Celebrating Diversity at Camp

Camp Havaya staff members are engaged in an ongoing process to create an environment in which campers can be celebrated in all of their diversity.

From the very beginning, the founders of Havaya Summer Programs had the foresight to build camp programs based on the idea that values can, and should, have an impact on decision-making. This holds true for Jewish practice, for the kind of food we serve, for the programs we run and for the communities we build. This isn’t “set it and forget it” kind of work; it’s an ongoing process to make sure that, as the world around us changes, we continue to live up to our highest values.

A number of years ago, as conversations about gender and school-bathroom usage popped up across North America, we realized that it was only a matter of time before we would be approached with the question. And in an overnight-camp environment like Camp Havaya, where kids are living together in community for weeks at a time, we knew this would come with all kinds of questions. We started thinking about the various components of the conversation and, ultimately, decided that it wasn’t a discussion we could have in the abstract; we knew we would have to dive in with a particular child and family in front of us.

In late 2013, Sheira was visiting a synagogue when she met a family with two kids. When the mother assumed that her transgender child wouldn’t be able to attend camp with his brother, Sheira quickly responded that this wasn’t at all the case, and that we would do everything we could to make it work for both of her kids to be with us. The mother cried. And Sheira called Isaac to say it was time to dive in.

For us, there was never a question of “if.” There was just a question of “how.” We didn’t ask whether or not we would accept trans campers; rather, we asked what we needed to do in order to be a place that welcomed trans campers with open arms. We had questions about bathrooms, showers, changing, privacy and more. We quickly found that all of these were just details in the midst of a much larger reality: This kid just wanted to be a kid. We were so focused on gender that we almost forgot to see the whole child. Being trans was just one part of who he was, and it wasn’t a part he wanted to share with anyone.

Of everything, this last piece was perhaps most instructive for us—not only about gender, but in general. It wasn’t our job or our place to share his story. While other camps walking a similar path chose to call families to let them know there would be a trans child in their child’s bunk, we took pride in our decision—strongly supported by our lay leadership—not to do the same. Given that we don’t call parents about the gay child in their kid’s bunk, or the child of color or the child with special needs, why would we call about the trans child?

Instead, we sought out expert advice and, ultimately, wrote a pre-summer letter that served as a teaching tool for parents. It put gender in the context of a larger conversation around diversity, giving parents language and questions to open a discussion with their children. It reminded parents of our communal values and showed them that we see ourselves as partners in their child’s learning, growth and values development. And it made a powerful statement that diversity isn’t about one child but about the whole system.

Inclusion With a Capital ‘I’

Many years ago, as part of a panel discussion at a camping conference, Sheira commented that truly inclusive institutions can’t say they’re inclusive of one group but not another. Certainly, an organization can specialize in a particular area, but being “inclusive with a capital ‘I’ ” is a paradigm, not a program.

From the very beginning, diversity has been important at Camp Havaya. In the early years, campers poked fun at the lack of racial diversity, as if to say: “we know we can do better.” We took this charge seriously and, over the last decade, we have focused intentionally on five areas of inclusion: LGBTQIA+, people of color, interfaith families, special needs and socio-economic diversity. We chose these areas with an understanding that the Jewish community is wonderfully diverse, even though the organized Jewish community doesn’t often appear that way. If we wanted to build a camp that truly served the community, then we needed to open ourselves to the wonder of the full community.

Doing this meant shifting our language, outwardly and internally, away from “inclusive” and “welcoming”—both of which are passive, and assume that there are those on the inside who welcome and include those on the outside. There are many wonderful camps that have kids of color or staff members who are gay or families with parents of different faiths, but we wanted to take the next step. We don’t take for granted that diversity requires work, and if we’re going to really do it well, we have to be proactive about creating the space to do that work. So we shifted our language from “inclusive” or “welcoming” to “celebratory” because it’s something we can all do. There’s no insider or outsider in a true celebration; I can celebrate you, you can celebrate me, and we can celebrate together. The best celebrations take real work to plan … and they leave you smiling when they’re finished. (Isn’t that what camp is all about?)

Living by Our Values

This may all sound like semantics, but our commitment to diversity isn’t just lip service. Creating and maintaining a celebratory community requires a continuous focus on how the individual will feel in the midst of the whole. It’s not about creating policies and rules, but about meeting each child and family where they are.

This is an ongoing process. Long-time camper parents recently shared: “Back in 2009, we were pretty impressed and very grateful to not have to correct camper forms so they were inclusive and said ‘Parent,’ instead of just ‘Mother’ and ‘Father.’ It was exhilarating to find a youth program where we didn’t need to carve out a new path or feel like our child was going to be the first (or only) one at camp with same-sex parents.” A decade later, this language has become much more the norm … and now we’re pushing our database provider to rethink how they ask about gender in a similar way that doesn’t require families to choose a binary “male” or “female” response.

