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Aug 20 2012

Sending My Son to Russian Jewish Teen Camp

By at 11:11 am

camp boatsSo, remember when I said that this summer my kids were doing… nothing?

I tried to stick to the plan, I really did. But then, I found out about this free dance camp for my 8-year-old son. (And if there is one thing I love more than making life easy for myself it’s things that are free .

And then, thanks to the articles I’ve written here on Kveller about my Soviet Jewish background, I was contacted by the Marks JCH of Bensonhurst asking if I might be interested in sending my oldest to Camp B’Yachad, a 12-day overnight program happening this August 22 to September 2, specifically for teens from Russian-Jewish families.

The first thing that caught my attention was the price. $450 dollars for 12 days, 11 nights, food, lodgings and transportation included. Was this a typo?

Nope. No typo. Turns out the program is heavily subsidized by UJA-Federation of New York & Foundation For Jewish Camp, as well as a host of other specialized organizations. Plus, there are even further scholarships available for low-income campers. So, for a miser like me, this was practically a siren’s call.

But then I actually looked at their program. Camp B’Yachad promises to explore campers’ Jewish identity, foster a connection to Israel, the Jewish people, and the local Jewish community via a strong emphasis on building leadership skills, teaching and practicing teamwork, and social entrepreneurship. They also–I specifically checked at my son’s request–offer architecture, design, theatre, music, dance, play-writing, and visual arts in addition to swimming, lake sports, basketball, volleyball, tennis, soccer, and ropes courses. The world’s sportiest boy, my son is not.

Not to mention that, currently, his Jewish identity is a complex one. His father is African-American, and we encourage him to identify equally with that side of his culture. I am Jewish, but I was not born in the US and was raised by parents with a very tenuous overall grasp of their heritage (with plenty of good reason. Most of them starting with the words: Comrade Stalin). When it comes to what it means to be an American Jew, my husband, who grew up in NYC, actually knows more about it than I do. Frankly, American Judaism often feels as foreign to me as any other aspect of the general culture. Let’s just say I relate a lot more to “Fiddler on the Roof” than I do to “Marjorie Morningstar.”

Which makes me a pretty weak guide for my three kids.

camp b'yachad russian jewish teen campCould a camp like B’Yachad, full of other teens also living with one foot in the American Jewish experience and one foot in… something else, be precisely what my son needs (even if he doesn’t know he needs it yet) to help him sort out a variety of questions in a manner I simply can’t assist him with? Will it help him feel like less of an outsider looking in, or even more like one? (Who knows? Isn’t parenting fun?)

Because while, like the other teens at camp, my son does have a parent who was born in the USSR, he also has an American parent. A non-Jewish parent. A Black one.

“Will I be the only kid of color there?” my son asked me.

I told him the truth. “I don’t know. There might be someone with parents from the former Soviet republics in Asia. Bukharian Jews, maybe. Other biracial kids. I honestly don’t know. Does that bother you?”

Shrug. He’s 13. That’s about the extent of his expressiveness these days on any important subject. (Ask him something trivial, though. He’ll pontificate for hours.)

Last month, I raised quite a firestorm on Kveller when I wrote a post asserting that, in my opinion, even in this day and age, there were still times and occasions when it paid to keep your race or religion a secret. The topic proved so controversial, I was even invited onto NPR to talk about it. (Though maybe, in person, I proved not controversial enough since, as far as I know, they haven’t yet broadcast it.)

I also wrote in that piece that: I can easily imagine my kids sitting with a group of casual acquaintances at work, or in college or even high school. Somebody makes a racist joke. Are my kids obliged to speak up? Are they duty-bound to “come out” as Black or Jewish (or both)? There are those who would say yes, absolutely. How are widespread, bigoted attitudes supposed to change if those affected don’t speak up, if they don’t educate and chastise? That’s a hell of a lot of pressure to put on any one person’s shoulders. Especially a child’s.

Will Camp B’Yachad be the first time my son is confronted by such a situation? After all, there in Milford, PA, away from us, nobody has to know. Nobody will know. Unless he tells them.

Will he? Should he?

Is it even an issue?

Is it something I should talk to him about in advance? Is it something I should let him work out for himself?

Isn’t parenting fun?

If your child would like to join my son this week, the website to register is here.

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on Kveller are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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