By Casey Cohen
When Camp Tawonga created Keshet Family Camp nearly two decades ago, the idea was to give gay and lesbian families their own space for the first time ever in Jewish camping.
Keshet founder Deborah Newbrun had the vision for the program after her first child was born. “As soon as we had a kid, there was no avenue to plug into the queer community as a family. It began to feel isolating, and I had this idea that it was time for us to get to be in the majority.”
Over the next twenty years, what started with 15 Keshet families grew to 40 and this year, swelled to a historic 62 families – with a waitlist.
At Keshet, queer families have the opportunity to unplug together in nature, have Jewish experiences and build community, all with families that, in some way or another, are similar to theirs. A trend has since taken shape in the field, explained Camp Tawonga’s incoming executive director, Jamie Simon, who also co-directs Keshet: “The idea of Keshet was once a very progressive and new idea; now, camps all over the country offer family camps serving LGBTQ families specifically.”
The diverse composition of Keshet families adds tremendous value during the weekend. Newbrun explained, “People in the gay community have to work really hard to have their babies, so whether through adoption, surrogacy, sperm bank, friends, uncles, etc., the families here are completely unusual. There is no typical Keshet family, and that’s beautiful. We all accept each other for how we are.”
And although being in a queer family is a distinguishing element of Keshet, it is not the defining one. Ilana Kaufman, in her third year at Keshet with daughter Noa, elaborated, “What makes our identity unique is that we come together around Jewish values and being in a beautiful space, and that’s special.”
Some kids have grown up going to Keshet every year, and a tradition formed into what is now a weekend highlight known as the Teen Panel. During the panel, Keshet teens respond to questions from parents in the audience about growing up in queer households.
This year, 19-year-old panel participant Charlotte Dubach-Reinhold offered, “It’s really important to have communities like Keshet where queer families can come together and feel normalized. Coming together in this environment is one of the best things you can do for your kids.”
14-year-old Ashira Weintreich, at camp with her two moms and sister for the fourth year, shared, “Keshet is a place where my family and I can be comfortable to be ourselves.”
This year, inspired by the Teen Panel, a group of parents asked Simon to lead some 10 and 11 year-old kids in a similar discussion. Her gut reaction was that these children were too young, but was soon blown away by their thoughtfulness and ability to articulate their experience.
Over 20 kids joined, and they shared the love they have for their families as well as frustration that kids can be mean at school, and that schools could be more inclusive. “A common thread shared was that at Keshet, their families are embraced wholly for who they are,” said Simon.
Through Keshet and all of our programs, Camp Tawonga is a place for all who visit to feel good about themselves and connect to our Jewish community. Joel Rubinstein, a third-year Keshet participant with husband Edward and sons Magnus and Zander, said,
“For me, Keshet means giving my children the experience of being with other really great, supportive families, to see other two-dad families, two-mom families, to see different kinds of families. It means giving them the opportunity to be out here in this beautiful setting in nature, with the lake and the mountains. And it means giving them an opportunity to experience the setting suffused with a Jewish atmosphere and spirituality.”
We can’t wait to celebrate Keshet’s 20th anniversary next year, which will be another historic moment to honor how far we’ve come. Here’s to the next 20 years!
Casey Cohen is Communications Director at Camp Tawonga.