A few weeks ago, in a parking lot in Montreal, with hip-hop music blaring from oversized speakers, and lanes delineated for a fleet of buses to pull into, I found myself waiting with 200 or so other parents for my son Jonah to return from sleep-away camp. It was hardly a Norman Rockwell painting, but there was still something timeless about the feelings of anticipation and excitement that were as palpable as the humidity in the August air. Jonah had only been away 10 days but it felt longer. Of course, if I’m being honest, it also felt like it went too fast. It’s always a little surprising how quickly my wife and I are able to adapt to life on our own. Still, we missed the kid and, like everyone else in the parking lot, we could hardly wait for his bus – Senior Boys – to finally arrive.
But we were also, we knew, different from other parents. Jonah, who’s 14, is on the autism spectrum and while we were hopeful he had a good time, first of all, we were even more hopeful he’d gained some new measure of independence at camp. We care a lot less about whether he learned to water ski then whether he learned how to do the simplest things, things other parents take for granted – like learn to eat a new food or maybe just hold a five-minute conversation with a bunkmate. And while most parents with teenagers are trying to find ways to keep their kids closer, hoping, in vain, that they won’t change too much, we’re continually hoping Jonah will come home after being free of our inevitable worrying about him and start pushing us away. We hope he’ll begin to understand it’s his job to change.
In her recent memoir, Next Stop: An Autistic Son Grows Up, Washington D.C. journalist Glen Finland writes about her heroic and poignant efforts to help David, her 21-year-old son on the spectrum, learn how to navigate the city’s subway system and, much more important, learn to be an individual, an adult. But, of course, it’s Finland who has to learn, while writing the memoir, how to be on her own: “After decades of being my intellectually disabled son’s advocate, how could I just shut off my dependency on his dependency on me?”
It was a question I was asking myself as the Senior Boys bus finally arrived in the parking lot and Jonah exited a little shyly. He had a deep suntan and an array of mosquito bites on his arms, legs, and neck. He had a growth spurt this summer and was already taller than me by the time he left for camp, but he seemed to tower over me now. He had the beginnings of a mustache before he left but I could also see whiskers on his chin and a significant accumulation of pimples on his forehead. Jonah can be hard to get information out of at the best of times, but he seemed quieter than usual. And, maybe it was my imagination, but it also seemed like the things he wasn’t telling us were not just things he couldn’t be bothered to tell us, but things he decided not to tell us. He was acting, in other words, just like a teenager.
My wife caught up to the camp director and Jonah’s shadow and they told her that Jonah had a fantastic time. He didn’t make close friends, but the kids at the camp liked him and accepted him on his own terms. He was, my wife was assured, independent, pretty much. Oh yeah, he also tried lasagna and water-skied. Jonah wanted to get home for lunch – definitely not lasagna, we assured him – so we didn’t linger. But then just as my wife and I were driving out of the parking lot, my son realized he did have something important he wanted to tell us, after all. A decision I’m guessing he’d reached on the bus and on his own. “Next year,” he said, “I’m going to camp for the whole summer.”
This summer, Habonim Dror Camp Na’aleh did something unprecedented at Jewish camp – we had a transgender bunk counselor. At Camp Na’aleh we live according to the values of Habonim Dror and the kibbutz movement. Campers and staff at Na’aleh integrate the values of cooperation, equality and activism into their everyday experience at camp. So when I was approached during the past year by Amit Schwalb, a transgender staff member, about shifting his role from garden specialist to bunk counselor, my first instinct was not to ask, “Are we ready to have a transgender staff member living with kids.” It was to ask, “How can we make this happen?”
As camp directors we are faced with difficult decisions on a daily basis. We are consistently put to the test. We hope and pray with each decision we make, that our collective experience doesn’t fail us and we make the right choices. But every now and again we are faced with something new, something we’ve never dealt with before and experience isn’t something we can fall back on. That was where I was as I started to explore honoring Amit’s request.
At Na’aleh we pride ourselves on being an incredibly welcoming community. An inclusive, encouraging, safe environment for children and staff members from all walks of life. We have sporty and non-sporty campers. We have day school kids and non-day school kids. We have campers who have been adopted from other countries and we have both campers and staff who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Every summer and throughout the year we build this incredible community where no matter who you are, you feel welcome.
Amit has been a camper and staff member at Na’aleh since the summer of 2004. He has been our gan (garden) specialist for the last two summers and in 2012 he fully came out as transgender. When his request to live in a bunk was brought to my attention, I understandably had concerns. Amit’s current position as gan specialist didn’t require him to live with campers as he is part of the technical/specialty staff and not a general bunk counselor. I wondered what limitations there would be in this new arrangement by making a change to living with campers. There were a number of other concerns, but despite any of them, I never once questioned whether our campers and staff would embrace this unprecedented arrangement. Our staff, campers and I respect Amit, trust him, and love him.
Since this was uncharted territory for me, and, as I later discovered, unprecedented in the entire Jewish camp world, I solicited opinions from other camp directors and professionals in the camping field. Some were encouraging, and many raised their own concerns. When I sat down to discuss all my thoughts with Amit, my decision was made easy. I asked him a question: “Why do you want this?” Amit replied with one simple answer, he said that as gan specialist he isn’t able to create the same bonds and connections with campers that the bunk counselors do. He felt as though he was missing out on something in his camp experience. By being a bunk counselor, living with campers, helping them when they are homesick at night, being there to wake them up in the morning, cheering their accomplishments, encouraging something new or just hanging out and playing cards during free time, would give him the opportunity to develop these connections.
