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This California camp lets Jews of Color like me just be ourselves

Have you ever heard the woods sing “B’tzelem Elohim”?

The whistle between trees carries the melody. The acoustics of boulders amplify the reach of the lyrics: “When I reach out to you and you to me/We become B’tzelem Elohim.”

It is in the divine image — B’tzelem Elohim — when an intergenerational and multiracial group of Jews gather, if only for a weekend. It’s incredibly spiritual when you can just be with other Jews of Color without having to explain your existence.

California’s Camp Tawonga is a place where that happens, yet I never knew about it until last year. I met its assistant director, Kiyomi Gelber, in January 2020 at the Jews of Color retreat of Bend the Arc’s Selah Leadership Program. I had told her I had never been to overnight camp. She spoke with excitement about this one, describing a summer oasis near Yosemite, and you could see joy take shape in her eyes. She told me one day I’d get to experience its beauty.

She delivered on that promise last summer when she invited me to be a guest educator at its September Families of Color camp. I accepted, and found myself driving on a winding, one-lane (if that) mountain road with the harrowing adventure of getting lost and having to go back the way I came — in reverse.

Yet it all proved worth it when I entered Tawonga’s expansive space. Outside its gates, the impact of the summer’s wildfires was visible, but within the hidden valley of the camp, you’d never know it happened. There, a lush landscape, towers of trees, a light-dazzling lake and a mountaintop through which the setting sun peeked all set the stage for the fulfilling weekend to come.

Here, I would join over 15 families in the middle of the woods with no cell phone reception.

Five minutes in, I realized I didn’t need it. Along with the beauty of the camp was the beauty of the families displaying a myriad of identities: different ethnicities, sexualities, genders, parenthood statuses, and more. Soon enough, I saw the Jewish community I had always dreamed of.

Awaiting that array of people was a bounty of experiences to fill our unscheduled time. Like typical camps, there was swimming, hiking, archery and paddle boating. We ate meals under a large — and occasionally bat-filled — tent between the trees and sang Shabbat songs in a wooden amphitheater with stunning valley views.

That may have been what I expected for a camp, but educationally and spiritually, it was so much more. Analucía Lopezrevoredo of Project Shamash and Jewtina y Co. led a discussion about teshuvah and communal repair, and building a welcoming community through a lens of latinidad. Social work educator David McCarty-Caplan provided tools for becoming a compassionate and vulnerable parent. Kimmy Dueñas, a healer and mindfulness teacher, led body movement workshops that weaved in our experiences as multiracial Jews. Ilana Kaufman of the Jews of Color Initiative held a brilliant Torah study about Moses. Be’chol Lashon’s Lindsey Newman helped all of us, particularly the children, discover the Jewish diaspora around the world. All comprised a buffet of soulful experiences, leaving each person with a deeper connection to their Jewish identity.

And my sessions? I focused on achieving liberation through intersectionality, self-love and food. To illustrate the power of food in our cultures and history, I pointed to kale — and passed out kale chips. The power green has been a staple in African dishes for centuries, long before those chips hit the shelves at Whole Foods. We shared the hardships of our intersectional identities, and ways to navigate multiple communities without a blueprint. We tapped into Jewish values to gain self-love. Pikuach Nefesh commands us to save a life, we must be able save ourselves too.

Not everyone could explore all of those offerings. How often do you get to be in a space where you want to attend every workshop at the same hour because each topic relates to your identity and lived experience? That was the wonderful challenge of Camp Tawonga. As the kids played in their pods with the camp counselors — whose diverse identities reflected their own — the adults joined every workshop they could.

This pivotal and traditional Jewish experience became ours uniquely, especially for the children. It was interesting to watch how they shifted over the four days together. They clearly were nervous when they arrived, having spent a full year isolated from many other kids due to the pandemic. With masked faces and curious eyes, they explored new relationships that left them crying for each other when the weekend came to a close.

Many stories written by Jews of Color, including myself, discuss our “othered“ experiences in Jewish spaces and our non-traditional pathways to creating community. It’s a testament to our resilience and ability to carve out space that wasn’t made for us. But we also have stories of belonging — where we can just be — and with places like Camp Tawonga, they’re finally being written. I’m grateful to write this one.

Jordan Daniels is a Black/Jewish/Queer writer of fashion, belonging, liberation and LGBTQ+ experiences. His work has appeared on the JTA, EJewishPhilanthropy, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and other media outlets.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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