The resignation of the executive director of one of the world’s largest Jewish camp networks amid multiple allegations of sexual impropriety once again brings the #MeToo movement to the Jewish community.
Several women around the country have come forward with claims that they reported Leonard Robinson to the Jewish organizations where they worked together decades ago. Nevertheless, he rose in the ranks, eventually heading up NJY Camps. Early in his career, Robinson worked on the West Coast, including as the executive director of Seattle’s Jewish Community Center in the late 1970s.
The Jewish community has been as susceptible to sexual abuse — and cover-ups — as the rest of the country. Shira Kaufman, a women’s rights lawyer and native Seattleite, says that many harassment and assault claims over the years have gone unreported or have been kept private. (See her Three Opinions piece in our April-–May 2018 issue on this topic.) But with the emergence of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, more attention is being paid to sexual harassment, assault, and unhealthy sexual behavior — like “hookup culture” — at Jewish camps, on Israel trips, in youth groups, and in the Jewish professional world.
Jewish summer camps in particular have been stepping up. The Foundation for Jewish Camp — a national nonprofit that works with more than 180 camps — is investing an initial $100,000 toward the Shmira Initiative. (“Shmira” means “guard duty” in Hebrew.) Participating programs will have training in preventing sexual harassment and abuse, identifying and reporting sexual misconduct, and creating programs to change camp culture and the language around sexuality and gender expression.
Zach Duitch, executive director of Camp Solomon Schechter in Tumwater, Washington, hopes that his camp will participate in the Shmira Initiative once it is rolled out. “Every day at camp, we teach and practice the Jewish values of ‘hachnasat orchim’ [welcoming guests] and ‘kavod’ [respect],” he says. Three years ago, the Union for Reform Judaism retooled its camp training programs to include expert-led sessions on anti-harassment standards and sexual abuse prevention. David Berkman, the director of URJ Camp Kalsman in Arlington, Washington, says that all URJ camps have special training to ensure that camp culture is welcoming, respectful, and sets clear boundaries for appropriate behavior.
“It is all about having a healthy community in which community members are
safe physically and emotionally.”
“The expectation is that our staff models this attitude with their peers on staff and their campers,” he says. “It is all about having a healthy community in which community members are safe physically and emotionally.”
Increased awareness over sexual misconduct and discrimination has camps seeking to create a safe space for LGBTQ campers, too. B’nai B’rith Camp (BB Camp) in Neotsu, Oregon, was recently selected to be part of the JCC Association-Keshet Leadership Project, which trains Jewish camps to be more sensitive, aware, and welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
As part of the program, BB Camp’s director Ben Charlton and inclusion coordinator Shayna Sigman traveled to New York in March for training, which included studying traditional texts with LGBTQ themes; Jewish values related to being an LGBTQ-inclusive community; vocabulary around gender, sexuality, and biological sex; and a framework for thinking about their organization as an inclusive space. They will have bimonthly check-ins with an assigned mentor from Keshet, a nonprofit that works for the equality and inclusion of LGBTQ Jews.
“We have become aware that, while we might know that we are inclusive, families with LGBTQ family members might not,” Sigman says. “We have a new awareness around the need to put ourselves out there in a more intentional way.”
Kaufman is encouraged by this conscious shift toward awareness and inclusion. “Social norms, repeat interactions, and the threat of repercussion and being ostracized really work most effectively when you have a smaller community, like ours,” she says. “If people could change this awareness, then I think the Jewish community could be a model for change.
Resources for LGBTQ inclusion
• GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight
• Human Rights Campaign
• National Center for
Resources for victims of sexual harassment and assault
• NO MORE
• National Sexual Violence
• It’s On Us