This beautiful answer that completely embodies the immense responsibility of being a summer camp counselor made my decision incredibly easy. All my questions that came afterwards were essentially meaningless; we were going to make this happen.
We put together a plan that took into consideration Amit’s comfort, that of the campers and of course, their parents. The plan, an affirmation of our commitment to Amit (and to every member of our community!) was sent to the parents. The response we received was only positive and encouraging, reconfirming that we were moving in the right direction. Amit and his campers had an incredibly rewarding summer. Not only was he able to make stronger connections with the campers in the bunk, but he was also able to be a part of real transformative moments outside the cabin as well. Amit hiked with the campers on their group tiyul (hiking trip) and spent time talking about their home lives and educating them about his. He also got to be a part of some really silly group moments that they all remember fondly. None of these things would have been possible if Amit wasn’t living with these campers and a part of their group this summer.
When I think back now on the process of making this decision, I think it’s really all about trust. I had trust in Amit, and I had trust in our campers, but more importantly I trusted our community. One of the parents said to me in an email response that this was a wonderful example of being able to walk the walk on many of the messages that we discuss in our families and the values we try to teach our kids.
We are all really proud of the fact that Na’aleh is the first Jewish camp to have a transgender staff person living with campers of the same gender they identify with. We are even prouder that we have a community that lives its values to the fullest, even when it may not seem easy at the onset. Beautiful things are capable of happening at a Jewish summer camp, especially when each camp isn’t afraid to live its own values to the fullest.
I often wonder if all roads lead us to the place where we are supposed to be. I don’t mean this to sound quite as philosophical as it might come across; I merely mean that there are so many moments in my life that are meant to be. The Chinese have an idea about this: it is called the red thread. This is the notion that when a child is born an invisible red thread connects the child to their past, present and future. As time passes all that is fated to be will happen.
I have a special place in my heart and soul for this thought. It started when I was 14 and a family who was Jewish asked me to babysit their adorable little girl. April had been adopted from Korea two years earlier and she and her parents were in the process of adopting her sister. I was babysitting for their family when little sister Jenna arrived and I continued to babysit for them through high school and well into college. The fact that their children were Asian and Jewish was something I noticed in a celebratory way. I loved the combination of the Korean masks that they had in their house and the menorah that sat right by it. It all made sense to me and seemed perfectly “normal.” I remember the girls going to Korean camp and having their bat-mitzvahs and recently have been blessed enough to watch April stand under the chuppah with her new husband. Asian and Jewish … it just seemed to fit.
Fast forward 20 years and my husband and I are talking about the choices we have in child getting. I have to be honest, for me the decision to adopt was very easy. I had this great example and well, it seemed to me that all the work in trying to have a child biologically was not really worth it if there were children who needed a home and we needed to be parents…. So adoption was the route we took… For my husband and me, this meant going to China in the winter of 2005 and adopting our Madeline Rose Hai Yan Chaya Shifra Nowack.
Fast forward seven years. I consciously chose a place to work that had a good deal of racial diversity for the Jewish community. And let’s be honest, racial diversity and American Jewry do not always go hand in hand. So, I chose to work at Camp JRF because there were other kids who looked like my daughter. There are kids of many races, and many different family styles at Camp JRF so I knew our daughter would fit in at this camp as much as she could in any place where most of the people look nothing like you. I was not prepared for Amy though.
Amy is a stunning 15 year old girl who was adopted from China in the 90s. She is part of the chalutzim, the early families who went to China when things were not as open as they are now. Amy is a smart, easy going girl who never really seemed phased by much at camp. A kid from the Midwest who never got caught up in the drama. So when she walked into my office and closed the door and started to cry I was shocked. She told me how I was the only one who could understand: someone had said something rude about Asians in her presence, not even connecting that she was Asian since, as this person said, “Well I mean you are Jewish…” And she was upset. Not even because her feelings were hurt but because she did not know how to feel. I looked at her and thought: “Oh …. This is that moment… When the red thread brought you to my office…”
We spoke for a while and we tried to solve all the racial issues of the Jewish community. We came up with the idea that nothing was going to be solved for a while. We spoke about how stupid people can be and how confusing things are and how even in the safest of places, like camp, reality is always there.
When Amy went back to her bunk she was better. Nothing was solved, but she knew she had a place to come to when she felt a bit weird about all of the stuff.
I, however, shut the door to my office and cried. I cried for all the kids who look different in one way or another and we as a Jewish community don’t remember that they are part of us. I cried for the moments when someone says something in front of me about others and assumes because I am Jewish I am going to agree with them. I cried because, truth be told, this was exactly what I had feared, that my decision to adopt our daughter and raise her Jewish would somehow leave her on the outside. Then I composed myself and celebrated. How great is it that my daughter can look to older campers and see someone who looks like her. That in her Hebrew school class there are three Asian Jewish girls – not all adopted. That the world gets smaller every day and that there are places all over where she can feel comfortable.
Mostly, I celebrated that the red thread had lead Amy to my office and Maddie to our home and that somehow this puzzle of race and culture and religion was going to be okay.