How one Jewish Camp considered and approved policies on transgender campers

BB Camp's process to ensure new policies work within the camp's mission and core values

Over the past few years, has your camp been wondering how to best address the needs of transgender campers? 

This case study might help you see what another camp has accomplished and the process they used. Their policy might, at first reading, seem like a surprising conclusion, but it is rooted in the camp’s core values. You can read their policy here

B’nai B’rith Camp (BB Camp), located on the Oregon Coast, is an independent, pluralistic camp and an independent member of JCCA. Over the past decade, the camp has used strategic planning to affirm their mission, vision, and values. They have adopted their decades-old tag line “Building Friendships for Life” as a guiding principle and central tenet to everything they now do.  

“Building Friendships for Life” is evident in camper reflections: 

“When I am at camp I feel like I can be myself.” 

“My closest friends are my camp friends.”

“I feel accepted here.”

Staff ensure camp is “Building Friendships for Life” by creating a warm, welcoming, and inclusive environment for campers where they feel safe, accepted, and wanted in the camp community.  

This brings us to the focus of this article: What process did the Board use, and what policies did the Board put in place, to guide the organization in affirming a warm, welcoming, and inclusive environment for all campers, including transgender campers?

Michelle Koplan, Executive Director of BB Camp said it was a careful and deliberate process that involved the Board in many conversations over time. For the Board, it started at the January 2018 Board meeting in which Shayna Sigman, MSW, Inclusion Coordinator, presented a short educational presentation to simply introduce the importance of serving transgender youth.  After months of extensive research into the best practices for addressing the special needs of transgender students, Shayna then prepared proposed statements and procedures for the Board to read, review, and discuss without the expectation of a decision at the February day long Board retreat. 

The Board retreat provided an opportunity for open and nonjudgmental discussion among Board members, many of whom were unfamiliar with experiences of transgender young people and the implications for camp, campers, and parents. Board members were able to ask questions and identify what they needed to more fully understand the suggested policies. 

Following the Board retreat and over the next few months, Michelle and Shayna sent Board members articles and supporting documents by email to read and consider, and participated in several one-one-one meetings with Board members to answer direct questions. 

At the May 2018 Board meeting, time was set aside again for more discussion and to identify additional Board member questions. The Board even set up a virtual Zoom meeting with experts through Keshet to answer questions and verify that best practices were being employed. After careful consideration, the Board approved new policies and changes to the Parent handbook, as well as an approach to roll out the new policies.  
  Within 24 hours of the announcement to families, parent feedback was uniformly positive.  For example:

“This is in alignment with the values we teach at home and I think it’s very mindful to spell everything out so clearly. I appreciate the information and will review the content with our camper. Thank you.”
“Thank you Ben [Camp Director]. I am excited for Logan and Lily about the inclusive philosophy of [BB Camp] the camp, the digital vacation aspect and so much more. Warm regards and thank you!”

Most importantly for BB Camp was how these new policies supported the camp’s goal of “Building Friendships for Life.” A friend of Jordana Levenick, President of the BB Camp Board, has a young transgendered child. Her friend asked Jordana, “Do you think sleepover camp could ever be an option for our child?” She only wanted what any other parent seeks: a warm and welcoming environment where their child can feel safe, accepted, and free to build friendships for life. 

Jordana could confidently and honestly answer her friend that “not only would BB Camp welcome your family, but we’ve been waiting for you.