Beza Luks of Montclair, 12, lives in a diverse world carefully maintained by her parents, JoAnna and Jonathan Luks. Beza, originally from Ethiopia, has two African-American siblings and two Caucasian siblings. The family lives in Montclair, where Beza’s friends come from many backgrounds. They belong to Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield but also to a havura with other Jewish families of color.
When it came time to send Beza to summer camp, her parents wouldn’t settle for anything less.
“I was looking for a camp for Beza that would be an inclusive camp where she would not feel different because she is black and Jewish — that would not be all about, How are you Jewish and why are you Jewish? but completely inclusive,” said her mother, sitting on a cozy sofa at home with Beza and her two sisters on a recent evening.
When they heard about Camp Be’chol Lashon, a multicultural Jewish camp in California, they jumped. This year’s participants included campers from a variety of backgrounds, including African-American, Chinese, Brazilian, and Ethiopian.
“Even though it was in California, we felt she had to have that experience,” said her mother.
Luks felt that a multi-cultural Jewish camp was particularly important for Beza. Adopted from an Ethiopian orphanage in 2008, Beza knew nothing about her home country’s Jewish community. She herself has been Jewish for only three years. “It’s a fragile time in her life to claim a Jewish identity,” said her mother. “We knew this would be a cool experience for her, away from family, on her own.”
They decided against a more traditional, more local Jewish summer camp for Beza, although they are considering that option for their youngest daughter, Sehaye.
“Sehaye’s Jewish identity is much more solid,” said JoAnna. “She came at a younger age and she seems able to connect with Jewish people and Jewish culture, and she feels completely, 100 percent Jewish, at least at this point.
“For Beza — I wanted to give her the opportunity to see what it feels like to be the same as everyone and not be different.”
Diversity and Judaism
The camp, founded by Diane Tobin, just finished its second summer. It runs for two weeks, drawing participants mostly from California; of 30 campers this year, Beza was the only one who flew in from the East Coast. One camper came from Arizona.
In addition to traditional camp activities, each day at Be’chol Lashon includes activities highlighting the history of Jews in different countries, from Spain to India to South Africa, and even Ethiopia.
“It’s good for all Jews to know about the diversity of possibilities,” said Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, Be’chol Lashon’s rabbi-in-residence. Our campers “begin to see themselves in the rainbow of possibilities, and they don’t have to give up one part of themselves for another.”
Abusch-Magder, who lived in Maplewood from 1997 to 2006, said some of her ideas about diversity and Judaism were formed during that period of her life.
Living in this area, she said, “gave me the framework to understand that East Coast Judaism is not exclusively white; there were a lot of families with people from different backgrounds, whether Jewish through adoption, through marriage, or by birth.”
The camp’s parent organization, also known as Be’chol Lashon (literally, “in every language”), was established 10 years ago in California as an initiative of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, which has pioneered programming for a Jewish community that has grown more diverse thanks to adoption, immigration, intermarriage, and conversion
Beza’s father proudly displayed the gourd she decorated with beads on the camp’s South Africa Day.
“I carried this all the way on the plane,” he smiled.
The two had returned from California that morning and were visibly exhausted, but happy. Jonathan Luks described picking up Beza. “I was immediately impressed with how comfortable she was. She was with a group of kids, and they were hugging and talking and animated and really secure. She found a community there that really just worked. The boys, the girls, younger, older — they were all very relaxed. It was very cozy.”
If Beza’s parents were focused on creating a safe environment, Beza was more focused on the stuff of summer. She surprised herself in her ability to lead part of Shabbat services. She particularly enjoyed India Day, because this fashion-conscious preteen got to dress up in traditional Indian garb.
But ask her to name her favorite part of camp, and, like many of her peers, she will tell you about the sports and the friends she made. “I liked the field soccer, and the people were so warm,” she said.
And she is already looking forward to next summer, back at camp.