By Zach Usmani, Director of Camp Care; and Sara Levitt, Summer Program Director
At Etgar B’Ramah (Ramah Outdoor Adventure), one of the things on which we pride ourselves is that we have created a place where chalutzim (pioneers/campers) don’t need to conform to gender role stereotypes. During the summer, one can witness chalutzot (female campers) doing hagba (raising the Torah) or prakim (periods) of aerobic dancing filled with male and female campers alike. Girls aren’t afraid to be strong, and boys aren’t afraid to crochet (making water bottle holders was quite trendy this summer!). One mother told us that her daughter put on tefillin for the first time recently because she saw her madricha (female counselor) doing it at camp.
This didn’t happen by accident. We have spent significant time educating tzevet (staff) and engaging in discussions with them about this very topic. We owe a debt of gratitude to Risa Isard, a founding member of tzevet, who made sure this was a priority. Our tzevet are intentional role models – the duathlon counselors, one male and one female, took turns leading and being in the back so they wouldn’t send unintentional messages to chalutzim about who can or should lead. One probably won’t hear anyone—camper or staff—call someone a Tomboy or tell someone that he throws like a girl. And if that is heard, it would be followed up by a discussion about what is behind those remarks.
Over our Winter break, we attended the Keshet National Training Institute. Keshet is an organization “working for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life.” Before the conference, attendees were asked to think about their organizations’ culture and policies. One question asked if the organization is safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) staff. What about for youth? We want to emphatically say, “Yes! We are welcoming and safe!” but we know that the truth is that we just don’t know. Although we have had a few members of staff identify as LGBT and children from families of LGBT parents, the discussion hasn’t really come up yet. The Keshet conference has ignited that discussion.
Building community is important at Etgar B’Ramah: it’s in our mission statement, our core values, and in the daily practices of our staff. Webelieve that no one should be afraid to come to camp or feel unwelcome. Our daily lives at camp are guided by the Jewish values of Shalom Bayit (Peace in the Home) and Klal Yisrael (The community of Israel), and so far we havebeen successful in a handfuls of areas of camp. We have taken proactive steps to be inclusive of those with less financial means by providing financial aid; our Tikvah program allows teens with special needs to be a part of the camp community. These things take real resources, in the form of money for financial aid and extra staff and space for Tikvah. So too will it take resources for us to be a fully inclusive camp for children and teens who identify as LGBT, and for those children coming from families whose parents are LGBT. The first, and probably most important component, centers on culture. We must continue to work to create a culture of acceptance in order for LGBT children & their parents to feel accepted. The Keshet training provided us with great resources on staff training and youth programming, and we look forward to utilizing those resources this summer.
The conversation of how to be fully inclusive won’t be an easy or a short one, but it is crucial in order for us to fulfill our goal of giving every Jewish child the amazing experience of Etgar B’Ramah!