June 1, 2010

Soon-to-be Camp Counselor; Always an Ally

After being home for the past few weeks, I’m getting ready to leave to work at a Jewish, outdoor adventure, overnight camp (Ramah Outdoor Adventure). I like to think of it as Boy Scout camp meets Judaism (and girls). The camp opens this summer and is the latest initiative by Ramah—the official summer camp organization of the Conservative Movement of Judaism (not to be confused with conservatism in American politics).

I had the great fortune of being a camper at Ramah Darom (in Georgia) for several summers. Experiences from camp, along with relationships with my peers and my counselors/other staff members, played a very pivotal role in my life. Over the years I had counselors who were always there to listen, counselors who challenged me, counselors who believed in me, counselors who reminded me to not take life too seriously, counselors who showed me the ins-and-outs of Judaism, counselors who shared my passions, counselors who were my friends, and counselors who modeled for me what it meant to embrace my full self (eccentricities included). I know firsthand the power that a counselor can have on a camper looking for a role model or a mentor.

The campers I’ll have this summer are mostly rising 8th-10th graders (though I'll also work with rising 6th/7th graders and families). They’re old enough that they’re “real people,” but that also means that they’re tenuously trying to navigate their lives: their sense of self, their peer group, and their values, just to name a few. [Any readers extra-eager to re-live those years? ‘Cause, uhhh, you won’t find me volunteering for the chance.] I am excited, however, to be their friend and I hope to have a lasting impression. In this way, it’s important to me that I’m visible.

I want every camper to feel safe, valued and respected. I want every camper to know that I am her or his ally. I want any camper who is out in other areas of her or his life to be comfortable being out at camp. I want any camper who is still in the closet to know that I’m on her or his side and that she or he can talk to me in confidence (for that matter, I hope a camper who is out feels comfortable talking to me about any issues that arise). I want any camper who is in the closet to feel that camp is a supportive environment where she or he can safely begin her or his coming out process (I recognize that the three immediately preceding points are easier said than done).

Even if there is not a single LGBT-identified camper (either in or out of the closet), there are still messages I hope to impart. I want every camper to understand that Conservative Judaism does not condemn LGBT-identified members of our community. On the contrary, The Seminary will admit and ordain openly gay and lesbian-identified individuals [the current Jewish law does not address trans nor bisexual rabbis]. Last but not least, I want every camper to leave camp thinking that being an ally and standing up against homophobia are “cool” and feeling empowered to act accordingly.

[These are, maybe obviously, not my only goals as a counselor; rather, goals I’ve given very deliberate thought to for months. I also, perhaps predictably, want to be a beacon of feminism (a loaded goal which I won't unpack here); I want to be there for my campers to listen about any issue they may be facing—not just LGBT themed struggles; I want to imbue my campers with self confidence; I want to help them to reach their personal goals; I want to help them to strengthen their Jewish identity; I want to facilitate them making relationships among themselves; I want them to learn to be comfortable with themselves.]

That all sounds real swell, but creating a safe space, making myself approachable and empowering campers to speak up will not just happen by mere virtue of me being a counselor. It takes deliberate actions. So, how will I do this? And, how can I do this without overstepping a boundary of being overly “political” in my role as a counselor?

The second question first: There are plenty of ways to stand up for LGBT issues without invoking the politics of today. I can’t say whether the issue of marriage or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will come up—though if it does, it will be because a camper initiated the conversation. However, I don’t believe (and I think that the readers of the blog will agree with me) that affirming the worth of any of my campers is “political.”

To create this type of environment, though, I must be visible. Some actions, by their very virtue, will be reactive, while I can do others at anytime. Hopefully, nothing occurs which would force me to intervene. However, I will do my best to be aware of situations which may arise. For instance, when used, I will speak up against homophobic slang and facilitate conversations about the role of language. If it happens, I will question why someone’s sexuality was a qualifying adjective to a story. If a camper is out of the closet, I will be sure to pay close attention as to how this is perceived by his or her cabinmates. If an issue arises, I will be quick to act in his or her defense [this is, I believe, a situation especially unique unto overnight camp, since living space isn't typically intimately shared until college]. Similarly, I will pay close attention to if a camper's gender expression or perceived sexual orientation becomes the target of his or her peers and will act accordingly if necessary. This may sound like I'm expecting the worst, but really I'm optimistic that the most reactive I'll have to be is to everyday slang [no homo(phobia)].

