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.

Spirit of inclusion for transgender students prevails

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.”

Schoolboys, not soldiers: A mother responds

How does a Jewish mother respond to the unthinkable? In Jeremiah, we read of the matriarch Rachel, the quintessential Jewish mother, who sat in Ramah crying and bitterly weeping. There was no comfort for her, her children were gone. Like our ancient matriarch, we, too, are in mourning. 

In the last weeks, we have lit candles and attended vigils. In their absence, we adopted three teenage boys, whose lives were full of potential, into our own families. We prayed and hoped for Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel, but we now know there is no longer any reason for hope. Hope is, I imagine, what carried Iris Yifrach, Bat Galim Shaar and Rachel Frenkel through the first part of this ordeal, but now their children are gone and I cannot imagine what this must mean. 

These were schoolboys. They were civilians, not soldiers. The sadness and dismay that we are feeling as a community comes in part because we have taken the narratives of these boys into our own stories. It comes in part because this violence does not feel so far away. Eyal, Naftali and Gilad were young people. They were not carrying guns. They were just trying to get home. Whether or not we knew them personally, we all know someone like them. Their deaths remind us of just how high the cost of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is. We are filled with compassion for these families, even as we struggle to know how to protect our own children.

Rachel, our matriarch, suffered over her children. First she could not conceive, and then she died in childbirth. In Hebrew, the word for womb, rechem, the source of her suffering, is related to the word rachamim, or compassion. For it is precisely the vulnerability of those who birth and care for children, in practice and metaphorically, that is tied to our ability to feel for the other, with concern and sympathy. 

As a mother, as a parent who has nurtured and loved without condition, I am filled with rachamim for Iris Yifrach, Bat Galim Shaar and Rachel Frenkel for their suffering and for a loss that cannot be redeemed. I cannot imagine the daily pain of an empty place at the dinner table, of a bed that will never again be slept in, of a high school graduation that will not come. Their suffering is the universal suffering of all mothers, of all parents who lose innocent children to dangers and terror that ought not to be part of any childhood. 

And I am scared. I wish I could believe that these horrible deaths will serve as a catalyst for moderation and understanding. I am not so naïve as to advocate inaction, nor so selfless as to disavow justice. Nonetheless, I am concerned that in our pain we will be tempted toward vengeance. Just as there were those who saw in the horrific kidnapping of these three boys unconscionable reason for celebration, there are those who see the recovery of the bodies of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali as justification for large-scale indiscriminate retribution. The possibility for a significant increase in violence is a real danger. I hope that the voices of compassion and of reasoned military strategy prevail so that all innocent children may grow in safety and mothers may be spared the pain of violent loss.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder is the Rabbi-in-Residence for Be’chol Lashon and frequently writes about Jewish topics. You can follow her on Twitter at @RabbiRuth.

Taking time for yourself

Camp ended not long ago. Children and counselors went home, and after months of jumping, screaming, singing, crying, dancing and laughing, now there is
stillness and quiet.

The dining room echoes as my feet step across a wide, empty floor once filled with tables and benches. Outside, I listen to wind blow through the trees. Clotheslines sit empty. The pool deck is dry and clean.

After nine weeks of living with almost 900 people, I enjoy a simple walk through camp uninterrupted by questions, or greetings. Soon I will return to my crowded Jewish neighborhood filled with shuls, restaurants and grocery stores. For now, I am content to drink in the silence and the solitude, welcome and unfamiliar.

Jewish life is noisy. We talk in our study halls and sing at our dinner tables. Jewish hermits are, well, oxymoronic. Our community measures success in affiliation. But communal life can be smothering. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “It is as individuals, not as members of a mass-kind that we are asked to observe mitzvot…. The social aspect plays a very great role in Jewish life, but we cannot allow it to eclipse the individual.”

