“Usually I would say I want to go to camp to see all my old friends, but to be honest they are not friends. They are FAMILY! Every summer I count down the days until I go to camp because it’s that exciting. Every year I learn something new about myself. Camp Be’chol Lashon is my second home, and I can’t wait to go back this summer. I am always making new friends that I will probably know for a lifetime.” –Kenya Edelhart, age 12 Camp Be’chol Lashon
“You can pick your nose, you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.” — My father
This past July I met Kenya during my first summer at Camp Be’chol Lashon. I showed up for my first day at camp excited for a summer of new experiences, but also fairly confident I knew what to expect for the next three weeks. I went to Jewish summer camp as a child. I know exactly when to bang the table during Birkat, I’ve won my fair share of Ga-Ga matches and I take special pride in my friendship bracelet making ability.
While I was expecting all of those things that go along with the traditional camp experience, I guess I wasn’t exactly expecting how quickly and how deeply I would fall in love with this particular place and these people. There are many reasons this could be. It could be the tight, close knit feel. We are not a big camp. In fact, we barely make a football team. But this intimacy means we also rely on each other.
It all came together for me during some free time one early evening when I found myself in the girls bunk while the regular counselors had their daily staff meeting. While still feeling new, I was still trying to memorize camper names and personal details, like favorite hobbies and personality quirks. To pass the time, the girls were deciding on a game to play. I had a bunch of suggestions (most of which happened to be games I am also very good at), but resisted my urge to butt in as I saw that they were consumed within their new friendships. It didn’t take long before the most popular suggestion was Truth or Dare.
As the sole adult in the room, red flags went off. With memories flashing of hushed games of truth or dare ending in tears or bitter arguments, I offered a timid, “Hey guys, don’t you want to play charades instead?” Utterly failing in the age old child-supervision techniques of distraction and diversion, no matter what I said, they were intent on playing Truth or Dare. I decided to let the game play out until the inevitable moment came when things were about to get too real and I would no doubt have to Shut It Down. Except that moment never came. I watched, silently in awe of these young women, who were playing the most respectful, entertaining game of Truth or Dare I had ever witnessed.
First of all, there were ground rules. No one had to answer a question or complete a dare that they didn’t feel comfortable doing. There were your typical truths and dares: questions about love interests and dares that involved combining the most unappetizing, barely edible contents of the cabin into drinkable concoctions. The point of the game wasn’t to put people on the spot. It was apparent that the rules set in the beginning of the game allowed everyone to feel safe enough to participate and to trust those girls around them, which made them more inclined to explore their boundaries and in turn learn about themselves and others.There was room for everyone; those who were maybe a little more shy and needed to watch a few rounds before jumping in, and those that felt comfortable in this space right off the bat, even volunteering for dares that weren’t directed at them, or making their dares potentially more embarrassing.
The story of Jewish camp is one that’s been told a million times, and there are studies that say that kids who go to Jewish camp are that much more likely to be Jewishly engaged as adults. I suspect this has something to do with the power of connection. It is a powerful thing to be a part of something, to feel that there is a place where you belong, a space that would not be the same without you in it. At our camp, this is something that is apparent from the first day kids show up. So my dad was right, you can’t pick your family, but you sure can build one.
Growing up biracial in white Jewish family means that you don’t often see others who have your experience/look like you. It is always special to be in Jewish spaces that celebrate diversity and reflect my experience. It is nice to able to connect to others that understand the complexity of my story without extensive explanation, as well as the ordinariness of it.
Which is why I was so interested in seeing Lacey Schwartz’s documentary Little White Lies, which will be premiering at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Sunday August 3rd. It is exciting to see someone who looks like me on the big screen. I’ve known Lacey for a few years and know her story. I know it is different than my own, but there is a fundamental overlap when it comes to mixed race Jewish identity. Having seen a preview as part of an educational evening at Camp Be’chol Lashon, there were parts of Lacey’s story that reminded me of my own story. After discussing it with the staff and older campers, it seemed that everyone who watched the film could find a part of Lacey’s story that they connected with.
One of the things that struck me about Lacey’s experience was that her identity wasn’t fully complete until she could express it. Lacey’s experience illustrates that a central part of navigating one’s identity is communicating it and sharing it with your friends, family and community. Because identity is not only how you see yourself, but the agency in making sure that how you see yourself is synonymous with the way that others see you. It is a difficult balancing act to make sure that we learn to stack the building blocks of identity into a supportive foundation, without letting them box you in.
We don’t often overtly talk about race in religious spaces, although in my opinion it is impossible to separate the two. My blackness and my Jewishness are equally central to who I am and how I experience the world.
Identity and race is something we all need to be able to talk about—even as Jews.
I’m looking forward to people of all races and ethnicities and religions seeing this movie. I’m curious to hear from all of you about how you relate to Lacey’s story.
This summer Lindsey Newman and Josh Rothstein are going to be leading the first free Taglit Birthright Israel trip with a focus on diversity. We asked Lindsey what draws her to Israel.
Israel is a place where I learned about diversity– before I could articulate what diversity meant, I was able to see it and live it. As a Jew of color growing up in a mostly white community in New York City, it was sometimes hard to find diversity and diverse role models to look up to. But when I first arrived in Israel at age 7, my sense of what Jewish looked like expanded immediately.
My family returned to Israel the next summer, when I was 8, this time staying for two months and living in Jerusalem. I was among an international contingent of American, Israeli and Israeli Arab children all enjoying the best that summer camp has to offer. Most of what I knew of Israel at that time was watermelon ice pops, flying kites on the Jerusalem promenade, and Bisli. For a Jew of color, from a mixed race background and multiracial family, it was one of the first times in my life that I felt I fully belong among the rich tapestry of Jewish life.
Later I returned as a teen, for a summer program that brought together participants from all across the US and Israel, I became friends with Jews whose parents and/or grandparents were born in Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran, Russia, France, Greece and elsewhere. While I still have a soft spot for brisket, the traditional meal I had at my friend’s Iraqi-Algerian home is still the best Rosh Hashanah meal I’ve ever had. (Although I must admit, I passed when the fish head was offered to me even though it’s good luck.)
Through art, travel, study and just getting to know each other, we wrestled with what it means to be Jewish, what it means to us personally to be a Jew, and what it means to live with other Jews. We tested each other, and we learned from each other. We were reminded that Judaism is not a singular experience– we are a diverse global people with different customs, complexions and experiences.
Israel was one of my first positive experiences with Jewish diversity in all its iterations. Of course, with diversity comes complexity, and exploring Israel meant coming face to face with its triumphs and its challenges. But facing this complexity can be incredibly valuable, for out of struggle can come strength.
These Israel experiences inspired me to create a Birthright trip with a focus on diversity. Diversity is a universal issue but it is also a Jewish issue and in my experience there is no better place to experience it than Israel. I’m looking forward to sharing the many flavors, sounds, and customs of Israel’s many multicultural communities and individuals. I’m looking forward to discussing and debating the challenges of diversity and identity –in a setting that deals with these issues all the time. I’m looking forward to getting to know a bus filled with Jews from all over the United States who represent the many ethnic, racial and cultural heritages that are the contemporary community. And of course I’m looking forward to Bisli and just hanging out by the pool.