While most Jewish summer camps share a commitment to the transmission of Jewish values such as tikkun olam, sustainable living, social justice and inclusivity, Habonim Dror Camp Moshava may be in a class by itself.
A Jewish Socialist Zionist youth movement founded 78 years ago, Habonim Dror has seven kibbutz-style summer camps across North America. Camp Moshava, affectionately known as “Mosh,” engages youngsters in typical camp activities such as swimming, sports, creative arts, Shabbat programming, Israeli dancing and campfires, but it also immerses them in an environment where they “live” the values of kibbutz life — cooperation, shared labor, pioneering, social justice, Zionism and Judaism. In this spirit, campers take part in daily avodah (community chores), tzofiut (outdoor living), anafim (projects) and sadnaot (educational programs).
Hebrew language is integrated into the campers’ daily lives, and leadership development is an important part of the camp milieu, with all members of the community encouraged to take on leadership roles. Each individual is valued for his or her unique qualities and talents as well as his or her contributions to the community.
Avi Edelman of Silver Spring, 23, has been Mosh’s director or rosh for the past two summers. “I’ve been involved with Mosh for 12 or 13 years,” says Edelman. “I grew up there as a camper and a counselor ran the junior counselor program, and then I became the director. What’s true for me is true for most of the staff: Attending Mosh as a child played a big part in my identity development and my commitment to social justice.”
With guidance from the camp’s education director and input from campers, the counselors — all Mosh alumni — create activities and informal learning opportunities for the community based on their own social justice concerns and interests.
“Each summer, the staff creates a curriculum focusing on what they’re passionate about. When they’re passionate, it really translates to the kids,” says Jen Silber, Mosh’s new executive director, who is also an alumnus and a camp parent. “There’s a lot of ruach at camp.”
Sharon Krever-Weisbaum of Canton is a Camp Moshava board member whose husband and three grown sons grew up at the camp. “It’s a really powerful environment for kids. My boys loved the Israel focus, the politics, the youth leadership and empowerment. There’s adult supervision and involvement but not in the traditional way; the adults are sort of behind the scenes.”
Although they’re bunked by age, Krever-Weisbaum says that part of each day is spent in mixed age groups. “I liked that as a parent. There was a lot of mentoring; role modeling and nurturing that went on.”
“It’s informal education infused with social activism and tikkun olam,” Silber explains. “Counselors might facilitate a discussion or activity about gender identity or Israeli social issues or consuming media with a critical eye. It’s not dogmatic; we’re not pushing an agenda. We’re just teaching them to analyze social issues. It’s a safe place for people to share different opinions, and when they do, we have a thoughtful discussion about it.”
“Every session we take the kids out of camp to do a project,” Silber adds. “They might volunteer at a soup kitchen or work with adults with developmental delays. During the year, our Noar Tzedek group [an arm of Moshava’s year-round social justice programming], continues to work on social action projects.
“This year, the group chose to work on the passage of the Dream Act and the marriage-equality act. They studied the issues and made action plans. They were so excited to see both laws pass after all their work. A group of campers from the D.C. area are involved in the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Challenge. The kids have to try living on $5 per day – the average food stamps benefit. This semester, they’ll pick another project.
Moshava’s emphasis on social justice is not limited to projects outside the camp. The community itself has taken a significantly progressive stance on LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) issues, making Mosh an extremely safe and comfortable environment for children, teens and families regardless of gender identification and sexual orientation.
“We provide a lot of gender-empowerment education,” says Edelman. “People are receiving messages early on from parents, schools and the media about what a man or a woman should be, and at a time of life when kids are confronted with these messages, we try to provide a safe space to process them. We have “safe space” signs [indicating that discrimination toward LGBTQ people won’t be tolerated] around camp, and each summer we have a Take Back the Night program [based on the international march and rally that raises awareness about sexual violence] and a gender-empowerment evening.”
In fact, Camp Moshava received the highest rating from the Human Rights Campaign’s Jewish Organizational Equality Index, a tool that evaluates organizations’ programs, policies and practices for their inclusiveness of LGBTQ people. Mosh was highly rated for inclusion, because it uses gender-neutral language on camp health and registration forms and provides age-appropriate programming on gender identity, and for its efforts to create safe spaces for all campers and families.
Of the 94 agencies serving Jewish youth surveyed, the HRC also found that Moshava was one of only five that had an anti-bullying policy that specifically mentioned sexual orientation and gender identity. To make camp even more comfortable for transgender or shy community members, Moshava soon will break ground on a new bathhouse to include a gender-neutral toilet, changing area and shower.
“Because Mosh is not affiliated with any one sect of Judaism, it is also a comfortable place for interfaith and agnostic families, who want their children to learn Hebrew and develop an appreciation for Israeli culture,” says Silber.
Krever-Weisbaum says that the new policies and initiatives for LGBTQ campers and staff are all part of Mosh’s emphasis on making everyone comfortable.
“We were already doing many of these things, but now they’ve been formalized. Mosh is a very accepting place for kids with different strengths and talents,” she says. “I have three sons, two nephews and one niece who all have very different personalities. All of them thrived at this camp. It’s not one size fits all. It’s for all different types of kids – they all find their place.”
Silver agrees: “This is an environment where we celebrate what’s special about each camper. There’s no pressure to look or act a certain way. Each kid is given the message that he or she is valued for his or her unique qualities and his or her inner beauty. “I’m not saying there aren’t problems between kids. But if we find out that someone is being bullied, we support the kid who is being bullied, and we also work with the kid who is doing the bullying to see what is causing the behavior. Whenever possible, we try to make it a growth experience for both of them.”
“Almost 100 percent of the staff grew up here, so there’s an ingrained standard of how to create an inclusive community,” says Edelman.
At Camp Moshava, he adds, “a big goal is meeting the needs of each individual. Our mission is to create a community of engagement and love, where every camper can be their truest self.”
Habonim Dror Camp Moshava is located at 615 Cherry Hill Road in Street, Md. The camp’s year-round office is in Rockville, Md., at 6101 Montrose Road.