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As Camp Season Opens, Some Kids Will Have Summers Full of Diversity

June 7, 2005
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Jody Bartone’s kids had outgrown day camp a few years back, and she was looking to find a sleep-away camp where they could spend the summer. That’s when she happened upon an ad for Camp Welmet — while leafing through a gay lifestyle magazine.

"I was attracted by their ad," she recalls. "First of all it was in The Life" magazine, which she considered a good sign. "Also, I was looking for some diversity."

Most of the camps near her home in Westchester County, N.Y., are "all white, all wealthy, all tending to revolve around" themes like sports or theater, says Bartone, a lesbian who shares custody of her two teenaged children with her former husband. "My kids really were not seam-type kids."

Camp Welmet, founded in 1998 with the specific aim of attracting a more diverse camper population, seemed attractive to her.

"Our goal was to bring a diverse group of people together, breaking stereotypes and breaking down walls," say Rita Santelia, assistant executive director of the camp, which comes under the umbrella of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. We wanted campers to "come together, respecting the differences and appreciating the differences."

Today, Santelia says, the camp — located at the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center, which is located in Putnam Valley, N.Y., and is a beneficiary of the UJA-Federation of New York — has about 200 campers.

About 30 of them have gay parents or guardians, and some 50 children come from interracial and interfaith couples, usually with one Jewish member of the pair. The rest of the campers are white, black, Asian, Latino, Jewish and of other ethnic backgrounds.

The camp also works to hire counselors who are gay or of different ethnicities. Two years ago, for example, the camp hired a young Muslim woman of Egyptian descent.

Camp Welmet is part of what some see as a growing push to provide a more diverse experience for Jewish children at summer camps.

Camp Towanga, a nondenominational Jewish camp near Yosemite National Park in California, hosts occasional "family camps" for the families of same-sex couples, in addition to weekends for families with intermarried, interracial and gay parents.

The combination weekends are reflective of a new trend in Jewish camps, says Jerry Silverman, president of the Foundation for Jewish Camping.

"More and more, you’re seeing programs not being geared from a sense of segregating and isolating, but programs of integration and celebration," he says.

Over the past two to three years, says Ann Gonski, Towanga’s associate director, an increasing number of campers have come from families with same-sex parents.

"We try very hard in all of our literature to make our language as inclusive and as welcoming" as possible, she said.

For example, Gonski says, "Information forms never say ‘Mother/Father;’ they say ‘Contact Parent One,’ and ‘Contact Parent Two.’ "

Both Towanga and Welmet offer staff members training that stresses inclusiveness, awareness of diversity and sensitivity to language.

Counselors are expected to be "hypersensitive to kids not being teased because their families are different," Gonski says. "We train our staff to be hypervigilant for that."

As a counselor in training and a member of Welmet’s swim staff, Nikki Jaffe underwent such training. Jaffe, 20, who comes from a white, straight Jewish family, spent time as a camper at a more traditional Jewish camp — one where, she says, "every single person looked just like me" — before switching to Welmet, first as a camper then a staff member.

"You really break down all sorts of prejudices you had going in there," she says of Welmet.

Jaffe says that one of her best friends, whom she met at the camp, is half-Jewish and half-black. Another friend has a heterosexual father and a mother who has been in a relationship with a woman for several years.

"I feel like I wouldn’t be nearly the person I am today without having had this experience," says the Cornell University senior. "It has shaped me more than anything else I have done in my life."

Camp Ramah, a Conservative movement camp, has made its own efforts at inclusion, says its national director, Rabbi Mitchell Cohen. The camp has reached out to Israeli families that have been affected by terrorism; to poor families; to Jewish families in Europe and to Jews from the former Soviet Union. Ramah, he says, is now looking to begin outreach to the Jews of Latin America.

Cohen says he’s not aware of any specific programs aimed at reaching out to the children of gay couples. Recently, though, he has been involved in talks about creating a family camp, outside the framework of the traditional camping experience, for intermarried families "where there’s a supportive spouse" in an effort to "encourage greater Jewish identification."

"We continue to follow the Conservative movement’s standards on the definition of who is a Jew," he says. According to these rules, a person is Jewish only if his or her mother is a Jew. "Our ultimate goal here is that if there is non-Jewish mother, that ultimately there would be a conversion."

Further, he says, while inclusion is important, it ought not trump the camp’s Jewish ideals.

"Ramah is in the business of encouraging Jewish connectedness. We don’t want to turn off any families who are on a journey toward greater Jewish involvement," he says.

"On the other hand," he adds, "we do believe in standards, and we do follow our movement directives as to who is a Jew."

Welmet and Towanga are not alone in their efforts, according to those involved in Jewish camping. Indeed, many Jewish camps are working to increase their appeal to a broad array of Jewish families.

Still, Silverman says, "There’s a significant amount of work to be done from a sense of outreach and welcoming and recruiting."

"The difference today versus 10 years ago is that camps are much more open to looking at the best approaches and best practices in looking at ways in which to welcome, engage and recruit" nontraditional families, he says.

"Camps are really reaching out and trying to understand who their constituency is and who their market is," he adds. "You have camps that are developing and are executing programs specifically around the diversity of the Jewish population of today."

In that vein, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation recently provided a grant of $1 million over five years to help the Foundation for Jewish Camping reach out to underaffiliated and intermarried families.

"It’s not surprising that Jewish camping has proven to be one of the strongest factors in the development of strong and enduring Jewish identity, because Jewish camping offers young people a fun and holistic Jewish experience," says Lynn Schusterman, the organization’s president.

"We hope to help foster welcoming camp environments so that a greater number of children from unaffiliated and interfaith families will attend Jewish summer camps and will develop their own connections to the Jewish people and to Jewish life," she adds.

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