Jewish Summer Camps Prioritize Inclusion in 2016

inclusionBy Rabbi Jason Miller

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was signing an executive order requiring NYC agencies give access to single-sex bathroom facilities consistent with people’s gender identity, across the Hudson River over 750 Jewish camp professionals were likewise pledging increased inclusion at their summer camps. For the first time, a gender neutral bathroom was made available at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly conference in East Brunswick, New Jersey to ensure transgender individuals were comfortable during FJC’s biennial gathering.

More than that, the Foundation launched its “I Belong to Jewish Camp” initiative which will offer significant grants to organizations like day camps, overnight camps, Jewish federations, and other camp partners to strongly encourage a new commitment to inclusion. Up to $25,000 in seed-funding is being offered by FJC for new outreach and/or programmatic initiatives that engage such constituencies as LGBTQ, Interfaith, Multi-ethnic, and campers with disabilities.

This new initiative was announced by Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of FJC, following a dynamic series of presentations by individuals who had historically been marginalized because of their differences. The highlights of these impassioned talks were given by a young woman with Tourette’s Syndrome and a transgender man who recently gave birth to his baby daughter.

With a delightful amount of humor, Pamela Schuller shared her experiences as a camper and staff member at Jewish summer camps. With her Tourette’s Syndrome causing her to bark like a dog uncontrollably, Pamela found it too big of a challenge to survive in her family’s synagogue and at her school because of her condition. However, summer after summer she found a comfortable euphoria at her Jewish camp where she went from camper to camp professional. She’s now the full-time Inclusion Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism and a standup comedian to boot. Despite struggling with Tourette’s Syndrome, Pamela found a home at camp.

When Rafi Daugherty took the stage next, he acknowledged that an introduction of his personal story was likely unnecessary since it had been covered so widely in the media recently. As a queer transgender man, Rafi grew up in summer camps. In his youth, as an ultra-Orthodox Jewish girl, summers were spent at all-girls overnight camps where Rafi was a tomboy and felt uncomfortable as a girl. After leaving the Orthodox world of his childhood, coming out of the closet and eventually transitioning to a man, Rafi’s journey led him toward finding unexpected connections to spirituality. While he’s making headlines because he recently delivered a beautiful baby girl, the real story is that Rafi is doing important work as the Director of Camper Care at Ramah Outdoor Adventure, an overnight camp in Colorado, and feels accepted as a queer transgender man who was respected last summer when he explained to his fellow camp staff members and the oldest campers that he was pregnant.

Whether it is children of intermarried parents, counselors with physical disabilities, LGBTQ individuals, campers from multiracial families or any other people who feel as if they’ve been missing from these dynamic summer camp communities, Jewish summer camps are poised to increase the diversity in their institutions this summer and beyond. All sociology experts on the future of the Jewish community point to the integral role that summer camp plays in the development of strong Jewish identities. With the encouragement of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, camp professionals are now recognizing their responsibility to ensure all young people in the Jewish community are included in the magic that is Jewish camp.

Rabbi Jason Miller is an entrepreneur, educator and blogger. He serves on the board of directors of Camp Inc. and is president of Access Computer Technology. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.

Originally published in The Times of Israel