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I spent last week at Californiaâ€™s Camp Tawonga as the rabbi on staff for their â€śTaste of Campâ€ť (a six-day introduction to the camp experience for kids who arenâ€™t ready for a longer session yet). I overheard two 8- or 9-year-olds getting to know each otherâ€™s backgrounds on the way back to the cabin.
Excitedly, one girl told the other, â€śMy Mom is Jewish and my Dad is Christian. But we are mostly Jewish.â€ť
The other smiled and piped in, â€śIn our house, we are also mixed! We eat some Hebrew food, and some Mexican food.â€ť
This comment cracked me up and reminded me of being a little kid and having other kids ask me, â€śAre you Hanukkah or Christmas?â€ť The conversation went on, comparing which holidays they each celebrate that are â€śHebrewâ€ť and delighting in finding much commonality between their families.
What impressed me most about the conversation was their comfort and ease with the subject. Tawonga is a camp unaffiliated with any particular Jewish denomination, and many kids come from interfaith households. It seemed the perfect place for two kids to explore how they view their backgrounds and make sense of who they are becoming.
I donâ€™t know the full picture of these kidsâ€™ family lives, but I would venture to say that they have been given a great gift: clarity. There is much worry that children with parents from different backgrounds will be confused, especially if the parent who is not Jewish continues to be connected to her or his religious heritage. From my experience working with interfaith families, some children are confused, and othersâ€”not in the least bit. And a lot of that is dependent on how intentional, clear and forthcoming parents are about what their â€śreligious planâ€ť is for the family. When they know how they are planning on affiliating with religions, communicate that effectively to their children and follow through on it, the kids are more likely to feel secure in who they are religiously as wellâ€”regardless of what the plan actually is.
What is the â€śreligious planâ€ť for the little girl who says she is â€śmostly Jewishâ€ť? I donâ€™t know. But I imagine that she is comfortable saying her family is â€śmostly Jewishâ€ť and talking freely about it because they have an idea of how they are living spiritually and have communicated that to her. Perhaps she is being raised Jewishly and being sent to a Jewish camp. But she is also keenly aware that there is more to the story and honors her parent who is not Jewish as a contributor to her emerging identity.
Weâ€™ve all heard about â€śhalf Jews.â€ť And people who say they are â€śpart Jewish,â€ť or â€śa quarter Jewish.â€ť I think these kids just came up with a new category. Mostly Jewish. And proud of it.
Everyone stand in a big circle. If you have a parent who is not Jewish, take a step inside the circle. Stay there. Now, if you are still in the outside circle, and you have a close relative who is not Jewish, take a step inside the circle.Â
Everyone looked around and saw that nearly all of the more than 75 participants had taken a step inside the circle.
And so began InterfaithFamily/Philadelphiaâ€™s Sensitivity Training for counselors at Camp JRF (the Reconstructionist movementâ€™s overnight camp in the Pennsylvania Poconos) for working with children from interfaith homes. This trainingâ€”which I conducted along with my IFF/Philadelphia colleagues Wendy Armon and Robin Warsawâ€”was part of the campâ€™s Inclusivity Training for counselors in the week before campers arrived. It was clear to all of the counselors in attendance that being part of an interfaith family isnâ€™t just a theoretical issue for liberal Jews today, itâ€™s something that touches almost every one of us personally.
Over the next hour, we explored how the counselors could best handle various issues that might come up during the summer. For example, what do you do as a counselor when youâ€™re leading a discussion about God and one of the campers brings up Jesus? The counselors also divided up into small groups and discussed and acted out various scenarios involving interfaith issues, such as how to react when a camper says that she is â€śhalf Jewish and half [another religion]â€ť or when a camper claims that his bunkmate â€śisnâ€™t really Jewish.â€ť
I was amazed at the counselorsâ€™ thoughtfulness and sensitivity, their insight and creativity, and their openness to discussing challenging issues. After the training, the three of us from IFF/Philadelphia had the pleasure of joining the counselors for a healthy and delicious (really!) lunchâ€”which was followed by a rousing song session in which the counselors sang some of the songs theyâ€™ve been learning in advance of the campersâ€™ arrival. Then we were in for a real treat, as the campâ€™s director, Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, took us on a tour (by golf cart) of the camp. We saw how the different activity areas were labeled with signs that looked like Israeli street signs, naming the activity in Hebrew, English and Arabic. A highlight of the tour was the campâ€™s new Eco-Village (designed with the input of campers from the past year), a super cool area where campers entering their freshman and sophomore years of high school will live in yurts.
More than once throughout our day at Camp JRF, we heard someone use the camp expression â€śHow We Be.â€ť At Camp JRF, diversity isnâ€™t just toleratedâ€¦it isnâ€™t just acceptedâ€¦itâ€™s embraced! One thing was clear:Â â€śWe all be differentâ€¦and thatâ€™s wonderful!â€ť Camp JRF is very much a JEWISH camp, but every person at campâ€”counselor or camperâ€”is encouraged to express his or her Judaism in a way that is personally meaningful. And each person understands that he or she has to respect how others â€śbe.â€ť Thereâ€™s no â€śone size fits all.â€ť Each individual is unique, and that makes for a vibrant camp community.
I have no doubt that the campers who attend Camp JRF this summer will have an amazing time. Theyâ€™ll swim and play Frisbee; dance and sing; make new friends and have all kinds of exciting and rewarding experiences. If theyâ€™re going into ninth or tenth gradeâ€”theyâ€™ll even get to live in a yurt! But most important, theyâ€™ll know that theyâ€™re living in a community where their uniqueness is embraced and they are accepted for who they are, as they are. And THAT is a great way to â€śbe.â€ť