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August 20, 2014 By:
Where Jews of Color Go to ‘Feel Normal’ at Summer Camp
PETALUMA, Calif. — On a cool Sunday evening, Jewish campers with nervous smiles took to the stage one by one to perform poems they had composed on the theme of identity.
One girl riffed on being taunted for having “fuzzy eyebrows” and “bushy hair.” Another rhymed about being told, “You don’t look Jewish” too many times to count.
If this doesn’t sound like your typical summer camp fare, it’s because Camp Be’chol Lashon has a markedly different mandate than most Jewish camps.
Nestled in the misty hills of Marin County, the northern California camp is the country’s only sleepaway camp geared to Jews of color.
“Part of the goal is to make these kids feel normal in a Jewish context,” said Diane Tobin, the founder and executive director of the camp's parent organization, the San Francisco-based nonprofit Be’chol Lashon, which promotes racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in Jewish life.
Tobin, 61, and her late husband, the eminent Jewish demographer Gary Tobin, founded the nonprofit in 2000, three years after adopting an African-American son. Now entering its sixth season, the organization’s camp integrates traditional Jewish practice with educational activities that speak to the diversity of Jewish life around the globe.
Each morning, after the more typical fare of Wiffle ball and field sports, campers gather clues about the country they will “travel” to that day before going through “Customs” and having their makeshift passports stamped. Throughout the day, between kayaking and swimming in the pond, campers make food and crafts inspired by the particular country they are “visiting.”
On a recent afternoon, campers wrote poems in a room decorated with cultural items they had made, including woven baskets used in Mexico and feathered raffia masks to represent Colombia.
Aaron Levy Samuels, a New York-based black-Jewish performance poet whose first poetry collection, Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps, was published last fall, had flown in for the day to facilitate a poetry workshop.
The camp is not just for Jews of color, as evinced by one white camper’s poem about her identity as a “nerdy Jewish girl.” It’s also very much a family affair. Tobin’s son, Jonah, is a junior counselor, and her daughter, Sarah Spencer, serves as the camp’s co-director.
“The kids all come with very different stories about who they are and where they’ve come to be,” said Spencer, 38, a marriage and family therapist who is also the mother of two biracial children. “Here they get to practice explaining who they are to one another, and we help them to feel good about whatever that is.”
Savannah Henry, a 21-year-old counselor whose father is African-American, said that before her rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, Calif., told her about Be’chol Lashon, she had spent a miserable summer at a more mainstream Reform camp in Santa Rosa.
“I was the only Jew of color,” she said. “I just didn’t connect that well.”
When she discovered Be’chol Lashon four years ago, Henry’s outlook changed completely.
“If I had been a camper here, I would have fit in perfectly,” she said. “It’s definitely made me more of a proud Jew.”