Tackling the Transgender Question at Jewish Summer Camp

Photo courtesy Camp Tawonga; counselor with his hands in the air is Ben Morag.
Photo courtesy Camp Tawonga; counselor with his hands in the air is Ben Morag.

Tawonga Director: ‘Challenges and Opportunities’

By Maayan Jaffe
eJewish Philanthropy

The more camps can reflect the world around us by being inclusive and open to all campers and staff, the better camps will be.

These were the sentiments of Jonah Geller, Capital Camps Director/CEO, when asked about the camp’s policy toward transgender youth. He told eJewish Philanthropy that, “We don’t have a policy.” However, the topic of how to handle transgender campers is already on the agenda for the first camp committee meeting later this month.

“What does all this mean relating to how, if and when? We’re not exactly sure yet. But we are certainly having productive, meaningful conversations with parents, staff and our board,” says Geller.

The topic of transgender campers has been on the national and Jewish national agenda over the last couple of years, spawned by an increasing number of youth who are “coming out of the closet” about their gender identities. This, coupled with an increase in transgender celebrities – Ines Rau, Alexis Arquette, Laverne Cox, among others – has made the issue more pressing.

Though most camps are still fumbling their way through what it means to be inclusive of transgender campers, one camp in the Bay area is ahead of the curve.

This past summer, Camp Tawonga, a leading Jewish summer camp for kids, teens, and families, welcomed three transgender campers. Two came out before camp and one during the summer.

“It was a great experience,” says Camp Director Jamie Simon-Harris, which she says allowed her staff to utilize the sensitivity training they receive each summer and that Tawonga takes very seriously.

“Every year we do training on gender, sexuality, inclusion. We teach staff not to assume someone’s sexual preferences, like if you are the counselor for a girls bunk, don’t assume all the campers have crushes on boys,” Simon-Harris explains. “We talk about watching our language. There are not only two genders and research shows everyone expresses their gender differently. We want all our kids to feel comfortable expressing their gender the way they want to at camp.”

This hasn’t come without challenges. Though Simon-Harris says the camps “progressive and welcoming” community has not questioned the camps decision, there are practical logistics that need to be dealt with. For starters, minors are not allowed to undergo gender-altering surgeries. This means, that while a camper born female may consider herself to be male, she will still have all her female organs.

“‘He’ would wear shorts and a T-shirt when swimming,” she says, noting that after puberty challenges such as single-gender swimming time become more acute.

There are also issues of infrastructure. Camps tend to have two sides: a girls side and a boys side, girls cabins and boys cabins, girls bathrooms and boys bathrooms. The camp is building new bathhouses and considering the best way to construct showers and toilets to be most inclusive.

“We’ve always in our dining hall had gender-neutral, single-stall bathrooms, but this year, we put new signs up on the door: ‘These bathrooms are available to all regardless of identity,’” said Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, director of Camp JRF, a small Reconstructionist Camp in the Poconos when interviewed in 2013 by The Forward. “The bathroom itself hasn’t changed, but the statement externally has.”

What Simon-Harris has found is that these challenges are able to be overcome and that campers are among the first to overcome them. She tells a story from this past summer of a camper who was born female and assigned to bunk G5, which is a 13-year-old bunk for girl campers. The girls, all approaching puberty, were talking one evening about dating and crushes.

“A kid in that bunk told the bunk that Tawonga was the first place she felt comfortable saying she would rather be a boy. The campers decided to rename their bunk EG5 – ‘Every Gender 5,’” recalls Simon-Harris. “This was with no prompting from adults.”

After the child came out, Tawonga staff was able to work with parents to get the child the support she needed.

This inclusiveness at Tawonga stems beyond transgender issues to issues of gender in general. For example, at the welcoming camp fires, staff encourage boys and girls to explore the various attributes of their gender and what that means. One camper, Ben Morag, says he was reading a forum recently that discussed how traditionally men haven’t been allowed to show emotions.

“I have to say that Camp Tawonga men’s campfire helped show me what a man can really be. … I learned that I can cry and show real emotion and still be a man,” Morag says.

Simon-Harris says the camps pulls on Jewish values and lessons to help drive these concepts home for their campers and staff. These values include “b’tzelem elokim” (every person is created in the image of God) and “derech eretz” (good manners), which the camp harnesses to discuss what it looks like to be a mentsch.

“This is not the 1960s. This is 2016, and our world is changing,” says Simon-Harris. “Jewish camps need to reevaluate, too. A Jewish camp should be inclusive and pluralistic.”

“For some, talking about this can be a little scary – it may cause fear or apprehension,” says Capital Camps’ Geller. “I’m pleased that we’re having these discussions. It’s a conversation that we should have, and we want to have it.”