The parsha begins: “See [re’eh, singular] I place before you [lifnei’chem, plural] today blessing and curse” (Devarim 11:26). Why begin in the singular and finish in the plural? To explain, two commentators — Rabbi Shlomo Efraim of Luntchitz and Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin — both quote the Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) where it is taught that a person should always see himself as half innocent and half guilty, and the world as half righteous and half evil. Why? So that when one person does one mitzvah, he will tilt himself, and with him, the fate of the world toward good, or, if he sins — God forbid — toward evil. The fate of the world rests in the hands of what one person will do the very next moment.

How would your life change if you lived this way? How would the Jewish community look if we took each individual so seriously?

I think a lot about why Jewish camps succeed. Much is rightly made of the “thick” sense of community that is present in camp communities. We eat, learn, wake up, fall asleep, play, mourn, cry, sing, dance and grow up together. But kids don’t just love camp for community; camps succeed because counselors and campers feel known at camp, not as “members of a mass-kind” but as people, as individuals. Camps typically have one counselor for every four to six campers. Good counselors sit outside the dining room with a child who is having a tough time, and stay up late talking with a camper and listening to what excites him or worries her.

I have often thought that if I were the rabbi of a shul, I would try to initiate an individual meeting with each person in the synagogue, not on the occasion of a bar mitzvah or a wedding or a funeral, but just to sit and talk, to get to know the individual persons that comprise a community. (With many synagogues having hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of members, the project might take years, even decades, to complete.)

On a communal level, too often we forget that the world is changed one person at a time. Our programs aim to reach many people but at what cost to the individual Jew? Speaking to a group of Jewish educators, Heschel declared, “When the Bible calls upon us to open the heart [see Deuteronomy 10:16], it is appealing to the religion of the individual…. We teachers face the pupil as an individual: We have to take into consideration his rights and his tasks. To respect these rights and to think of these tasks is the great duty of educators, for to educate means to meet the inner needs, to respond to the inner goals of the child. We dare not commit human sacrifice by immolating the individual child upon the altar of the group.”

On a spiritual level, too often the “I” is lost in the sea of Jewish community. Even before God we forget to stand alone. We mindlessly recite the words of the siddur but fail to offer our own hopes and fears and dreams to God. We forget or neglect to carve out time for solitude. Why? Too often we tell ourselves that our obligations to our family, jobs or community, are too important for us to “indulge” ourselves. Solitude is no indulgence. It is the seed from which relationships can grow.

“See,” God says to each single person. The fate of the world hangs in the balance; the task begins with you alone.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Zimmer Conference Center of the American Jewish University.

Class Notes: Rockies, Ramah, Shalhevet, Conejo Book-A-Thon

In an impressive show of collaboration, Denver’s Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center, Ramah of the Rockies and the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado together purchased 360 acres of scenic land in Deckers, Colo., to open Camp Ramah in the Rockies and J-CC Ranch Camp at the Flying J Ranch. The purchase was completed in March 2006, and the Flying J Ranch — the consortium created by the organizations — is now kicking off a campaign to raise $35 million to $40 million to develop the property.

Surrounded by the more than 1.2 million acres of the Pike and San Isabel national forests, the Flying J Ranch brings two independent summer camps together on one site with distinct campuses. Ramah in the Rockies and the J-CC Ranch Camp, based in Denver, will share facilities that include a kosher kitchen, swimming pool, equestrian center, ropes course and rock-climbing facilities.

Ramah has seven camps serving more than 5,000 campers every summer, but many of its camps are full. The Ranch Camp, which has been operating for more than 40 years, was looking to move from its outdated facility 40 miles from Denver. The site will also serve as a conference and retreat center for national Jewish organizations, according to Jeff Robbins, Flying J director.

The new camp will serve the steadily increasing Jewish population of the Southwest. Rabbis from Denver, Texas and Salt Lake City recently visited the site in efforts to spread excitement and spur fundraising .

“I am absolutely amazed by the natural splendor of the new mountain site for Ramah in the Rockies. It will be a stunning and important addition to the Ramah camping movement,” said Rabbi Bruce Dollin, senior rabbi of the Hebrew Educational Alliance Synagogue in Denver. “Horseback riding, mountaineering and an appreciation for the ecological makeup and needs of the Rocky Mountains will be this camp’s unique contribution to Camp Ramah nationally.”

