Spirit of inclusion for transgender students prevails

Camp JCA Shalom offers single-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms and showers and installed gender-neutral signs on the doors about a year ago. Photo courtesy of Camp JCA Shalom.

Amid the national debate over transgender rights and the use of school bathrooms, a number of local Jewish summer camps quietly have been adjusting their policies to accommodate transgender students.

People who are transgender typically identify with the opposite gender to their birth sex, although some feel they are neither male nor female. Just under 1 percent of teenagers — almost 150,000 youths ages 13 to 17 nationwide — are estimated to identify as transgender, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

The Jewish Journal spoke to four area camps about their approach to transgender campers. All the camps said they sought to be inclusive spaces for all types of campers, although some had more clearly defined policies toward transgender students than others.

Camp JCA Shalom, Malibu

Just as Abraham and Sarah welcomed people from all walks of life into their tent in the Bible, Camp JCA Shalom strives to accommodate campers and staff from a variety of backgrounds, according to camp director Joel Charnick. He calls it “Big Tent Judaism.”

“We like to find ways to be more inclusive and less exclusive,” he said. “We are welcoming of people with all different backgrounds, all different self-identities, and that includes kids and staff who are gender-questioning or transgender or gender-neutral.”

Camp JCA Shalom offers single-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms and showers, located prominently at the center of the campus, Charnick said. The bathrooms and showers have been there for some time, but the director said the camp put up gender-neutral signs on the doors about a year ago to make it clear they can be used by anyone.

The camp also allows transgender campers — fewer than 10 have attended so far — to sleep in cabins that correspond to their gender identity rather than their birth sex, Charnick said. He said sometimes parents have questioned this philosophy while touring the camp, but he is not aware of any who have chosen to send their children elsewhere because of the issue.

In the spirit of inclusion, the camp added a 10th core value to its list of philosophical principles last summer. Kulanu, meaning “all of us” in Hebrew, is a concept discussed with campers and staff, Charnick said. Staff and campers are instructed to be respectful and welcoming to everybody and must sign an anti-bullying pledge.

“Camp relies on this concept of being a safe place for people,” Charnick said. “Once people feel safe, then they’re going to want to try new things and they’re going to grow in all sorts of different ways. But they have to feel safe first; that has to be the foundation.”

Camp Alonim, Simi Valley

Transgender campers are welcome at Camp Alonim, it’s as simple as that, said executive director Josh Levine. The camp, located on the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University, has had only one transgender student so far, he said, but the doors are open to more.

“They’re human beings like you and me, and if they want to come to camp, then of course they should be allowed to come to camp and be welcomed when they’re at camp, like any other kids,” Levine said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. It’s all about respect and inclusion and equality.”

Levine said initially he was uncertain about how to best accommodate a transgender camper when presented with the request in 2015. He said he sought advice from other summer camps and from the national organization Keshet, which advocates for LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.

The camp director said the student was allowed to use the cabin and bathrooms that corresponded with his gender identity. Levine said prior to camp, he also contacted parents of other children in that age group to inform them of the situation and to ask them to remind their kids that the camp is an inclusive place. He said he probably wouldn’t send that kind of notification again because it doesn’t seem necessary.

“Kids just want to make friends with other nice kids, and that’s what happened. That might sound surprising, but kids were just happy to get to know this really nice, creative, funny kid,” he said. “People coming to camp in 2017 should not be surprised to see kids of all different kinds of backgrounds at camp, including transgender campers.”

Camp Ramah in California, Ojai

Executive director Rabbi Joe Menashe declined to comment on whether Camp Ramah has a specific policy or approach when it comes to transgender campers. He said the topic had been discussed during staff training and the camp is “aspiring to be maximally inclusive.”

“It’s not about a topic, it’s about people,” he said. “It’s clearly something that, as we seek to honor the dignity of every individual, is on our minds but … I would prefer not to speak about individual people or specific policies because I think that gets complex in the public sphere.”

Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa, Big Bear Lake

Last summer, Camp Gilboa followed the lead of the national Habonim Dror youth movement by making changes to how Hebrew suffixes are used at camp, with the goal of making the language more inclusive. Instead of using the masculine suffix –im when referring to a group of people that includes males and females, the camp now uses –imot, a combination of -im and the feminine suffix –ot. For example, the age group known as Chotrim is now referred to as Chotrimot.

The camp also has incorporated a gender-neutral prefix for people who do not want to be referred to as a specific gender. For example, in addition to madrich for a male counselor, or madricha for a female counselor, a counselor also can be referred to as madrichol.

Executive director Dalit Shlapobersky said the campers adopted the changes immediately and without any problem.

“It’s a good educational opportunity to raise awareness about how language is used,” she said. “Not only with this [transgender] aspect of it, but just educating campers, making them more aware of gender roles … of how language enforces or makes gender roles more concrete in daily lives.”

Shlapobersky said the camp also has a gender-neutral bathroom in the dining room, the result of a decision made by campers many years ago. Currently, the camp does not have gender-neutral showers or locker rooms, she said, but that’s because it has never had a transgender camper at Camp Gilboa.

“We are prepared to deal with it when the need arises,” she said. “We are a totally, fully open community and everyone is welcome. So when someone is transgender … then we are ready to accept them and make sure that it works.”