Summer camp has always been an opportunity for teens to have an impactful experience during a formative period of their lives. And in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the conversations during the camp experience have begun to change, leading to a shift in the culture of summer camp staff training.
In April, the Jenkintown-based nonprofit Moving Traditions hosted a two-day training event as a part of CultureShift, a new initiative aimed at challenging sexism and preventing sexual harassment and assault at camp. Fifteen senior staffers from nine Jewish overnight camps from across the country were present, including leaders from three camps in the Philadelphia area: Habonim Dror Camp Galil, Camp Havaya and Camp Ramah in the Poconos. The aim was to allow camps to have conversations revolving around sexism, identity and power dynamics in a safe environment in order to develop tools and strategies to improve camp life and safety.
“The most important impact [of the training] has simply been opening up a conversation about things that have been talked about in the shadows. It’s been in side conversations behind closed doors,” said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Moving Traditions’ chief of education. “But talking in the open about the challenges that surround gender, sex and power, that is a conversation that I think we’re just starting to now have with the depth that it requires.”
Molly Wernick, assistant director of community engagement at Camp Galil, participated in the training. She said the training allowed people to let down their guard and converse candidly with fellow camp professionals on how to talk to campers about consent, gender identity and sexuality. Wernick indicated that it’s of huge value to have the ability to discuss these topics with campers during in a time of self-discovery. Some of the conversations that popped up were unexpected, said Brenner, like how to enforce dress code, specifically when it comes to swimwear.
“There are a lot of issues that are just around dress codes,” Brenner said. “It seems like that is one area where there is a lot of tension between teenagers’ desires to express themselves and counselors’ ideas about what is appropriate and inappropriate in different contexts at camp.”
Sheira Director-Nowack, camp director at Camp Havaya, said the debate on dress code has been going on for a long time, but this time the conversation went deeper, going over what exactly a dress code is, why it pertains to certain people and not others, where that fits in to the whole movement of understanding gender and gender equality and the difference between what is fair and equitable.
“I’ve been camping for a long time and dress codes have always been question marks,” Director-Nowack said.
Wernick was surprised by the dress code conversation. She gave it as an example of a topic or policy discussed at the training that didn’t exactly pertain to camps like her own.
“I had no idea that this was a conversation that was happening at camps because for us it was just never anything that has been discussed or considered,” Wernick said. “And it’s not something that we at all identified to be a challenge or concern. Our policy on swimwear is be yourself and be comfortable.”
One of the things Wernick walked away with was new techniques for staff training, and she even implemented one of the exercises this year. The exercise involved a skit where one staffer would play a camper who has approached a camp counselor, played by another staffer, about whether to have their first kiss while at camp. Other staffers in the audience can then join in, giving different advice around consent and dealing with peer pressure.
“It was really cool to see how that scene played out at the CultureShift conference and then how it played out at camp when we ran it for our staff,” Wernick said. “We could take not only the conversation topics, but the methodology, and apply that for our staff training for the counselors before the campers arrive.”
Deborah Meyer, founder and CEO of Moving Traditions, said the CultureShift training wasn’t intended to force camps to change overnight. Rather, it will act as a resource to help camps evolve their culture over time. This summer, the nonprofit plans to check in with the camps in order to gauge CultureShift’s effect. This feedback will be used to further adjust and refine the initiative for next year’s training.
“We know we can’t ignore these issues, and these leaders are coming together to start work that is a long-term project,” Meyer said. “Culture cannot be shifted overnight, so we really commend the camps that are really investing their time and resources to have these conversations with us.”
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