A number of years ago, as conversations about gender and school-bathroom usage popped up across North America, we at Camp Havaya considered how to respond in accordance with our values. We decided that it wasn’t a discussion we could have in the abstract; we knew we would have to dive in with a particular child and family in front of us.

The day came in late 2013, when we met a family with two kids. When the mother assumed that her transgender child wouldn’t be able to attend camp with his brother, we quickly responded that this wasn’t at all the case. The mother cried.

For us, there was never a question of “if.” There was just a question of “how.” We asked what we needed to do in order to be a place that welcomed trans campers with open arms. We had questions about bathrooms, showers, changing, privacy and more. We quickly found that all of these were just details in a much larger reality: This kid just wanted to be a kid. We were so focused on gender that we almost forgot to see the whole child. Being trans was just one part of who he was, and it wasn’t a part he wanted to share with anyone.

Of everything, this last piece was perhaps most instructive for us. It wasn’t our job or place to share his story. While other camps walking a similar path chose to call families to let them know there would be a trans child in their child’s bunk, we took pride in our decision — strongly supported by our board — not to do the same. Given that we don’t call parents about the gay child in their kid’s bunk, or the child of color or the child with special needs, why would we call about the trans child?

Instead, we wrote a pre-summer letter to parents that put gender in the context of a larger conversation around diversity, giving parents language and questions to open a discussion with their children. It reviewed our communal values and showed them that we see ourselves as partners in their child’s learning, growth and values development. And it made a powerful statement that diversity isn’t about one child but about the whole system.

In Camp Havaya’s early years, campers poked fun at the lack of racial diversity, as if to say: “We know we can do better.” We took this charge seriously and, over the last decade, focused intentionally on five areas of inclusion: LGBTQIA+, people of color, interfaith families, special needs and socio-economic diversity. If we wanted to build a camp that truly served the community, then we needed to open ourselves to the wonder of the full community.

Doing this meant shifting our language away from “inclusive” and “welcoming.” These terms are passive and convey the assumption that there are those on the inside who welcome and include those on the outside. So we started talking about “celebratory” community. There’s no insider or outsider in a true celebration; I can celebrate you, you can celebrate me, and we can celebrate together. 

Long-time camper parents recently shared: “Back in 2009, we were pretty impressed and very grateful to not have to correct camper forms so they were inclusive and said ‘Parent,’ instead of just ‘Mother’ and ‘Father.’ It was exhilarating to find a youth program where we didn’t need to carve out a new path or feel like our child was going to be the first (or only) one at camp with same-sex parents.”

Words have great power. Choosing the right words at the right moment can make a powerful statement to someone who might otherwise feel on the outside. We no longer tell kids to write letters to their mom and dad because lots of kids have two moms or two dads or just one parent. We don’t say that the purpose of Jewish camp is for kids to marry other Jews because lots of kids have a parent of another faith. We steer clear of saying “boys and girls” since more and more kids aren’t finding that either of those terms describe them. And we don’t allow words that describe someone’s identity to be used in a derogatory way.

Key to all of this is a sense of humility and a deep understanding that we don’t have all the answers. We teach our staff and campers — and remind ourselves — how to take responsibility, learn and grow from their missteps. 

In all we do, we focus on celebrating and challenging our kids in ways that help them grow into amazing human beings. This makes for what camp really should be: Exciting, boundary-pushing, energizing and validating. Our campers experience just how interesting and fun life can be when everyone is encouraged to express what makes them unique. The swell of their voices, their experiences and their best selves are truly something to celebrate. JN 

Rabbi Isaac Saposnik is executive director of Havaya Summer Programs. Sheira Director-Nowack, MSW, CJCS, is camp director of Camp Havaya. A longer version of this essay appeared in “Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations,” an initiative of Reconstructing Judaism.

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