Jewish American summer camp veterans open stay-away program for trans kids

JTA — Shira Berkowitz was making a career out of Jewish camping when a camp told them not to come back.

“It got around that I was queer and it wasn’t appropriate for me to be a girls’ program director,” Berkowitz said. “And that was really detrimental to my identity. I went back to the closet for a few years.

Berkowitz’s career and personal identity recovered, and they continued to work at Camp Sabra, Missouri’s largest Jewish overnight camp, which they described as much more tolerant.

“But I was also very aware that there were almost no queer staff, other than me and one or two other people,” Berkowitz said.

Now, Berkowitz is working to create a different kind of summer camp experience for kids — and staff — who are LGBTQ. The senior director of public policy and advocacy at PROMO Missouri, an LGBTQ advocacy group, Berkowitz is one of many Jewish summer camp veterans on the founding team of Camp Indigo Point, a new camp that caters to to trans children at a time when many gender non-conforming children are facing fierce attacks from conservatives in their own communities.

Berkowitz and his longtime friend Daniel Bogard, a St. Louis rabbi raising a transgender child, envisioned the camp late last year as the Missouri legislature prepared for a session in which three anti-trans bills were introduced in the first month. Three more were added in February, and last week the Missouri House of Representatives passed two bills that would limit trans children’s participation in sports.

This year has already seen a record number of anti-LGBTQ laws nationwide. Republicans in at least 30 states have specifically introduced bills to ban trans kids from playing sports in school; more than 300 bills introduced would limit how gender and sexuality are taught in schools and prevent access to gender-affirming medical care for trans children.

The weather made Camp Indigo Point a popular destination, and its week-long session in June brought together 93 children from 27 states in just a few weeks.

More than 50 children are on a waiting list and 135 people have applied for the 29 staff positions, according to Bogard. Meanwhile, comic book artist and trans writer Lilah Sturges has offered to donate signed copies of one of her comics to camp.

“It’s really cool to see the response. It’s magic,” Bogard said, adding, “Next year we clearly have to expand.

Like Berkowitz, Bogard went to Camp Ramot Amoona for much of his teenage years, which he credits with setting him on the path to becoming a rabbi. As a young adult, he became a song leader there and later served as an assistant warden at Camp Sabra. He is the only non-LGBTQ member of the Camp Indigo Point leadership team, a role he took on in addition to his work as a rabbi at the Central Reform Synagogue in St. Louis.

The parent of a trans student, Bogard became a prominent trans rights activist in Missouri, testifying frequently at the state Capitol in Jefferson City. Her Twitter feeds about legislative threats facing trans children in her state have earned her a national platform.

“There’s not a family of a trans kid in red condition in this whole country who sleeps well at night,” Bogard said. “It’s not hyperbole. I have panic attacks at night, like, should we flee the state?”

Rabbi Daniel Bogard (left corner) and Shira Berkowitz (right, carrying backpack) lead a teen advocacy group in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy Berkowitz via JTA)

Although not actually a Jewish camp, the staff and incoming campers at Indigo Point are largely Jewish and steeped in the experience of Jewish camps. Its host space, Camp Manitowa in southern Illinois, was also founded by two veterans of the Jewish camping movement seeking to create an inclusive camp environment. After the 2014 murder of Michael Brown Jr. by police in Ferguson, Missouri, Camp Manitowa opened Camp Ferguson to house children affected by school closures in the area.

It’s no surprise that Jewish camp elders are leaders in the effort to create inclusive camps, said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

“The Jewish camp has long been recognized for its leadership skills — problem solving, communication, creativity, independence, critical thinking — which are developed and honed as a camper or counselor,” he wrote in an email. mail.

“Over the past decade, we have seen tremendous growth in the field of specialty camps – opportunities for meaningful Jewish experiences and community building for campers of specific demographics or with interests in developing specific skills” , added Fingerman.

Meanwhile, many Jewish camps are making efforts to accommodate LGBTQ campers. In New York City, Camp Eden Village, an environmentally-focused camp, launched an “all-gender” cabin three years ago for gender-nonconforming children and their allies. So did Camp Tawonga, a 90-year-old Jewish camp in California. A day camp on Long Island, also in New York, caters to LGBTQ children.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp recently held a learning day for over 100 Jewish camp professionals focusing on mental health, gender identity and sexual orientation.

The efforts could produce a different experience for campers today than Berkowitz and others whose own experience of Jewish camping was inspiring but not gender-affirming.

“For many of us millennials who went to summer camp and struggled with being transgender and gender non-conforming kids in such a binary Jewish summer camp structure, we wanted to be able to provide something else,” Berkowitz said.

At Camp Indigo Point, campers will experience traditional camp activities like archery, boating, crafts and sports. But there will also be special programming for strengthening the LGBTQ community, as well as attention to medical issues that children might bring with them.

Camp Indigo Point campers will participate in traditional camp activities such as canoeing, and will also have special programming tailored to strengthening the LGBTQ community. (Courtesy of Dan Grabel via JTA)

Campers may be pre-surgery or pre-hormone therapy or on hormone blockers, and may need privacy and a safe environment to remove their binders or underwear, as well as nursing staff who can provide hormone therapy and support for the specific needs of trans children.

The camp aims to serve children who otherwise might not be going to camp this summer. Priced at $575 for a week, the camp is cheaper than many summer camps but still unaffordable for many families, and Bogard said he has already handed out $12,000 in scholarships.

Berkowitz said they want Camp Indigo Point to be a place where kids can “find some of the support and love and likeness around their peers, where they can just have a camp experience. been really great and fun.”

They added: “I think a lot of kids want to know they’re going to be accepted into their cabins.”

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