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… Ramah Everywhere Else

More than 450 professional and lay leaders, funders and camper and staff alumni from Ramah’s seven overnight camps, three day camps and Israel programs came together at the Jewish Theological Seminary last month to celebrate 60 years of Jewish camping.

“Ramah is one of the most successful endeavors the Conservative movement has ever created, because at Ramah we can create Jewish time and Jewish space without interruption from general society,” said Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. “We need to take the lessons and patterns of Ramah and extend them to many other aspects of our movement to inspire more commitment, more passion and more Jewish pride.”

Ramah programs currently serve more than 6,500 campers and 1,500 college-age staff members each summer, including about 1,300 kids at the Ojai camp in Ventura County.

Programs at the conference featured discussions on a wide range of topics, including Israel programming, leadership development, the educational mission of Ramah, special-needs camping and research studies on the impact of Ramah on the Jewish attitudes and practices of college students.

Trinity College demographer Ariela Keysar presented her extraordinary findings about the significant impact of Ramah on college students, noting that Ramah graduates are three times more likely to date only Jews, four times more likely to attend synagogue services and three times as likely as the general Jewish population to spend significant time in Israel.

Throughout the day, Ramah alumni from 60 years reunited and told stories of the great impact that Ramah has had on their lives. Among those who met were the president of Camp Ramah in California, Julie Beren Platt, whose husband, Marc Platt, is the producer of the Broadway show, “Wicked,” and Caissie Levy, a member of the current “Wicked” cast on Broadway and a former camper and staff member at Camp Ramah in Canada. Levy will soon be the lead in the Los Angeles production of “Wicked.”

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More News From Milken

Milken Community High School’s nationwide search for a head of school has come full circle — in fact it’s come right back home. Jason Ablin, who for the past eight years has been Milken’s director of general and integrated studies, will replace Dr. Rennie Wrubel as head of school in July 2008.

“Jason Ablin, the consummate educator, lives the mission of Milken each and every day,” said Wrubel, who will help with the transition before she retires at the end of the academic year. “With a sharp mind, generous heart and kind soul, Jason is a born leader who will surely bring Milken to new heights, educating the Jewish leaders of tomorrow.”

Ablin is a favorite among students and led the school’s successful bid for six-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. The process helped him gain intimate knowledge of the school, according to a letter sent by Milken’s parent organization, Stephen S. Wise, and signed by Rabbi Eli Herscher and Metuka Benjamin, director of education.

Ablin said he is “thrilled and excited to lead a school which serves the entire Jewish community and which is committed to developing in every child all three pillars of Jewish life: Torah, avodah (service) and gemilut hassidim (acts of kindness).”

Search Is On, Awards Are in at Shalhevet

Shalhevet school has convened a search committee to find a new head of school when founder Jerry Friedman retires at the end of this academic year.

Friedman founded the school 17 years ago with a vision of encouraging children’s moral development and sense of responsibility. It has since added an elementary and middle school with 400 kids in grades K-12. Since its founding, Friedman has served as head of school and for a time as the president.

“Jerry has done an unbelievable job building the school and its vision,” board president Esther Feder said. “I think he’s comfortable that the school is on the right path, and it’s the right time.”

Ramah’s Happy,

During that first weekend, we found nourishmentfor all parts of our Jewish psyches. Religious services weretraditional but encouraged participation: I had my first-ever aliyahthere. The camp’s weekend scholar-in-residence gave us grown-upsserious food for thought. The children had their own programs, but weall came together for a wild and wacky Saturday-night carnival and aSunday Maccabiah in which points were awarded for ruach (a favoriteRamah word, meaning “spirit”) as well as for athletic skill. And, ofcourse, some lazy hours were reserved for swimming, snoozing andschmoozing. After all this, it was hard to go home.

