When is Informal Education TOO Informal?

By Rabbi Daniel Brenner

Should a 17-year-old camp counselor be sent home for chasing down, bear-hugging, and tickling one of his friends? The two counselors in this case, both male-identified, had grown up going to the camp, and they argued that they were just playing a game, and that the touch was consensual. Other staff members saw it as a clear violation of consent and worried about the message it would send to others if it was ignored. The director, who had already warned staff about rough-play and pranks, wasn’t sure what to do. When is informal education TOO informal? What kind of behavioral norms are the right ones for Jewish camps and other informal programs in 2020?

Over the past eight years with Moving Traditions, I’ve worked in a diverse set of informal education settings and trained staff for Jewish summer camps, travel programs, and youth groups. I know how much our best informal educational leaders take pride in having created playful work environments where staff members have freedom to be themselves and to connect to their peers. I hope that continues. I’ve also seen the benefit that we all can gain from reflecting on what new boundaries are needed, re-examining how counselors and other staff members routinely hug and embrace one another, congregate in cuddle puddles, or engage in pranks. In the wake of #metoo, institutional leaders are working to ensure a safe and respectful environment for all campers and staff without making a sterile environment free of the fun and sense of connection that makes camp so beloved. Many are searching to find policies and practices that avoid negligence or a lack of clarity but are not too strict.

As part of an effort to address these cultural challenges in the Jewish community, Moving Traditions’ new initiative, CultureShift, is working with summer camp professionals to ask questions about what makes for an effective policy and to design training that helps staff members explore the values behind the policies. As part of that work, we’ve designed short video segments that emerged from our scenario-based training – role-plays of common scenes that happen in informal Jewish educational environments. Here’s an example, a scene which begins with a consensual back rub that leads to a non-consensual touch, and a talk with a supervisor:

The video is followed by questions exploring the ethical issues raised in the scene, definitions of consent and harassment, and related Jewish wisdom. The Moving Traditions pilot video series will cover gender-based harassment (verbal and physical), consent, and abuses of power and will be shared with Jewish summer camp professionals who attend two upcoming trainings (one in Miami Beach from January 13-14 and one in Los Angles from February 3- 4 (https://www.movingtraditions.org/cultureshift-jewish-camp-professionals-training)

Can we prevent teens from chasing one another down and tickling each other?” Should that be our goal? I think by giving teens a better understanding of consent and why it matters we can, gradually, help young adults who are taking on their first professional roles in the Jewish community to model both fun and respect for personal boundaries.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner is Chief of Education at Moving Traditions.