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Camps weave transgender kids into summer tapestry
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Camps weave transgender kids into summer tapestry

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The family bathroom at Camp JRF was easily converted with a sign to make everyone feel comfortable.     
The family bathroom at Camp JRF was easily converted with a sign to make everyone feel comfortable.     

Bathrooms accessible for transgender people are old news at Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement’s summer camp in South Sterling, Pa. Five years ago they posted signs on bathroom doors stating: “This bathroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or expression.” 

Camp JRF set a tone consonant with today’s cultural norms from its founding in 2002, according to director Isaac Saposnik. Among the overnight facility’s accommodations was the decision not to divide itself into a boys’ side and a girls’ side, boys’ activities and girls’ activities. 

“Boys and girls are always together,” said Saposnik. “We don’t have a lot of gendered programming. All the campers play sports together all day,” he said, which removes any possibility that a nonspecific-gender camper would be made to feel uncomfortable taking part in any activity. 

In another move to prevent any potential embarrassment to a camper who may not identify as either male or female, the camp’s changing areas offer individual privacy, with curtains and shower stall doors.

Camp JRF has become one of the go-to Jewish camps for transgender and gender-fluid kids. Its first out transgender camper arrived “a few years ago,” according to Saposnik. Other camp leaders in making such kids (and staff) welcome are Camp Tawonga in northern California; Union of Reform Judaism Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Mass.; B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Lake Como, Pa.; and Ramah in the Rockies in Sedalia, Colo., where the director of camper care, a transgender man, made headlines earlier this year when he gave birth to a daughter.

“These are issues that will confront everyone; it’s a new reality,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which serves as the umbrella organization for 300 day and overnight Jewish camps. There is no reliable data on how many transgender kids attend Jewish camp, according to Daniel Bahner, national manager of education and training for Keshet, a national Jewish LGBTQ advocacy organization headquartered in Boston. But, he said, “It is becoming an increasingly visible conversation.” 

Earlier this year, 50 camps participated in a webinar on transgender issues arranged by FJC and provided by Keshet; FJC also provided a forum for leading camps to share best practices at its 2016 Leaders Assembly in March, which was held in East Brunswick. 

At many Jewish summer camps that have decades of traditions, however, change can be difficult. 

At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, in Wingdale, NY, director Rabbi Paul Resnick has spent the last year confronting what he called the “painful” reality that the Ramah culture he loved first as a camper and ultimately as a professional has proved to be an “uncomfortable” space for some. In particular, he said, the binary gender culture of Camp Ramah, where activities are often divided into boys (banim) or girls (banot) is coming under fire. “People have challenged the idea that we need to do a peulat erev [evening activity] for banim and a peulat erev for banot, a kita [class] for banim and a kita for banot,” he said. 

A constant motivator for him is the recollection of the camper who left early in the summer of 2013 because “he felt uncomfortable, because really, she was transgender,” Resnick said, switching pronouns mid-sentence to match the reality the camper felt. “I said to the mom, ‘What can I do?’ She said, ‘Just educate yourself.’” 

He accepted the challenge and has been delving into the subject and seeking solutions by reading literature, attending conferences, and speaking with other camp directors as well as Ramah alumni. 

This year, Resnick brought in Keshet to train his staff. And he’s making a conscious effort to change his language. He now uses “chevra” (group of friends) instead of “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls.” Not only is the Hebrew phrase more appropriate for a Jewish camp, he said, but additionally, “it does not assume anything about anyone on the gender spectrum.” 

He added, “It’s a new part of my consciousness to think differently in terms of language.” 

But he acknowledged that he has a steep climb ahead. From the people he has been consulting with, he said, he hears, “First get away from heteronormative culture before you tackle transgender issues.” 

In particular, Resnick said, he is learning that managing and exploring with teens the issues around sexuality that come up during the summer is even more complicated and fraught than he had understood. “People who are gay say some of those conversations were really hard,” he said. “Often they played along so as not to reveal their identity.” 

“This is my camp and not everyone has been comfortable,” he said. “I can’t fully comprehend that — it’s really painful. But I’m trying.” 

And he is determined to be ready the next time the issue surfaces. “I want parents with a gay child or with a trans child to feel comfortable,” he said. “I don’t want a reactive model. I want a proactive model.”

Ahead of the curve

Parents, it seems, know which camps are ahead of the curve. Saposnik told NJJN that Camp JRF gets at least one call every month relating to approaches to gender identity issues at camp, and he estimated that about a dozen of the approximately 430 campers enrolled each summer have gender identity issues. 

Two years ago he sent a letter to Camp JRF families about the diversity at the camp that included a specific discussion of transgender issues; an updated version went out last week. Following a definition of terms that distinguishes among sex (“the biology you were born with”), gender (“your emotional or intellectual identity”), sexual orientation (“who you are attracted to”), and gender expression (“how you present yourself in the world”), it includes a brief discussion of each and then provides basic guidelines for campers who may have questions. 

Most of these fall into the “It’s never okay” category: “It’s never okay to ask another person about which body parts they have — that’s always private” or “It’s never okay to ask someone who identifies as transgender what their name ‘used to be.’ The way they introduce themselves to you is the name they want to be called.” But also, “It’s always okay to ask someone what pronouns (“he/him,” “she/her,” “they/them”) they prefer to use. If you aren’t sure and can’t ask, just use the person’s name.”

But even the camps that are proactive face challenges. For starters, some of the necessary changes to retrofit a camp in order to provide privacy for transgender and cisgender kids (those whose self-identity conforms with the biological gender they were at birth) can be expensive. “Certain buildings will take more time, with more design issues and require more money,” Saposnik said. But other changes are “not that hard”: offering a family restroom and adding stall doors to showers fall into this category. “It’s not different from the changes a parent would ask us to make for almost any other issue, like a ramp on the cabin or plugging in a sleep machine. 

“When we say we’re serious, we mean it,” he said. 

As for parents who think it’s great as long as it’s “not their kids’ bunk,” he said, by the end of the summer, for most campers, it’s a non-issue, “just an interesting backstory,” he said.

While Camp Ramah’s Resnick would like to reach a point where embracing transgender campers is a non-issue, he knows his camp isn’t there yet. He wants to be able to embrace as many kids from as many backgrounds as he can. But, he said, the options “are not limitless.” 

And that’s okay for Saposnik — because he sometimes encounters families for whom Camp JRF is too progressive. In that case, he said, he suggests a camp that might be a better fit. “Our commitment is to send Jewish kids to Jewish camp,” he said. “We cannot serve everyone. No one can do that.”

Fingerman, of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said, “We’re hopeful that the broad tapestry of Jewish camp will have options for every Jewish kid and every Jewish family.” But, he pointed out, what they do “has got to fit within the culture of that camp.”

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