As a former Jewish summer camper, Moving Traditions CEO Deborah Meyer said camp was a place where she developed long-lasting friendships and an intense connection to Jewish life.
But it was also a place where she remembers some inappropriate behavior between counselors.
“The broader society, the broader culture seeps into summer camp,” Meyer said. “Even camps with really good policies still have human beings, especially counselors, who are coming with their good intentions, but are bringing in some of the norms from the wider culture around hook-up and objectification and sexualization, and just ways of relating that are not necessarily really thought through in terms of how to create a healthy and safe space for younger teens and preteens and younger children.”
For years, Moving Traditions, a national organization based in Jenkintown, has worked with Jewish summer camp leaders to change camp culture and address issues around gender, sexuality and power, including body image, bullying and awareness about not encouraging inappropriate sexuality at too young of an age. And in the wake of the #MeToo movement, demand for training has grown.
To reach a larger number of camps, Moving Traditions partnered with the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) to host a series of training sessions for Jewish camp leadership, mostly camp directors, in Chicago on May 8, Los Angeles on May 9 and New York City on May 24. Professionals from 90 camps, including several in the Philadelphia area, attended. They will also record a webinar next week to reach a wider audience. Though led by Moving Traditions, the trainings were part of and funded by FJC’s Shmira Initiative.
The two organizations have worked together on various projects for years. Last summer, for example, they conducted an action research-based project, which led to the training sessions. During the project, they discovered issues at camps around gender, sexuality and power, such as the use of homophobic language, which the training sessions addressed.
“This is not a one-and-done,” said Rabbi Avi Orlow, vice president, program and innovation at FJC. “This is also part of a much larger enterprise to ensure that our camps are not just OK, but exemplars of what it means to be in a respectful, safe Jewish community.”
At the all-day sessions, attendees learned about trends in gender, sexuality and other issues among children, preteens and teens, then grouped together to explore camp values and what actually occurs there. In the process, they started working together to make changes.
Ramah Day Camp Director Elana Rivel, who attended the New York City session, said she participated because of both the issue’s relevance to society at large and that, in her three years as camp director, she has seen related issues crop up.
“I’m pleased as a professional that the Jewish community is stepping up to address this and within a setting like camp, which does have so much of this long-standing culture,” she said. “It’s hard to make change in culture, but there are important things that need to shift, and I’m happy to be part of that conversation.”
She noted that the training announcement came out just a few months ago, so she was surprised that Moving Traditions and FJC were able to pull them together in time for this summer.
Rivel said she got tools out of the session that she plans to bring to Ramah’s staff training. Those include workshop scenarios — like being asked an inappropriate question by a camper or overhearing campers have a factually inaccurate conversation about sex — that staff might encounter.
“For some of them, it’s their first job,” Rivel said. “So, all of a sudden, you’re also being asked or overhearing conversations that are potentially a little uncomfortable, how do we help them?”
Meyer said Moving Traditions is interested in possibly expanding to having two-day training sessions and holding them in more than three regions in the future.
“The last thing anybody wants is for there to be an incident at camp,” Meyer said. “[The camp leadership] really expressed a commitment and courage, really, for camp leaders to come forward and talk about what’s happening in their camps. As Jewish communities, as lay leaders, parents and funders, it’s important for us to give camp leadership space to do the work necessary to build healthy, safe and respectful camps.”