During a sing-along session at Camp Interlaken in Eagle River about six years ago, the lyrics on one song instructed girls and boys to physically separate. Another song split up boys from girls by their singing voice.
The lyrical segregation did not sit well with camp officials at the Steve & Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken JCC, who responded by changing the first song to kickers and jumpers and the second to high and low singers, removing gender.
“It was a big deal. It was a big deal because it was one of our first moves into this arena,” said Toni Davison Levenberg, director of the camp. “It was one of our first things that we did to talk about gender inclusion in camp.”
After the change was made, a camper who had recently changed their pronouns and their first name, approached Davison with tears in their eyes and thanked her.
They “said, for the first time, I feel like camp sees me. And I’ve always felt like I belonged here. But I really right now feel like you see me,” Davison recalled.
Responding to similar concerns voiced by LGBTQ campers and staffers alike over the last two decades, Interlaken officials recently created a gender inclusion policy for the camp that serves 500 campers a year on a 106-acre site affiliated with the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.
“We wanted to put a policy on paper, about our philosophy of b’tselem elohim, a Jewish value that we are all created in the image of God,” Davison said. The policy “was an affirmation of our existing commitment to inclusion. Because it wasn’t written, and it wasn’t stated, people didn’t know how we stood and how we would approach gender inclusion.”
The policy addresses several practice and operation areas such as registration, confidentiality and pronouns and names as they relate to gender.
“We recognize that our returning campers may come to camp with a different name, pronouns, or gender than the summer prior. In that case, camp will direct all staff to use the person’s chosen name and appropriate pronouns,” the policy said.
The policy also addresses housing, allowing for cabin assignments to be made by gender identity instead of sex assigned at birth. As far as facilities, the campers are “welcome to use the washhouse” of the gender they identify, the policy said, noting that bathroom stalls are private and lockable, and showers are individual with curtains.
In addition, the policy notes that camp leadership and staff have worked to remove gendered language at camp and continue to explore camp programs and traditions where this language might unintentionally create a feeling of exclusion.
Davison said the goal of the camp is to send kids home a better version of themselves at the end of the summer.
“This is one more piece to how we are creating inclusive children, teens and adults to be our future leaders,” she said. “This is one more way that we are creating the best version of ourselves.”
During the summer of 2020, a social justice tikkun olam (world repair) committee of about 20 members was created. It was split into two subcommittees, one to discuss race and the other to talk about gender inclusion, sexuality and belonging.
The subcommittee on inclusion was charged with making sure there were policies and procedures in place and that the camp’s practices were aligned, Davison said.
The process was informed by the camp’s affiliation with several organizations that deal with gender issues, such as Moving Traditions in Philadelphia and through educational and training initiatives with the Foundation for Jewish Camp with the JCC Association of North America, Davison noted.
Davison said that she believes that the new policy is comprehensive.
“I’m sure we’ll learn that there’s something that we missed that we’ll add and edit,” she said. “You learn along the way, and you edit and adjust as necessary.”
The feedback from parents and alumni has been “very positive.” A small number of negative responses have been alleviated with education, Davison said.
“For us, this is what’s right and this is what aligns with our values. And we truly live them,” Davison said.