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Why You Probably Won't Have Racial Microaggressions At This Jewish Summer Camp

Lilah, Shoshana, and Georgie outside of their bunk.
Lilah, Shoshana, and Georgie outside of their bunk.

Editor's note: We are only using the campers first names for fear of retribution against minors.

When Kenya Edelhart was in fourth grade, her teacher looked at the Star of David necklace Edelhart wore around her neck and said, "That's not funny. Religion isn't something to joke about." This was not the first or the last time that Kenya's identity as a Black Jewish person was questioned. Before she began attending Camp Be'chol Lashon in 2010—the only camp in the country designed for Jewish kids of color—she'd only ever met one other Black Jew.

In an art activity, Tewa carves an Ethiopian flag: the country she was born in.
/ Rachel Wisniewski
In an art activity, Tewa carves an Ethiopian flag: the country she was born in.

Meeting other Jewish kids of color, she says, was "wholesome." "Camp was definitely the first time where it's like, 'Ok, I'm not the only one that has these problems; I'm not the only one who's being questioned. It's a wholesome feeling being around people who understand," she said

Sophia and Sylvie rest on Tewa at the pool.
/ Rachel Wisniewski for NPR
Sophia and Sylvie rest on Tewa at the pool.

Jewish people make up two percent of the American population, while eight percent of that already small number say they belong to another racial or ethnic group, according to the Jewish Americans in 202o report from the Pew Research Center.

When Be'chol Lashon (the camp's parent non-profit, which means "in every language" in Hebrew) was founded 21 years ago, it was with the intention to create a safe haven for this minority. Diane Tobin was inspired to create Be'chol Lashon after adopting her son Jonah in 1997. When Tobin, who is white, took Jonah, who is Black, to Jewish community events in San Francisco, it was immediately apparent that he was the only person of color in attendance.

Ruby plays volleyball in the pool.
/ Rachel Wisniewski
Ruby plays volleyball in the pool.

With Be'chol Lashon, Tobin hoped that other Jewish kids of color, like her son, could "have a sense of community amongst themselves so that, when they go into mainstream Jewish spaces where the majority of people are white, they know that they're not the only ones [of color]; that there's a whole community of them that support each other."

Sophia, a counselor-in-training from Denver, Colorado, goes horseback riding with assistance from a staff member of the horse ranch.
/ Rachel Wisniewski
Sophia, a counselor-in-training from Denver, Colorado, goes horseback riding with assistance from a staff member of the horse ranch.

In a year fraught with racial injustice and rising anti-Semitism, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic, Tobin was torn over whether or not to hold Camp Be'chol Lashon at all.

"It would've been easy not to have camp," she admitted.

Camp was held virtually last year and, this year, the campground that Be'chol Lashon typically rents closed indefinitely due to the pandemic, leaving Tobin scrambling to find a new campsite. But, at the last minute, Tobin was able to secure property for the camp at Cloverleaf Ranch, a horse ranch in Santa Rosa, California. Tobin hopes to be back at the original camp site next year but is open to other possibilities.

Kenya, Zohara, Maia, Satya, Ollie, Natalie, and Kaila say Hebrew prayers while lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday evening.
/ Rachel Wisniewski
Kenya, Zohara, Maia, Satya, Ollie, Natalie, and Kaila say Hebrew prayers while lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday evening.

In the final week of July before camp was set to open, during a Zoom orientation for the camp's counselors, the stress of the last year finally gave way to hope. During the meeting, Tobin's daughter, Sarah Weinberg, was adamant that the camp would be an opportunity to bring kids together during one of the most tumultuous times in their lives.

"Fears and atrocities can coincide with hope and love and kindness," she said.

The confident sentiment was echoed by Shekhiynah Larks, former camper and current Program Coordinator at Be'chol Lashon. Larks, who is Black, said, "This [camp] is a week where I probably will not experience any racial microaggressions for a week."

Campers take a trail ride around the ranch.
/ Rachel Wisniewski for NPR
Campers take a trail ride around the ranch.

