Summer camp in California gives Jewish children of color a haven to be different together

PETALUMA, California (AP) — One camper, from Oakland, California, has a white Jewish mother and a father who is Black and Muslim. Another was adopted in Uganda by a white Jewish woman; they now live in Montana.

Like many of the young people who shared challenges and adventures with them this summer, they grew up often feeling like outliers — and then found a near-magical comfort zone at Camp Be’chol Lashon in the rolling hills of California’s Marin County. Its founders say it’s the only sleepaway summer camp specifically serving Jewish children of color, creating a safe space for candid conversations on race and identity.

Isaac Harrison, the 10-year-old from Oakland, went to a traditional Jewish summer camp last year and said he was bullied by some campers for being Black.

“There were no kids of color there,” he said, “Some kids kept saying that you can’t be both Black and Jewish. They said that you can’t be two things. They were just being really mean, but here no one’s mean like that.”

Isaac’s mother, Jennifer Harrison, was relieved to find Camp Be’chol Lashon.

“If camp this summer didn’t work out, we were going to be done with Jewish camps,” she said. “My child was suffering.”

Over the past 14 years the camp has offered children like Isaac a haven where they don’t have to explain their identity or downplay a part of who they are. It functions as an extended family for campers who are often the only Jewish child of color in their hometown or treated more as a curiosity than a full-fledged member of Jewish or Black communities.

Most Black Americans identify as Christian. Several of the campers recalled uncomfortable encounters with Christians trying to proselytize them.

“If it’s just Black people and you say that you’re Jewish, they just don’t get it,” says Baileigh Davis, 11, of Houston, who is the third generation of Black Jews in her family.

The U.S. Jewish population remains overwhelmingly homogenous in its racial makeup, with 92% of adults identifying as white, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey. But there are signs the nation’s Jews are becoming more diverse, especially among younger generations. Compared to 8% of all Jewish adults, 15% of those ages 18 to 29 identified with a nonwhite category.

At the camp, each morning begins with a lesson on global Jewry. For example, there’s Pirate Day, when campers learn about Jews who were expelled to the Caribbean during the Spanish inquisition and found livelihoods as pirates.

Some of the campers have Jamaican heritage, including Josiah Spencer, 15, grandson of camp founder Diane Tobin and son of Sarah Weinberg, the camp director.

“It’s like a family and having been here makes people more comfortable when they’re not here,” said Josiah, who attends a Jewish day school in San Francisco.

When the camp opens, each child gets a booklet called Passport to Peoplehood, with questions about their nationality, ethnicity and favorite foods. Asked if another language besides English is spoken at home, hands shot up — answers included Spanish, Zulu, Swahili and Bulgarian.

Although most campers this summer were from northern California, other home states included Texas, Montana and New Jersey; one came from South Africa.

“We were looking for a place where (Isaac) could celebrate both of his identities,” said Rashad Harrison, Isaac’s father. “There are very few African American spaces where Judaism is embraced.”

At the end of one busy day, campers gathered in the art room, surrounded by projects like the mezuzahs and menorahs they had made at camp. That night’s game was “Jewpardy,” with questions reflecting the diversity of Jews, including Black Jewish musicians such as Drake.

After evening s’mores, in the flickering light of a campfire, 8-year-old Abey Levine belted out a rendition of, “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars. Cheering campers hoisted him atop their shoulders. Abey, short for Abraham, is white and Jewish from New Orleans; he attended camp with his brother Major, 10, who is Black and Jewish.

“We searched all over the country for Jewish camps that had diversity,” says their mother, Vanessa Levine.

Later that night the group gathered in a circle by the firepit, arms around one another, swaying as their voices rose together in a Hebrew prayer, asking God to watch over them.

On several days, the 60 campers ages 7 to 18 crossed a wooden drawbridge, passed grassy hillsides and reached a lake that many of them leapt into. Some tried to catch fish with homemade poles.

On Saturday mornings, the campers got to sleep in, then wore white outfits to a Shabbat service, where Sarah Weinberg led them through prayers and stressed the importance of taking care of one another.

“It feels like we are all together — we are different but the same at the same time,” said camper Okech Odola, 13, who lives in New Jersey. Odola’s father is Ethiopian, and at camp, a half dozen campers who were adoptees from Ethiopia met for the first time.

“It’s important to me to stay in contact with my Ethiopian culture,” said Ruby Beerman, 14, of Marin County. “It’s been really good to meet other people that have similar stories.”

“When I was younger, I felt so alienated and so alone. I get told every day that you’re different, you don’t belong here, because I’m part of so many different minorities,” she said. “And here is kind of a place where everybody belongs to a lot of those minorities. … Not everybody is the same here, but we’re all different together.”

Satya Sheftel-Gomes, 22, has been coming to the camp since she was 11. Now a counselor, she says the curriculum focuses on Jews of color.

“Every day we go across the map and show all the places Jewish people have lived,” she said. “We don’t do that in other Jewish institutions.”

“My grandmother is well known in the San Francisco Jewish community. My grandfather is Black and so is my dad,” Sheftel-Gomes said. “That’s part of why camp is so important, to give me the language to identify what I was experiencing without knowing why.”

“Early on when I had less connections, it really felt like I was one in a million,” she added, “Now I know that’s not the case.”

Be’chol Lashon, which means “in every language” in Hebrew, views its mission as honoring the global nature of the Jewish people.

“There are Jews in Africa, Jews in Iraq, Jewish people in China and India,” said Weinberg. “It’s only in the U.S., where a majority of Jewish people are of Eastern European descent, that Jewish equaled white.”

Apiyo Bocast, an 11-year-old wearing turquoise beads in her hair, was adopted in Uganda and lives with her mother in Bozeman, Montana. She has been exhilarated by camp, including a morning lesson about a community in Uganda which has practiced Judaism for more than 100 years.

“It makes me feel more welcome into the world,” said Apiyo.

Many of the campers identify as mixed race. Aesa Masliyah, 16, of Oakland, represents multiple heritages; his grandparents were Iraqi, Israeli, Ashkenazi, Jamaican and Dominican.

“There’s not one type of Jew, every Jew doesn’t look the same, and there’s not just one way to practice Judaism,” said Jonah Tobin, 25, of San Francisco, counselor and son of founder Diane Tobin. She was inspired to found Be’chol Lashon, the organization behind the camp, after adopting Jonah into her family of six.

The camp incorporates aspects of Jewish practice such as lighting candles for Shabbat and Havdalah, the ceremony to close out the Sabbath day. That ceremony also marked the end of the two-week camp session.

Shortly before sunset the group gathered around a pole with words of peace written in multiple languages including Hebrew, English, and Spanish. Campers embraced as the Havdalah candle was lit, hugging their new friends tight. Most planned on returning next summer.

For Isaac Harrison and his family, the camp has offered a new hope for the future.

“You send your baby somewhere and hope. And the fact that here there was so much representation, it means everything,” said Jennifer Harrison, mother of the child who was once told he couldn’t be two things. “Now he can go through life knowing how much of his experience, and the way he is, and who he is, is also out there.”


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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