I first came to Camp Be’chol Lashon when I was ten years old. My family of four crammed into our 1998 Nissan Maxima to take the winding drive up to Walker Creek ranch from San Francisco. That first year at camp was an admittedly rocky one—I got strep throat and I broke my thumb—but something kept me coming back year after year. Maybe it was the glow sticks at the dances, maybe it was the murky Turtle Pond, maybe it was wearing itchy white tights to the Saturday morning Shabbat services. Regardless, I was hooked.
This year, camp was almost entirely different. Not only were we in the middle of a global pandemic, but we no longer live in the idealistic, allegedly post-racial, Obama-era utopia that existed when I was first coming to camp. This year’s campers are coming of age in a world that has been revealed to be much scarier than the one that I thought I grew up in. They have to deal with rage directed at them for being Jewish in addition to navigating assumptions people make about them because of the color of their skin. In most cases, these assumptions are in conflict with how Jews of color see themselves.
In the first counselor meeting before camp started, we went around the virtual room and said what we thought the purpose of this strange Zoom camp should be. It turns out, we had each independently come to the same conclusion: Camp Be’chol Lashon is a safe haven from the chaos of the outside world, an opportunity for our campers to create a community of their own. All of our programming for the summer was based around that goal.
When I turned on the first Zoom call of camp, I felt that same nervousness that I had felt my first year at in-person camp. This, too, was an entirely new format for me to try to situate myself in––not to mention that this was my first year as a counselor. I would imagine that the campers––both new and old––on my screen felt similarly: How is this going to work? Am I going to make any new friends? Am I going to have any fun?
As it turns out, we had a blast.
What struck me most about these campers was their superhuman optimism. Over the course of this summer I’ve been researching the ways racism is insidious in all institutions. It has brought me to the conclusion that the world is terrible and unsafe in so many ways. Despite being somewhat aware of the world’s assaults against their race and religion, when we got into a conversation about how to save the world, the campers were full of ideas.
One boy immediately listed off a number of different changes we all needed to make: “Everyone needs electric cars, we need to stop eating meat, we have to stop wars…“ It amazed me that the campers remain so sincere in the face of so much negativity. It made me believe even more that they need the space that Camp Be’chol Lashon gives them, a space where they can feel accepted and nurtured and joyful.
They need a space where they can scream over each other to claim the next turn in Dungeons and Dragons––to transform into a mermaid-unicorn hybrid, of course. They need a space where they can jostle one another to answer the trivia question first in Kahoot––apparently kids these days have a wealth of knowledge about James Baldwin.
They need a space that can grow with them and help them–when they’re ready–to gradually tease apart this strange, amorphous thing called identity, and their place within both the Jewish community and the world.
After the Friday afternoon Kabbalat Shabbat service, we had a final meeting with all the campers where we debriefed about our week at virtual camp. I was concerned that maybe they had picked up on all of our little mistakes along the way. And maybe that was my personal anxiety speaking, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We asked them what they liked most about camp, and they pretty much all said “all of it,” which is far and away more praise than I was expecting. One boy said that “it feels good to know that you’re not the only adopted Black person and you get to make friendships out of that.” I mean, how could you hear that and not just melt on the spot?
These kids deserve camp. At the very least, they deserve this one thing—now and for years to come. They deserve a space to try new things and make discoveries about themselves. They deserve to feel safe, nurtured and loved. They deserve everything else in the world.
I want to help make the world better for them, because that’s what Camp Be’chol Lashon did for me, when I was just a little brown girl with braided hair. I hope to see all of them at Walker Creek Ranch next summer.