterward, these working groups created a sustainable plan of action addressing policy, programs, and culture, and came up with next steps towards LGBTQ+ belonging. As the year progressed, staff members from the Jewish Day Camp Network and the JCC Association of North America and Keshet stayed closely connected with cohort members, providing customized coaching as well as tools and resources for ongoing work.

The inaugural cohort engaged 10 Jewish day camps to create long-term and sustainable changes towards LGBTQ+ belonging. The ten participating day camps included Camp JCC (Simon Family JCC, Tidewater, VA); Camp Achva (Pozez JCC, Northern Virginia); Camp Deeny Riback (JCC MetroWest, West Orange, NJ); Apachi J Camps (JCC Chicago); Camp Centerland (JCC of Greater Buffalo); Kings Bay Y/JCC Brooklyn; Camp Raanana (JCC of Greater Ann Arbor); BB Day Camp Portland (OR); Neil Klatskin Summer Camps (Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, Tenafly, NJ); Commonpoint Queens (NY).

With the cohort concluding this spring, a number of day camps envisioned and implemented programming, policy and culture changes to support LGBTQ+ individuals. The camps took on a wide variety of projects that included developing statements of affirmation, gender-inclusive policies, designing LGBTQ+ focused programming, and updating facilities. 

Dave Flagler, Director of Camp JCC and Teen Engagement at the Simon Family JCC in Tidewater, VA, speaks to the strides they’ve made towards LGBTQ+ affirmation and belonging as part of the Shivyon cohort: 

“As we prepared for the summer, we were introduced to language, history, applicable context, and numerous other resources which reframed our thinking about LGBTQ+ camp families, their needs, and how our camp can be a more inclusive place. As a result, we can better communicate inclusivity in practice and affirmation of gender expression in our program to our campers, camp families, potential camp families, and our community at large.” 

Camp JCC not only crafted an inclusivity statement and implemented LGBTQ+ inclusive policies but also developed a camp library with books and resources on inclusion, gender expression, and different compositions of families for campers and counselors. According to Nofar Trem, Pre-K and Kindergarten Unit Head at Camp JCC: 

“This library was utilized every day. Because of the library, counselors and other leadership staff took it upon themselves to create, curate, and facilitate activities while being mindful to ensure that every child in our camp felt represented.” 

This work took place as Virginia’s Department of Education consistently targeted transgender and LGBTQ+ K-12 students across the state. Anti-LGBTQ+ measures included banning trans students from using school facilities that match their gender identities, forcibly outing students to unsupportive parents, and making it harder for students to assert their names or pronouns. During a time of political attacks and hostile school or home environments, Jewish summer camps can provide much-needed supportive spaces for LGBTQ+ campers, staff, and their families.

In Brooklyn, NY, Kings Bay Y (the JCC Brooklyn’s day camp) made a critical change to their application for camp. They realized their former application process only acknowledged two gender options while the camp community was made up of a spectrum of gender identities that could not be captured by two neat categories. This is a common barrier to participation in summer camp for transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive campers and staff. Addressing this challenge required innovative approaches in order to work around built-in limitations of camp database systems. With the guidance of Keshet’s team, Kings Bay Y was successfully able to implement changes so staff, campers, and their families can specify their gender identity in not just their day camp applications but in all applications for the JCC’s youth and family programming. 

Along with these changes, they also implemented gender-inclusive policies to ensure that the diversity of gender identities held by their camper community is embraced and affirmed at the day camp. 

Kaitlyn McCord, Kings Bay Y Special Needs/Mental Health Coordinator who has led this effort, said the following about the impact of implementing these changes:

“[Our camp] chose to engage with Shivyon: Keshet’s Equality Project for Jewish Summer Camps in response to the significant increase in LGBTQ+ staff members observed over the past 2-3 summers at the Kings Bay Y. Our objective is to be thoroughly equipped to offer meaningful support to individuals at various stages of their journey. Among our staff, we have individuals who have recently come out publicly or are in the initial phases of doing so, staff members undergoing the transition process, and children navigating similar situations. Shivyon helped us start the process of saying we are inclusive and showing it. 

Before participating in Shivyon, our applications only acknowledged two genders (male and female). Moreover, we lacked designated support for LGBTQ+ staff and program participants during the demanding summer months, leading to burnout. Following a challenging process with our camp CRM system, we’ve successfully implemented changes. Now our staff, program participants, and their families can specify their gender identity in all applications. We’ve established new policies to ensure our community receives meaningful and relatable support from our team. Additionally, the overall responses we have had from those who are not a part of the LGBTQ+ community have been nothing short of exceptional.”

Jewish day camps are an integral part of Jewish life, not just for campers and staff, but for broader local communities. We must ensure they are places of belonging for LGBTQ+ individuals. Our camps need to uplift not only the Jewish value of Kehillah (community) but also Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh (communal responsibility), both values that Keshet upholds in their Seven Jewish Values for an Inclusive Community. These are necessary in order to build a solid foundation of affirmation and belonging in our Jewish day camps.

Keshet’s second Shivyon cohort for Jewish day camps, again in partnership with the JCC Association of North America and the Jewish Day Camp Network, will take place in Fall 2024. Keshet will continue to work with day camps throughout the year to build or support an LGBTQ+ equality working group and engage them through in-depth education, coaching, and practical skills to spark long-lasting change, from institutional policies to the individual experiences of staff, participants, and others. Shivyon launches online with summit days in Fall 2024. To learn more about this cohort check out Keshet’s website

All partners in this project are  grateful to the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation for their ongoing support.