Campfires, Marshmallows and Acceptance: How Summer Camp Brought a Transgender Revolution

Reform Judaism's resolution on transgender rights commits the movement to 'full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.'

WikiCommons/Sarah Stierch

It all began with an eleven-year-old transgender camper named Hannah. 

Ahead of the summer of 2014, Hannah’s mother Tamar Gendler phoned Louis Bordman, the 55-year-old director of Camp Eisner, the Reform Jewish Movement’s summer camp her child had been attending for the past three years. The purpose of her call: to inform Bordman that her child, whom he knew as a boy called Jonah, had undergone a change in gender identity and called herself Hannah - and that she wished to return to camp for her fourth year the upcoming summer - as a girl, in a girl’s cabin. 

That call transformed Bordman into a pioneer and advocate for transgender acceptance, as Eisner became one of the first U.S. summer camps to fully welcome a transgender camper. In the process, he helped usher the movement to craft the historic resolution that was passed Thursday morning at the 2015 Reform Biennial, which is being hailed by the media and LGBT advocacy groups as the most far-reaching resolution on transgender rights of any major religious organization. 

As much as he felt that Hannah was one of “his kids,” Bordman’s reply to Hannah’s mother didn’t come easily. First, he told her, an extensive process of education and consultation needed to happen. He needed to check with his camp’s board members, and get feedback from the parents of the girls who would be sharing a cabin with Hannah, as well as the organization governing the network of Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) camps and the movement as a whole.

“Everyone had to be in line,” he said. “If one camp was going to accept a transgender child, the entire framework of the URJ needed to ensure that at every step of her life, she would be accepted and embraced. What would happen to her if I had her in a girl’s cabin and then during the year, she came to a youth group event, and she was required to be with the boys?”

Courtesy of the Union for Reform Judaism

The process of pushing the movement to endorse a warm welcome for Hannah at summer camp helped set the stage and “lit the fire” behind the process of initiating the resolution, Bordman said in an interview at the Biennial, the day before the resolution was passed. 

The resolution affirms the URJ’s “commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions” and “recommends URJ congregations and Reform Movement institutions, facilities and events ensure, to the extent feasible, the availability of gender-neutral restrooms and other physical site needs that ensure dignity and safety for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals.” 

It also “urges Reform Movement institutions to review their use of language in prayers, forms and policies in an effort to ensure people of all gender identities and gender expressions are welcomed, included, accepted and respected. This includes developing statements of inclusion and/or non-discrimination policies pertaining to gender identity and gender expression, the use when feasible of gender-neutral language” and “create ritual, programmatic and educational materials” for Reform institutions that are “inclusive and welcoming of people of all gender identities and expressions.”

URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs praised the resolution ahead of its successful approval as “doing the right thing, affirming equal rights, plain and simple," adding that he was “very proud to lead a movement” that would pass it. 

The issue of transgender acceptance and the obligations of institutions to accommodate transgender youth is currently a legal and political hot potato in communities in the United States. Just this week, federal authorities ruled that a school district in suburban Chicago violated the law when it denied a transgender student full access to the girl's locker room – one of a list of complaints made by transgender pupils there.  

In Houston, an Equal Rights Ordinance intended to guarantee equal rights for gay and transgender people and prohibit other forms of discrimination was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in a referendum.

It is not the first time that the URJ has been at the forefront of controversial personal status issues. The Reform movement passed a resolution affirming rights for gays and lesbians back in the 1970’s and was also one of the first religious groups in the United States to endorse marriage equality. Today many Reform congregations are led by gay or lesbian rabbis. There are currently two transgender Reform rabbis and more studying for the rabbinate. Transgender people have been married in Reform synagogues and converted by Reform rabbis, with the movement’s blessing. 

The movement’s rabbinical organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, CCAR, went first, passing a resolution of transgender support resolution last month, calling on all Reform congregations seeking a rabbi to include all candidates in their search regardless of gender identity.

Then it was URJ’s turn. Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. said that it was clear that the time was right. “There was a growing focus on transgender rights, and it became clear as we discussed the camp situation that we were in a thoughtful conversation about how a Jewish community lives its values and we had to take a stand on advocacy and inclusion,” Pesner said. Then in the midst of the decision, “Caitlyn Jenner happened.”

For Bordman, true success wasn’t to be found in a declaration of principle, but in a positive experience for Hannah. During the deliberation process, he met with her family, her therapist and her rabbi to make sure she was able to handle camp, considered the logistical accommodations for bathrooms and showers - and finally, spoke with Hannah herself.  That, he said, was the turning point. “I looked over at her and just seeing this lovely little girl, no different than me sitting next to my own daughter - just this sweet little kid. Every reservation I had just felt so insignificant. I just knew at that moment I would say yes. Nothing else mattered.” 

Hannah successfully attended camp in the summer of 2014, after all the camp’s staff was trained on transgender issues, and returned to Eisner last summer as well. 

Though Bordman said he had been prepared for the worst when it came to the reaction of camp parents, it turned out that after sending letters informing the parents of campers about Hannah, only a handful contacted him in return “and most of those were positive feedback or simply ask for more information.” He was also impressed by the response of his camp’s staff, who underwent sensitivity training in preparation for Hannah’s arrival sponsored by the Jewish LGBT advocacy group Keshet. In addition to being sensitive, they needed to be discreet. Hannah’s status wasn’t a matter of public discussion in camp, and Bordman himself didn’t speak publicly about her until after her second summer, with her parents’ blessing. 

Along the way, Bordman realized he was navigating new territory - at a regional American Camping Association conference before Hannah’s first summer, he had hoped to find guidance from another camp director who had gone through the process. No one else had - or at least no one who was willing to speak about it. 

The following year, after Hannah’s first summer, he was the authority at the ACA conference, helping other camp directors prepare for the possibility of a transgender camper. 

Following the resolution, the numbers will surely grow. In 2015, Hannah’s second camp summer as a girl - she wasn’t alone. There was another transgender camper at Eisner - this time, one who had transitioned from female to male. 

At the northern California URJ Camp Newman, three transgender campers were welcomed, and the staff was trained in the same manner as those at Camp Eisner.