Sleepaway camps accommodating LGBTQ youth


 Sleepaway camp is an American summer tradition — and one that, in numerous  communities, finally embraces and accommodates the diversity of LGBTQ campers.

Camp Harlam, an overnight camp with recreational and educational activities for Reform Jewish youth, is among the summer programs that evolved to  not only include LGBT youth, but also to celebrate them.

“For many years — more than I’d care to admit — people who were part of the LGBTQ community did not feel like they could live out the best version of themselves here at camp,” said inclusion coordinator Lori Zlotoff. “It has taken the intentional thought and work of our professional staff and the LGBTQ task force to make inroads to start the work of cultural change in order to reverse six decades of the way things used to be.”

The camp, which began in 1958 and provides youth activities from archery to audio production, is headquartered in the Poconos and, per a 2015 resolution submitted by the Union for Reform Judaism supports the full equality of gender identity and gender expression.

“At Harlam, we pride ourselves on celebrating who we are by being the best version of ourselves — and that means being who we want to be, and knowing that we will be unconditionally accepted for it,” Zlotoff said.

Harlam has engaged all involved — staff, campers, parents, alumni and clergy — to imagine and create an inclusive environment, she said. Those efforts include a 35-member task force, a Gender Sexuality Alliance for the staff and for the campers and plans to celebrate Pride Month.

Zlotoff also said that one camp parent, alumna and task force member Jennifer Levi, director of GLAD’s Transgender Rights Project, is one of two transgender attorneys leading the legal fight against President Trump’s transgender military ban in both Doe v. Trump and Stockman v. Trump, donated the Camp Harlam’s Pride flag.

“We fly a Pride flag at camp and have been fortunate to be able to support the experiences of transgender members of our community so they can live and participate in all aspects of camp life,” Zlotoff explained. “We want people to know outside of our gates the rich tapestry of who makes up the community inside our gates. Everyone is welcome to join us!”

Camp Tawonga, a youth camp in Northern California that began in 1925, is adding something different to help celebrate and include LGBTQ youth: all-gender cabins.

J. The Jewish News of Northern California is reporting this summer, Camp Tawonga, will have not one, but two all-gender cabins. That’s the due to the increasing number of kids like Jonathan Brunn among its campers

The 10-year-old Brunn wanted to attend one of Tawonga’s LGBT family weekends, but his mother was understandably nervous, since he has had to deal with bullying at school.

Brunn first attended a five-night session for younger, first-time campers, back in 2016. Back then, Jonathan’s mom and camp staff had decided Jonathan should sleep in a girls bunk, but the others there decided to call the bunk “all-gender” to make it more inclusive.

“Tawonga has a long history of only offering girls’ and boys’ cabins, but it’s become clear in recent years that that doesn’t work for all kids,” said camp director Becca Meyer. “So we wanted to create another option so that all kids can live in a cabin that reflects their gender identity.”

The two cabins will only be offered during one session, as a pilot program. One will be for children going into fifth and sixth grades, and the other for those going into seventh and eighth grades. Each will accommodate 12 campers.

Another difference is the all-gender cabins will have a no-nudity rule. Changing into bathing suits and sleepwear will be done in the bathroom, sleeping bags or behind a privacy curtain.

Meyer said a lot of counselors have expressed interest in staffing the cabins.

“We haven’t decided yet, but they will be excellent counselors who get additional training in working with diverse campers,” she said.

Brunn said he is looking forward to another experience near Yosemite National Park.

“Since my cabin will be all-gender, no one has to feel left out. Everyone will be included,” said Jonathan, who uses all pronouns interchangeably.

Camp Moshava in northern Harford County, Md., has offered all-gender cabins for older campers since 2017, and helped advise Camp Tawonga. Camp Mosh’s website calls it “a camp community based on cooperation and equality. We simulate the kibbutz experience while we learn about social justice, Judaism and Israel.”

Executive director Jennifer Braveman Silber called it “a safe space for children to learn and grow. We believe that a thriving community is one that acknowledges and embraces diverse identities — age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, nationality, religion, physical ability and socioeconomic status — explores the intersections of those identities and encourages children to be their truest selves. Our programming seeks to appreciate the value that each camper brings to camp. Because of the individual, the community is stronger, because of the community, the individual is stronger.”

“At Camp Mosh, we house campers according to gender identity and where they will feel most comfortable living,” said Silber, campers who “identify as gender nonbinary, genderqueer, agender, gender nonconforming, gender fluid, transgender and cisgender allies. … We will happily offer an all-gender option to our younger campers as well, if there are enough [at least five] who would select that option.”

Camp Mosh offers an LGBTQIA club for campers and holds Pride celebrations for the entire camp.

There’s a lot of Hebrew learned and spoken, which – like many languages – would include nouns with gender assignments. Silber explained they’ve started using gender-inclusive Hebrew, and even got a write-up about that in The Washington Post.

The Reconstructionist movement, based outside Philadelphia, runs Camp Havaya in the Poconos. Its website says, “In our incredibly diverse and accepting community, all kids – no matter their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, family structure, or Jewish background – are more than welcomed. They’re celebrated!”

Executive Director Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, who uses pronouns in his email signature, let PGN know, “While we’re not currently planning for all-gender cabins, our commitment to LGBTQ campers and families is longstanding and deep. At Camp Havaya, there’s never a reason for campers to be anyone other than their true selves. No matter who they are, our kids are both celebrated and challenged in ways that help them grow into amazing human beings. We proudly fly a rainbow flag and have signs on our dining-hall bathroom doors saying that they are for use by anyone, regardless of gender identity. Unlike many other camps, we don’t have a boys’ side and girls’ side and our activities aren’t gender-specific; while a nonbinary child would need to choose a particular bunk, the choice is theirs to make and it doesn’t pre-determine the rest of their day-to-day experience. And we were one of the first Jewish camps to welcome openly trans campers; we now consult to other camps across the country about issues of gender and diversity.”