Unlike most other sleep-away camps, where attendees drive in from the tri-state area, Be'chol Lashon's forty campers flew in from as far as Colorado, New York, Maryland, Ohio, and Illinois. Campers range in age from 8 to 17 and are Black, Latino, Asian, and Middle Eastern.

Some campers are kids of color adopted into white Jewish families; others are mixed-race; and still others were born to parents that are also Jews of color. Many campers had never been to a sleep-away camp before and had also, like Kenya Edelhart, never met any other Jews of color outside of their own families.

Ollie films a video of Ella in the girls bunk.
/ Rachel Wisniewski
Ollie films a video of Ella in the girls bunk.

Over the course of the week, camp attendees rode horses, practiced archery, and zip-lined across the ranch. They did arts and crafts, braided each others' hair, and learned Hebrew prayers for Shabbat services. When the chlorine in the pool was too low to permit swimming on the first day of camp, Be'chol Lashon's leadership team checked local hardware stores and Amazon in an effort to hurriedly replenish the chemical. To explain the urgency of the situation and the importance of swimming access, Larks pointed to the racial history of segregated American swimming pools. The pool mishap (which, fortunately, was resolved by day two) perfectly exemplifies the two worlds that collide at Camp Be'chol Lashon: an idyllic Americana summer experience, and the reality of being a person of color in the U.S.

Zohara, Jacob, Solomon and Abelli play basketball together before dinner.
/ Rachel Wisniewski
Zohara, Jacob, Solomon and Abelli play basketball together before dinner.

These worlds continued to coexist in a program Tobin led called "Passport to Peoplehood." In the art activity, campers were given paper passport booklets that they filled out with personal statistics such as their favorite food, how many pets they owned, and how they identify their race and religion.

Shekhiynah Larks holds a lizard she found on the ranch.
/ Rachel Wisniewski
Shekhiynah Larks holds a lizard she found on the ranch.

As they decorated the fronts of their booklets with drawings of cats, horses, and stars, Larks read aloud from the book "Let's Talk About Race," by the Black Jewish author Julius Lester. The book, which teaches kids about identity and intersectionality, states, "Your race is not all that you are." The following day, a conversation between a group of teenage girls switched, within minutes, from which "type" of boys they find attractive, to how being adopted affects their mental health.

And in moments of homesickness throughout the week, the camp's counselors (former campers themselves) offered experience and comfort—wiping tears, giving hugs, and teaching breathing techniques.

Josie, who is of Ethiopian descent, practices a handstand.
/ Rachel Wisniewski
Josie, who is of Ethiopian descent, practices a handstand.

In reflecting upon this year's camp experience, Diane says, "Even as we were planning camp and the news cycle was shifting to be more negative [on issues of racial injustice and the global pandemic], I was actually surprised at how many people were willing to send their kids to camp and even to fly them [from across the country] to go to camp.

And the parents were very committed and very enthusiastic about it. And I just think that was certainly a testimony to us of how important this is."

Talia and Josie link arms on the last day of camp as they express how sad they are to say goodbye to their new friends.
/ Rachel Wisniewski
Talia and Josie link arms on the last day of camp as they express how sad they are to say goodbye to their new friends.

Eleven years after she first set foot at Camp Be'chol Lashon, Edelhart stays involved and leads by example as a camp counselor. At 19, she no longer wears the necklace from elementary school. Instead, she wears a single black Star of David earring in her left ear.

"Do you want to know why I got it?" she prompted. "Because people kept telling me I wasn't Jewish!" She hopes that, in the future, kids like her won't have to explain themselves or "prove" that they're really Jewish. "Although all of the congregations that I have been a part of have been warm and welcoming," she says, "I've only truly felt at home at [Camp Be'chol Lashon]."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kenya Edelhart wears a Star of David earring in her left ear. She's worn it every day for the past three years because people kept telling wasn't Jewish.
/ Rachel Wisniewski
Kenya Edelhart wears a Star of David earring in her left ear. She's worn it every day for the past three years because people kept telling wasn't Jewish.