Los Angeles Camp Shalom: LGBT Family Retreat

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Last year, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz covered our LGBT Family Retreat at Camp Shalom. Here’s a translation of an extract of the article. Read the full story in Hebrew here

At Camp Shalom you can have Shabbat Services, sing Jewish songs, go zip-lining and prepare friendship bracelets – just like at every other typical Jewish American summer camp. Once a year, LGBT families gather there for an LGBT Family Retreat where they can connect, talk about being a minority and also have some fun in a Jewish atmosphere.

Camp Shalom is possibly the most Jewish summer camp in the world, not only because it’s been run for more than 50 years in the mountains of Malibu, but mostly because this is a summer camp that was featured in the famous blockbuster ‘American Pie.’

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Bill Kaplan, 48, has been living there for 24 years. He arrived as a boy who went to camp, continued as a guide, and now he’s running the business. This place has changed a lot since its inception in 1951. It’s not just another Jewish summer camp, one of the many that operate in the United States, but it has become a center of Jewish education that plays a significant role in the big and not-so-united Jewish community of Los Angeles. “We’re the Switzerland of the community,” explains Kaplan. “The camp is one of the few organizations that can organize activities for different streams and communities within the Jewish community. Sometimes we even manage to bring here communities that don’t get along together.”

Now they are trying to unite the Jewish LGBT community. Maybe “to unite” is a bit exaggerated in this context, especially since no one will admit that there is really a split or any competition. There are two LGBT synagogues and many other synagogues that have become in recent years “gay friendly” to try to attract Jews from the gay community. Yet, this is an attempt to do something together- to go out together to a summer camp. “We had to put seventeen synagogues’ logos on the camp’s ads, so that no one would think we were trying to steal people,” says Leah Zimmerman, director of educational programs at LGBT Synagogue Beth Chayim Chadashim, one of the co-sponsors of the event.

But maybe it all indicates the special status of the Jewish LGBT community in Los Angeles. Thanks to the Reform movement,  LGBT Jews have become a kind of a hot commodity, something that every synagogue wants to flaunt. It is not clear if this is due to the general competition between synagogues or from the desire to broadcast tolerance and boast about openness. This is a trend that is beginning to break the boundaries of Reform Synagogues. The change is also felt in Conservative synagogues, even if there  are still those who oppose the matter, and the first signs of openness can be identified even in some Orthodox communities.

The idea behind a summer camp for LGBT families is to create an environment that represents this change and allows children of LGBT families to feel comfortable with their Judaism and with their ‘unusual’ families. The families have Shabbat services, sing Jewish songs, read the week’s Torah portion and also talk a little about the issues of the LGBT community. They also receive advice on raising children in different family formats. There are also sport activities and horses and pools and talent competition performances – just like any other summer camp.

You can find all types of families here. Gay couples and lesbian couple and multi-parent families and single parent families. There are adopted kids, kids who were born via surrogacy and kids who were born via co-parenting of gay and lesbian parents – and everything feels completely natural and nothing looks unusual. When 8 – year old Ella runs to her father Joel and asks ‘Where’s mommy and mommy?’, it’s not strange to anyone, and certainly not to Ella.

“We came here to feel that we’re the majority for once. We’re both Jews and an LGBT family; these are still two minorities, so we’re actually a minority within a minority,” says Lisa Blum, one of Ella’s mothers. She brought Ella into the world with her partner of 13 years, Suzanne, and with Joel Kushner, her high school friend, and his partner, David. David and Joel are also parents of 16 year old Eduardo, whom they adopted in Guatamala. “In Ella’s world there are two mothers and two fathers, and for many years she thought that this is what everyone had, until she discovered that it’s not like that and started asking questions,” Blum adds.

“The children in the LGBT community sometimes get confused,” adds Christine, who arrived with her partner Jennifer and their two adopted daughters, “and we have to explain to them that there are all sorts of family models. We talk to them and tell them, but here they just feel it and understand it by themselves. Here you don’t have to explain anything, it’s all natural.”

Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s first synagogue that openly addressed the gay community, was founded in Los Angeles in 1972 by a group of LGBT Jews, who used to visit the Church of the MCC which at the time was visited by members of the American gay community. When the priest tried to find out what actually brought  a bunch of Jews to the church, the Jewish LGBT group decided to set up, with the assistance of the Reform movement, the first gay synagogue.

The leader of the synagogue is Rabbi Lisa Edwards, who also came to visit the camp. “Lots of things have changed in recent years in the LGBT Jewish community,” she says. “Today we are not alone anymore and there are other synagogues who receive the community. Today we have 190 families at BCC and almost all of them are LGBT. There are also some straight families who love the unique atmosphere we provide”.

Rabbi Edwards reveals that “interfaith families led many people to Judaism. These are older people whose religion rejects them and which liberal Judaism is open to. Judaism today is much more open than a lot of other religions, and of course Islam.”

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