Talking with Camp JRF, the Jewish Camp That Takes Inclusion Seriously – Kveller
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Talking with Camp JRF, the Jewish Camp That Takes Inclusion Seriously

Rabbi Isaac Saposnik via Camp JRF Website

Rabbi Isaac Saposnik is the Executive Director of Camp JRF, a Reconstructionist sleepaway camp in the Pocono Mountains. Recently, Camp JRF initiated a big push toward inclusion with a capital “I.” Now that campers have returned to school and their parents eagerly fill out forms to sign them up for next summer, Rabbi Saposnik had some time to chat with me about camp, diversity in the American Jewish community, and the importance of asking questions.

What makes Camp JRF different from other Jewish sleepaway camps?

The Reconstructionist movement has always been inclusive, so welcoming gay campers and staff, LGBTQ parents, campers from interfaith families, campers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and physical abilities, is obvious for us. But this year, we took a step back to re-examine our practices because there’s a difference between saying we’re inclusive and actually being inclusive. We want our camp community to reflect the tapestry of the modern Jewish community. 

If we’re really going to create a community that looks like the face of American Jewry, we need to be thinking about all of these areas of inclusion. That’s not to say that other Jewish summer camps and synagogues aren’t being inclusive, many are! What we’re saying is that we want to be totally transparent–this type of inclusion is our goal, and we say that up front. I think that’s what makes us different.

How is this type of inclusivity playing out at camp? 

We want to celebrate differences, but also, be sure not to point out differences at every moment. Part of this is having the language to discuss difference. Last year, we realized that for many of our families, the issues of gender identity and expression, and of transgender and gender non-conforming people, were likely a “learning zone.” With this in mind, and with the knowledge that we are a community made up of many different sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions, we provided our campers and their families with resources to discuss these issues.

We also spend a lot of time in advance of the summer months being really thoughtful and process-oriented about how we train camp staff in terms of language and actions.

How have campers and their families responded to the diversity at camp? 

When we broached the subject of integrating trans campers and staff into the camp community, for example, our families responded by saying they were thrilled to send their kids to a camp that has the same values they stand for. I think parents are thrilled to see that camp is a place where outside-world concerns don’t have to play in, where camp values line up with their values. We also learned to take a lot of cues from our campers. Most importantly, we wanted to be sure that everyone was safe and comfortable and cared for, both on a child and on an adult level.

Being trans or gay or of color is a part of who you are, but at camp we’re sure to emphasize that this is only one part of who you are. If we only focus on that one issue, we’re missing most of what makes a person unique, and similarly, if we ignore a part of a person, if we don’t acknowledge it, then we are also missing a big piece of who they are. We all have some modicum of difference. How we all come together as a community, despite of and in celebration of these differences, is what we’re hoping to do with our campers, so that they may bring this spirit of inclusivity with them to the rest of the world.

Aside from welcoming non-gender-conforming campers and staff, can you tell me about some other ways in which Camp JRF aims to be inclusive to all members of the Jewish community?

Being Jewish is a central part of what we do, and a couple of years ago we realized that as many campers don’t read Hebrew, we needed to make sure all of the Hebrew at camp–on signs, in books, etc., had transliteration. We wanted families who visited camp to be able to follow along with prayers, and we wanted to make parents who weren’t Jewish feel comfortable.

For our campers who have special needs but are able to function in a mainstream environment, we have shadow counselors who provide support and allow these campers to have a fully integrated camp experience.

I know you’re a new parent–how has this experience affected how you think about raising your son?

I’m being pushed to recognize in a serious way just how broad the Jewish community is, and I want my child to see and be a part of as much diversity as possible. If he walks out of camp or preschool or elementary school having only been exposed to other middle class Jewish kids of the same racial background who all have one mom and one dad and live in the suburbs, then I’ve missed the chance to provide him with something.

I’ve also learned professionally–and this carries through to my new parenting experience–to ask questions and ask for help when I don’t know how to deal with a particular issue of diversity. This is really important. I’ve had times where I find myself tripping over my tongue because I’m so concerned about saying something that could be misconstrued as offensive or politically incorrect. But if I spend so much time worrying about my language, I’ll never ask the important questions. I want to instill this questioning in my child. I want him to ask me, and if I don’t know the answer, I want to go with him to figure it out.

As a professional and as a parent, my hope is to help kids figure out who they are, to own their differences, and to move through the world with confidence.

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