In the Wake of a Pandemic, URJ Camps Prioritize Racial Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (REDI)

July 13, 2021Ruben Arquilevich and Yolanda Savage-Narva

As we make the joyous return to camp this summer, many of us are looking forward to seeing old friends, making new ones, as well as attending camp for the very first time!  

In the wake of last year’s racial reckoning, more white people became aware of the somber realities of racism and structural oppression and acknowledged that no community was free from oppression, including our own Jewish communities, congregations, and camps.  The URJ, having already been in the process of an organizational-wide focus on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (REDI), decided that we must further help our camps (and congregations) respond to this reckoning with a thoughtful long-term commitment to creating communities of belonging for campers and staff of all backgrounds. 

Despite the enormous amount of preparation that has gone into ensuring that this summer is as safe as possible from COVID-19 for our campers and staff, we recognize that for all campers to be safe, we must also provide our camp staff with shared language and knowledge around REDI. This includes recognizing and understanding the many ways that our camp communities, despite positive intentions, might unintentionally harm campers and staff with marginalized and often underrepresented identities.   

Over the past year, many of our camps have started the important and necessary work of reflecting inwardly by assembling Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) working groups. These groups comprised of URJ camp staff, camp council, and camp alumni, utilized the URJ Camp DEI Assessment (a version of this assessment is available for congregations/communities as well) to assess each of our camp’s current DEI efforts, and develop a list of goals to work towards. This process propelled each of our camps to take further responsibility for dismantling oppression within, all in service of creating communities of belonging for campers, camp families, and staff of all backgrounds and identities.

This summer, for the first time ever, all URJ camp staff were blessed to attend REDI-focused trainings at camp The URJ REDI/Audacious Hospitality team along with URJ camp staff and REDI consultants created a 2-part training that addresses some of the core concepts of REDI work and takes a hard look at the many different forms of oppression that exist, including but not limited to racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and fatphobia. There is also a heavy emphasis on understanding what microaggressions are, how to identify them, and how to address them at the moment they occur.

Some of our camp staff had attended the REDI trainings on Zoom prior to their physical arrival at camp, and some will be participating in these trainings during their staff orientations. While we are proud of the work that’s being done, we also want to acknowledge that much more is needed now and in the future to ensure that our communities are spaces of belonging for all campers and families.  

In this moment, we can rely on the relevant words from the midrash, “If one says., Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to take part in their disputes? Why should I listen to their voices, I’m fine [without this]?” this person destroys the world (Midrash Tanhuma, Parshat Mishpatin 2).   

We are committed to the long-term process of Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and we are grateful to our camp staff for engaging in this holy work, and our camp families for trusting us with their children. 

A huge part of these efforts can be attributed to our thoughtful partners in this work.  We had the gift of engaging with leaders from a wide range of backgrounds and we would like to thank all of the amazing individuals and consultants, many of whom are part of our URJ camp families

Lauren Alexander, Max Antman, Michael Davis, Caroline Dorn, Bryant Heinzelman, Jill Housen, Emily Ladau, Eliana Rubin, Dayne Samuels, Ilana Samuels, Morgan Tobey, Evan Traylor, Morgan Selkirk, Leah Smith, and Kelly Whitehead

We would also like to thank all of the URJ staff that made this possible: 

Aliza Greenberg, Rachael Brille, Eva Gruenberg, Ethan Lane-Miller, Debbie Locketz, Jill Peltzman, Bruce Raden, and Lori Zlotoff

With contributions from Jaimie Green & Rachel Hall  

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