Tawonga to offer first family camp for gays, lesbians

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Hoping to draw families who have shied away from attending summer camps, Camp Tawonga is introducing a weekend for lesbian and gay families this fall.

Called Keshet Camp, the Oct. 1 to 3 getaway at Tawonga's site near Yosemite National Park may be the first Jewish camp of its kind in the country. So far, directors say, the reception has been enthusiastic.

"This will be a unique opportunity to be in the majority," said Deborah Newbrun, the camp's originator and director, who is herself a lesbian and a mother. "There's something comforting about being around similar families."

"Keshet," which is Hebrew for "rainbow," plans to limit enrollment to 40 families. Newbrun, who also is Tawonga's director, said 26 families had signed up so far. She expects a waiting list.

Though Tawonga has run spring and fall weekend family camps for years, directors noticed that they weren't attracting as many nontraditional families as they'd hoped.

"Camp Tawonga has always been a completely inclusive camp. But in the family camp setting, we just noticed that people were self-selecting themselves out, even though we were casting the net out as far as possible," said Ken Kramarz, Tawonga's executive director.

A couple of years ago, Tawonga started a family camp for single parents. Next came a bereavement camp for families who had lost a member. Both were an immediate success.

"People say, 'We get tired of explaining ourselves to other families,'" Kramarz said.

"In these specialty camps, people don't have to explain themselves. People are in the same situation. It's sort of an exciting thing to learn how you can create new experiences for people and then they come and it becomes part of our permanent roster of programs."

Funding for the camp includes an $18,000 grant from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund .

The weekend will feature Shabbat dinner and a havdallah celebration. Keshet will offer other familiar camp activities such as arts and crafts, archery, swimming and canoeing — along with sessions that likely will include discussions on single-gender families and ways to celebrate their lifestyles and Judaism simultaneously. Enrollment is open, and Newbrun expects that some "straight" families will attend.

Julie Moed, Shelley Eisenman and their two preschool-aged children have already signed up for the weekend. Moed, a Pacifica resident and director of youth and family services for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, said her family has attended other family camps in the past.

"For me, personally, I'm comfortable in all kinds of settings," she said. But she jumped at the chance to come to Keshet because "it really is a very special opportunity to be in a relaxed environment where you're not going to get any funny questions about your family structure.

"I guess the biggest appeal to me is for my children, where they have their own family modeled back to them." She also likes the fact that the camp is Jewish. "It feels really nice that a Jewish institution is making this welcoming opportunity."

Until now, the only other local camp for so-called alternative families has been a secular program called Camp It Up!, which leases the city of Berkeley's Tuolumne Camp for a week. Director Jill Rose says her 10-year-old program welcomes the competition of another camp catering to gay and lesbian families.

"This has been such an invisible and forgotten population," she said. "The more choice they have, the better."

Although there may be critics of such camps, Newbrun hasn't heard from any.

"I think that people who feel critical of Tawonga's stance to gay and lesbian families just don't come," she said.

Newbrun, her partner — Rabbi Sydney Mintz of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El — and their 3-year-old son have attended Tawonga's regular family camp. Still, she expects that Keshet will have a special meaning for her family.

"I think there's something about giving your kid the gift of fitting in."