We do this because we’ve learned that words have great power. The old adage “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” simply isn’t true. Choosing the right words at the right moment can make a powerful statement to someone who might otherwise feel on the outside. We no longer tell kids to write letters to their mom and dad because lots of kids have two moms or two dads or just one parent. We don’t say that the purpose of Jewish camp is for kids to marry other Jews because lots of kids have a parent of another faith. We steer clear of saying “boys and girls” since more and more kids aren’t finding that either of those terms describe them. (Our favorite replacement, to borrow from the Quakers, is “friends.”) And, perhaps needlessly to say, we don’t allow words that describe someone’s identity to be used in a derogatory way.

Just as words are important, so, too, are symbols. On our front hill, right when you drive into camp, a rainbow flag flies prominently with the American and Israeli flags. While this makes a statement to LGBTQIA+ families, it speaks just as powerfully to those who aren’t. For campers and families who may be marginalized in other settings, the flag is a tangible symbol that nobody will be marginalized here. And for those who live primarily in a place of privilege, it’s a statement of values. For all of us, it’s a reminder that diversity remains at the core of what we do.

This commitment comes to life even more in our summer staff. With an eye towards providing role models with whom our campers can personally identify, we aim to hire staff members who reflect a wide spectrum of diverse experiences. Sometimes, this is apparent on the surface; we have counselors from the Jewish communities in Uganda and India, and each summer we hire staff members with special needs. Sometimes, it’s less so; a staffer was out as gay but chose not to be more public—not because he was hiding it, but because he wasn’t a particularly public person. Whether private or loud and proud, we look to show campers that they can be fully themselves, and that they can follow a path hewn by amazing peer leaders.

You Can’t Do It All

Even as we pride ourselves on being a place where every voice and experience is valued, we’re also keenly aware that no one place can be everything to everyone. There are limits to what we can provide and what we can do well—whether because the physical space makes it impossible or because it doesn’t fit within a shared set of communal norms. Being a celebratory community doesn’t mean that anything goes; on the contrary, it means that a very clear set of guidelines and expectations are in place to ensure that each member of the community can be celebrated fully for all that they are.

This is an ongoing process, and we’re always learning. We’ve had experiences when parents call us out and show us how we could do better. And we’ve had other times when we make the call, letting parents (and kids!) know of a moment that didn’t live up to our values. Sometimes, this is abundantly clear, and other times, it takes more thought. It can take conversations and exploration over many years to make real change. Most recently, we found this with publicly sharing pronouns; we resisted doing so for a number of years because we didn’t feel that it was appropriate to require folks to share any one piece of their identity. More recently, after doing our homework and talking with our college-aged staff, we realized that not including pronouns was making a statement we didn’t intend to make. By not including them, we were unintentionally silencing a conversation around gender and hiding the central role that diversity plays in our community; it was just the opposite of flying the rainbow flag. So we added them to our email signatures as a quiet way of putting our values front and center. This wasn’t an easy decision; we took our time, pushed up against some discomfort and ultimately found, as with most things, that living our values is more important than being comfortable. So now, when folks ask about our pronouns, we have an opportunity to teach, and even more importantly, to talk about what we believe in.

Even with these deep commitments and work, we sometimes find a child or family we can’t support in the ways they need or want to be supported. In those cases, we strive to recommend a place that can more fully meet them where they are. At the core, our goal is to get Jewish kids into Jewish camp; or, put more broadly, we want to connect Jewish families more deeply with Jewish community. If we can’t do this in a meaningful way within our program, we see it as our obligation and our privilege to help find the right fit somewhere else. Some of our greatest disappointments as professionals and as human beings have been times when we’ve told a parent or child who we really care about that we just can’t serve them well. We know this can be hard and sometimes off-putting for families, but we also know that every business has limitations, and it’s far better to be honest than to pretend to be something we’re not.

Celebrating Community

Key to all of this is a sense of humility and a deep understanding that we don’t have all the answers. We teach our staff and campers—and remind ourselves—how to take responsibility, learn and grow from their missteps. And we also talk about how to be magnanimous and assume the best of intentions. In a world that is more and more divided, we work to be a safe place where the concept of “how we be” is central. We focus on how we be-have, how we be-long to a community and how we be our best selves. None of these are about “catching” people; they’re about striving to do our best and to bring out the best in others.

In all we do, we focus on celebrating and challenging our kids in ways that help them grow into amazing human beings. This makes for what camp really should be: exciting, boundary-pushing, energizing and validating. Diversity is the gold thread that flows through our tallit (prayer shawl), making it ever brighter and more vibrant. It reminds us that our Jewish future is made up of more than just any one kind of person, and we have to give kids a place to learn how to be those people. There’s a saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and no place is this truer than with diversity. Our campers experience just how interesting and fun life can be when everyone is encouraged to express what makes them unique. The swell of their voices, their experiences and their best selves are truly something to celebrate.

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