Some folks never do quite go home again. Checkingout Ramah’s flourishing summer-camp program recently, I was impressedby how many families have made the camp a permanent part of theirlives. Campers grow up to be staff members; eventually, they bringtheir own children with them to camp, and the cycle begins anew.Thus, the notion of a summer committed to living Judaism passes fromgeneration to generation.

There are actually seven Camp Ramahs scatteredthroughout North America, all of them affiliated with theConservative movement. The oldest Ramah, in Wisconsin, has justcelebrated its 50th anniversary. California’s Ramah, now in its 41styear, has become so popular that, by December, most of itssummer-camp slots are filled.

The 520 campers attending each session are servedby 225 full-time staff members, many of whom are professionaleducators. What makes Ramah unique among summer camps is its seriouscommitment to Jewish learning for everyone. This means that allcampers spend an hour a day in study sessions, grappling with suchmeaty topics as Jewish heroes and peace. Older campers delve intosacred texts and improve their Hebrew-language skills. (Thanks to therise of day schools, a growing number of campers, in all age groups,can handle the curriculum entirely in Hebrew.)

But learning doesn’t cease when you stop being acamper. Teens coming onto the counseling staff via the mador program(for high school seniors) spend 10 to 12 hours per week in class,studying both Judaica and interpersonal skills. And all otherstaffers engage in ongoing learning on a weekly basis.

Elon Sunshine, a rabbinical student who heads themador program, explains that “camp isn’t only about the camper butabout the personal and Jewish development of staff on all levels.” Hefurthers his own education by studying Torah with the residentscholars every Shabbat afternoon.

Camp Director Brian Greene is a rarity in that hedidn’t grow up at Ramah. But he introduced me to many staffers whodid. A prime example is Jeremy Rosenthal, a senior at UC Berkeley.His parents met at Camp Ramah, and his mother, Wendy, has been onstaff each summer for as long as he can remember. He himself became acamper in 1985 and has stayed with it ever since, following the Ramahteen’s usual path of spending one summer at a Ramah program in Israeland then returning the following year to take up a junior staffposition.

Now, at 21, Rosenthal is a counselor in Ramah’sspecial Tikvah program, which allows developmentally disabled Jewishyoungsters to know the fun of sleep-away camp. He’s already wonderingwhat assignment he’ll draw in summer 1998.

Rabbi Ron Shulman and his wife, Robin, are membersin good standing of the “I met my spouse at Ramah” club. In the1970s, as young Ramah counselors, they fell in love. For the lastseven summers, during Shulman’s vacation from Congregation Ner Tamidof Palos Verdes, they have returned to the site of their courtshipwith their two daughters in tow. Robin works as a counselor/trainer,while Ron is officially known as a rabbi-in-residence, whose functionis to teach older campers and staff.

But at Ramah, no one stands on ceremony. Shulmanspeaks of his family’s annual month at camp as “the only time we getto live in an integrated Jewish community without pretense or title.”He insists that he would be happy participating in any capacity: “Ican sort mail, clean up the kitchen….” If this sounds far-fetched,consider that one of the rabbis on staff has the job of driving andservicing the camp bus.

Over lunch, I met a young man in a suede kippahand tie-dyed T-shirt. This was unit head David Stein, a Ramahnik forthe past 17 years. David and his sister, Emily, now a Ramahcounselor, are originally from Orange County. As kids, they wouldreturn from camp each summer with new Jewish ideas to contribute tothe Stein household. First, David talked his mother into lightingShabbat candles. Then, because he had made a havdalah candle at camp,the havdalah ritual became part of the family’s routine. And in his13th year, he taught his father to put on tefillin. Now his parents,too, consider themselves part of the Ramah family.

It was when Stein joined the counseling staff thathe became truly religious. Inspired by Ramah spiritual mentors whotaught him to see even a baseball game as a Torah experience, hedecided to enter rabbinical school. He now has a mission: to show hiscampers how they, too, can take Judaism home from Camp Ramah and makeit part of their world year-round.

Beverly Gray writes about education from SantaMonica.

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