Other things I can do start on the very first day. I will do my best to use affirming and inclusive language. I will proudly don my Love=Love and no homo(phobia) shirts. I will wear my BDU silicone bracelet and I will display a rainbow sticker on my nalgene and a rainbow ribbon on my backpack. Perhaps most importantly given the nature of the camp as observantly Jewish, I will be prepared to the best of my ability to answer questions and present information about LGBT issues and Judaism.

I should note that I was excited to see "sexual preference" included in our anti-discrimination policy. I could be critical of the outdated language (sexual preference vs. sexual orientation), but I'm just glad to know that the directors of the camp are forward thinking, aware of these issues, and dedicated to seeing that homophobia not be part of our camp culture. I have every reason to believe that this was not just included in the policy as an empty formality, but a genuine concern. In fact, last summer (at a week for potential staff members) I recall having a conversation about homophobia with our director; he also "liked" a link to my Day of Silence post on facebook.

I'm excited for the challenges that await me--personally, Jewish-ly, and professionally--and I'm excited to expand the ways in which I speak out against homophobia. Like Veronica’s “informal research,” I look forward to reporting back to you about my experiences.

But first, Readers, I'd like to learn from you what your experiences have been as a camp counselor or a camper. How did you see homophobia manifest itself? What are ways that you addressed it? What positive stories can you share about being out at camp (as a camper or counselor)? Please help me to be the best that I can be this summer!

[Sports related blogs will be posted during the next few months while I’m away. Please note, however, that I’ll be mostly unable to engage with you in the comments section. The camp at which I will be a counselor has very limited internet service!]


  1. I haven't had a lot of camp experience, but I did go to Georgia's Governor's Honors Program the summer after my junior year of high school. The subject of sexual orientation came up several times during my six weeks there, but one instance in particular has stuck with me: One night, before lights-out, a group of us and the RA were sitting in the hall talking. Somehow we started talking about religion/Christianity and love, which then digressed into a talk about what the RA called "homosexual attraction." (I hate that phrase.) She condemned anyone who identified as queer. I remember being frightened, because I had been questioning since I was about 13, but had literally never, ever had a conversation about sexual orientation with anyone, and suddenly someone I respected was telling me that I was damned. That definitely pushed me WAY back in the closet.

    So, Risa, I am very glad that you are choosing to be an actively affirming presence at your camp. If I had known someone like you at GHP, I think I would have felt a lot more comfortable with myself.


    this is super awesome!!! I kind of wish I was Jewish, and that I was born 5 years after you were, so that I could go to this camp and meet you as a closeted freshman in high school and have you as such an awesome role model. =) what an impact!!

    p.s. you have more rainbows on your person than I do, from your amazing description. :D I'll try and get on that, but you are AWESOME!

  3. I was at an academic summer camp after junior year in high school. On the first night, my counselor gathered the guys in our hall for some icebreakers and one of the questions was which actress would you want to date. At the time, I wasn't out so the questions made me really uncomfortable. I made up some answer so no one would think anytime (although they probably thought something anyways). I'm sure my counselor was just trying to get us to talk and share some information but I hated being put on the spot and having to lie. After the first night, I didn't talk to my counselor ever again.

    I certainly would have appreciated a counselor that was cognizant of gender neutral language and the just the awkward and awful social situations that closeted or questioning LGBT youth can find themselves in. I'm not sure if I would have wanted a super strong and visible ally or LGBT role model at the time though - that would have probably scared me and made me really conscious of my behavior. But, on the other hand, other kids may really like one of those and find it really helpful. I guess it just depends on what kind of kids you have.

  4. Risa, how do YOU define 'feminism'?