Lived values

Confronting racism in Jewish spaces: When camp isn’t a bubble

In Short

Accounting for a camp’s values by examining them in contrast with the lived experiences of marginalized groups in and on the fringes of the camp community is crucial.

People who know day camp know better than anyone else that camp is not actually a bubble. Every day, campers and staff carry invisible backpacks filled with knowledge, experiences and feelings from the world outside. 

That’s why Jewish day camp professionals were some of the first in the field to recognize that racism is real and present in Jewish settings and doesn’t just vanish when people enter our gate. That it weakens Jewish impact, whether it’s talked about or not. And that without exercising muscles to confront it regularly, our ability to deliver on our organizational missions and to truly live our stated values will be severely hindered. 

In 2019, with generous funding from UJA-Federation of New York, Foundation for Jewish Camp set out on a partnership with Jews in ALL Hues, an education and advocacy organization that supports Jews of Color and multi-heritage Jews, to bring new tools and lenses to six New York-area day camps eager to confront racism in their communities. Since then, the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) Coaching Project (which includes a focus on racial equity and its intersection with other aspects of DEI), has expanded to serve a total of nine NY-area camps and two Colorado day camps with continued funding from UJA and a new partner in the Rose Community Foundation. 

What we’ve learned is that organizational values matter, but they must also be aligned with the personal values of organizational leadership. The sets of values don’t have to be the same, but they have to be explored alongside one another for this work to be meaningful. Questions we ask camp professionals who are eager to exercise this muscle include: 1) How are you personally showing up in this work? 2) Who in your camp community is seated in a position of authority to affect cultural change? 3) Do you trust yourself to be an agent of change? Because you can’t do it in a silo, but it also starts with you. When leaders seek to confront racism in their communities, they also must do the painfully difficult work of confronting their own racial biases. 

And that’s because you cannot solve racism with one checklist. It’s not that easy. For camps, it’s about a change in organizational DNA so we raise awareness of racial inequities in the same way that many camps have become more aware of gender normativity, or ableism in recent years. To do that, you need multiple resources at your disposal and an acceptance that this is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s also critical to remember that racism, homophobia, ableism and antisemitism are all part of a larger system of oppression and it’s imperative to explore and wrestle their intersections. The following resources are ones that we find valuable to doing this work:

  1. Making Mensches: You won’t get far in this work without getting clear about the kind of people you want your campers and staff to become. What character strengths are you cultivating? Getting clear about that will help you do the important work of DEI auditing. 
  2. Jews in ALL Hues: As previously mentioned, the work of considering how your stated values align with the lived experiences of BIPOC in your community is self-reflection work, and it cannot be done in a silo. You need help. Reach out to JIAH today for a conversation about how to get started. 
  3. Beyond the Count: Perspectives and Lived Experiences of Jews of Color. Read that report to deepen your understanding of experiences of people of color in Jewish spaces. Using available resources like this important report is a great way to identify what you do not know and possibly what additional resources you’ll need to start to learn. 

Accounting for a camp’s values by examining them in contrast with the lived experiences of marginalized groups in and on the fringes of the camp community is crucial. This is particularly true for our work with camps whose missions include guiding campers and staff as they develop into confident human beings who always return to Judaism as a platform for learning and future growth. We see that when camps account for their values in this way, they become lived values rather than espoused values, and their impact is significantly stronger for that. 

The late bell hooks wrote, “What we do is more important than what we say or what we say we believe.” Without doing the work of considering how race and racism show up in your community, your values are just statements. When you consider those values against a backdrop of how BIPOC experience or do not experience your community, and you do it over and over again with thoughtful reflection, that’s when you begin to have lasting Jewish impact. 

Jared Jackson, MAJNM, is the founder and executive director of Jews in ALL Hues, an education and advocacy organization that builds a world where intersectional diversity and dignity are normative. A Philadelphia-born multi-heritage Jew, Jared is an internationally renowned Jewish diversity leader, consultant, facilitator, speaker, writer, musician and entrepreneur.

Jenni Zeftel is the director of day camp and strategic programs at Foundation for Jewish Camp and was formerly director of New Country Day Camp and director of Youth Programs at lower Manhattan’s 14th Street Y. Jenni holds a master’s degree in early childhood education.