One of Jack Swerdlin’s earliest brushes with homophobia took place at Jewish sleepaway camp.
A longtime member of Camp Scatico, a secular Jewish camp in New York’s Hudson Valley, Swerdlin recalls a conversation he had in the summer of 2009 with one of the more popular, athletic boys at camp. The boy remarked to Swerdlin that he would disown his own son if he were to come out as gay. “That shit scared me into the closet for years,” says Swerdlin, who was 12 at the time.
For a place that advertises itself as an accepting community, Jewish summer camp has historically proven to be the opposite for many kids questioning their sexuality and gender, who lacked the vocabulary to articulate their dysphoria and the space to express their differences.
Earlier this summer, New Voices published a thorough investigation detailing the disorienting and wounding impact Jewish sleepaway camp had on former campers dealing with their own confusion around sexuality and gender expression. As evidenced in the article, the environment at many Jewish summer camps during the late 2000s and early 2010s reinforced a heteronormative and patriarchal sensibility, codified via gendered living spaces, a toxic hookup culture and an absence of discussion and education around queerness. Former campers I spoke to also mentioned frequent usage of homophobic slurs, activities that played into gender stereotypes and a dearth of queer representation among staff.
But thankfully, times seem to be changing. Although our government is attempting to legislate transness out of existence and threatening to set back decades of progress around same-sex marriage, more and more people are identifying with queerness and gender nonconformity, especially among younger generations. According to a recent Gallup poll, about one in five Gen Z Americans identify as LGBTQ+, and that number will likely continue to trend upwards in the years to come.
With this constant push-pull between the marginalized and the powerful in our political dystopia, it’s become more urgent than ever for institutions like Jewish summer camps to provide a safe, inclusive space where kids and young adults can explore their identities and be comfortable in their own skin without fear of exclusion or retaliation.
So what exactly does it look like to enforce an inclusive environment at Jewish sleepaway camp? What practices can these institutions implement to not only protect queer, trans and nonbinary campers and counselors, but keep them coming back each summer?
Habonim Dror, a North American-based socialist-Zionist youth organization, is one such example that has been both instrumental and ahead of the game in pioneering a progressive Jewish overnight camp experience. Jane Mintz, who attended Habonim Dror’s Michigan outpost Camp Tavor from 2011 to 2021, says that the organization refined their Hebrew terminology to be more gender-inclusive as early as 2016. Though the move received some backlash from older alumni, Mintz says embracing the change led to instituting other positive changes in her camp community, such as all-gender bathrooms and housing.
In addition to offering these accomodations for trans and nonbinary campers, Tavor worked to facilitate conversations among the staff around toxic masculinity, specifically the disparity of emotional labor between male and female staff members. That process took a little bit longer, Mintz notes, but eventually, these discussions at camp helped drive out those unwilling to acclimate to this cultural shift.
This shift seemed to affect other places like Camp Ramah in the Berkshires as well. Shira Michaeli, who attended Berkshires from 2003 to 2013, returned as a speciality staff member in 2021 and remarked that it had radically changed since her days as a camper. Queer inclusion had become a critical part of staff week, and panels were created to give staff and older age divisions a chance to talk about what queerness at camp meant to them. She became a facilitator of the Keshet Club, a weekly support network where queer campers could interact with one another, play board games, eat cookies, drink iced tea and ask other queer counselors for guidance and advice.
The rabbi-in-training at Berkshires also contributes to the Keshet Club, leading a program called Gay Torah, a combination of a queer-themed d’var torah and a Judaic class for 12 to 15-year-olds focused on Talmudic intersections between Judaism and queerness. According to Michaeli, the club drew as many as 50 campers a week last summer. “I’m not gonna pretend that there’s not moments of pain where you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I had this when I was a kid,’” admits Michaeli, who felt alienated and uncomfortable as a queer camper. “But mostly it’s not jealousy. It’s just joy.”
A similar support system can be found at Camp Alonim, a pluralistic Jewish overnight camp in Simi Valley, California. Sam Goodman, who attended Alonim for 13 summers, helps run their Tzelem program, a private weekly group that allows trans and nonbinary kids grades 8-11 to discuss topics like building healthy relationships, self-love and mental health, as well as to learn about queer culture and shared queer experiences within the group. “It’s really just a space for queer kids to be openly, honestly, proudly and authentically queer,” says Goodman, who always felt a responsibility to stay at Alonim long enough to ensure queer kids don’t face the same challenges that they faced as a camper there.
There are currently discussions among Alonim staff about what gender-free housing at camp would look like, and the camp’s recent gender-neutral relabeling of the living areas and the success of Tzelem could certainly get it there. “After even two sessions,” Goodman continues, “I’ve had counselors with campers in the group coming up to me telling me how much happier and more outgoing they were since starting in the program.”
Other camps are incrementally catching up in terms of their advocacy. In April of last year, Camp Ramah in California released a letter of commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, which includes “avoiding heteronormative language and programming” as well as “bunking campers and counselors according to gender identity rather than birth sex.”
Camp Ramah in New England followed suit a few months ago when it published a similar statement, mentioning the addition of a Keshet Club and nonbinary bathrooms. Some are even taking matters into their own hands — like Shira Berkowitz, who helped launch Camp Indigo Point, a Missouri-based week-long experience specifically catered toward LGBTQ+ Jewish youth and staff, this past summer.
Orthodox summer programs have also begun to address LGBTQ+ issues as well. According to their website, JQY, an organization that supports queer youth from Orthodox, Chassidic and Sephardic/Mizrahi communities, has designed a sensitivity training program for Orthodox summer camps. (Hey Alma reached out to JQY to request more information about the training, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.)
Still, progress has been much slower on that front, as noted by Dr. Sunnie Epstein, an educator who works for the Orthodox organization Eshel. Epstein says that the challenges in cultivating more inclusive social spaces for queer Orthodox youth include increasingly right-wing politics within the Orthodox community. “We have same-gender couples that are sending their children [outside of] the Northeast Orthodox quarter because of the political conservatism,” Epstein says.
Epstein often points Orthodox families to places that are accepting of queer-identifying Jewish youth and still offer an authentic Jewish summer camp experience: Camp Ga’avah in Long Island, Camp Tawonga in Yosemite National Park, Eden Village in New York, and Capital Camps in Pennsylvania. For those looking for a more observant, non-overnight experience, Epstein refers to Drisha, a New York City-based Torah study summer program, and SVARA’s Queer Talmud Camp, a summer program where Jews can study and analyze Talmudic texts through a queer lens.
“I think a lot of the Orthodox community really needs to step back and take a recalibration of what it means to be an Orthodox community and not compromise anyone’s individual level of observance,” Epstein says. “What does it mean to build a religious community? And if we’re not including everybody, why are we not including everybody?”
Whether you’re queer or not, camp can be such an intense, vulnerable, powerfully formative experience in shaping a young Jewish person’s emotional, physical and spiritual development. Though homophobia and transphobia may never be fully eradicated on a global scale, attempting to combat those discriminatory behaviors within our own institutions is a promising start. It will take time, and the changes made may still provoke some moral panic — plus, there are other issues plaguing camp culture, like sexual violence. But by continuing to strategize comprehensive efforts to validate queer and trans identity, Jewish sleepaway camps across all denominations can build a more compassionate, respectful and responsible community.
“The reason why I keep coming back is because I’m a really big believer that camp fosters a culture where the kids who feel represented are the ones who stay on and they become counselors,” says Michaeli. “You kind of have to invade that cycle in order to be a person who can make the weirder kids, the queer kids, feel like they can stay.”