Earlier this month, the New York Times featured a story about Camp Be’chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”), a summer home-away-from-home for Jewish children of color. The two year-old camp is operated by Be’chol Lashon, an organization aiming “to strengthen the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness.” While Camp Be’chol Lashon offers standard camp fare like canoeing and sing-alongs, the camp also provides a Jewish experience that speaks to a broader understanding of what being a North American Jew in the 21st century is. The infusion of globalism into the camp ethos (e.g. making challah covers of fabrics from India) serves to reflect the increasing diversity within the American Jewish community. With the last decades’ rise of conversion, adoption, and intermarriage—along with the segment of our community that has always been racially diverse—close to ten percent of the American Jewish community is now non-white. Still, because the Jewish community has often been slow to acknowledge these demographic changes, Camp Be’chol Lashon has made it a mission to provide an open Jewish setting for children who may not always feel welcome in more Ashkenazi-biased North American Jewish communities.
The fact that Camp Be’chol Lashon exists nevertheless raises an important question for the Jewish community that we at JOI have examined from the prism of interfaith families and that is also relevant for GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) Jews and other traditionally-underserved populations without our community: is it better to create separate “safe spaces” or try to integrate into the “mainstream” community? For us, the answer is “both,” and more, as we’ve written in the past.
Camp Be’Chol Lashon’s founders decided to create a separate setting for a largely ignored population, and by doing so have not only created a profound experience for the participants but also put them on the Jewish community’s radar. We at JOI similarly created the Mothers Circle, a Jewish parenting class for mothers of other religious backgrounds, as a “safe space” that has become critical to creating a supportive educational environment, and that has also put that population on the Jewish communal radar. Such spaces may always be needed, especially for minority populations, and the community should support these efforts, but at the same time we must also push to create a community that is much more embracing of its diversity so that there are fewer challenges for these populations to overcome when participating in the mainstream.
Would it not behoove the Jewish community and the future of the Jewish people to have the Ashkenazic-dominated campers in the Northeast learn that there are many ways to “look Jewish?” We encourage Jewish camps across the country to learn from Be’chol Lashon and raise awareness regarding Jewish diversity among all Jewish campers, and to provide more opportunities for young Jews of color to feel a part of the Jewish community at large. Perhaps one day we can foster a Jewish community so inclusive that it does not require population-specific programming.
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