Shabbat services at the inaugural Jewish Families of Color Weekend at Camp Tawonga, Sept. 2021. (Photo/Courtesy Tawonga)
Shabbat services at the inaugural Jewish Families of Color Weekend at Camp Tawonga, Sept. 2021. (Photo/Courtesy Tawonga)

‘Breath of fresh air’: Camp Tawonga weekend for Jewish families of color coming up Aug. 25-28

Last September, David McCarty-Caplan and his family drove up from Southern California to Camp Tawonga in the Stanislaus National Forest near Yosemite for a weekend of activities organized for Jewish families of color like his.

McCarty-Caplan was born in Colombia and identifies as a Latino, adopted Jew. He said he, his wife, Shannon, and their two young sons experienced so much joy during the course of the weekend, as they met others with complex identities and enjoyed the natural beauty surrounding them.

“It was a space where we could be ourselves without some of the concerns or worries or discomforts that can come from being a Jew of color in traditionally white Jewish spaces,” McCarty-Caplan, 41, told J. He described the program as “a breath of fresh air” and signed his family up to return this summer as soon as registration opened.

The second Jewish Families of Color Weekend will take place Aug. 25-28, and so far, 29 families have registered. That’s double the number of families who attended last year, according to event co-director Kiyomi Gelber. To participate, families must include at least one person of color. (White people who belong to such families are also welcome.) Spots are still open, and financial aid is available. Visit Tawonga’s website for more details and to register.

It feels so inspiring to see young kids getting to be in Jewish spaces where they look around and people are speaking Spanish and people are brown and Black.

For Gelber, who has both Japanese and Jewish heritage, organizing the weekend has been a labor of love. “I feel so passionate about creating this space that I didn’t have for a long time,” she said, noting that she began working at Tawonga as a 19-year-old counselor. (Now, at 37, she is Tawonga’s associate director.) “It feels so inspiring to see young kids from the age of 2 onward getting to be in Jewish spaces where they look around and people are speaking Spanish and people are brown and Black.”

Staffed by Tawonga counselors who have undergone sensitivity training, the Jewish Families of Color Weekend grew out of the camp’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, which was launched in 2019. As part of the initiative, Gelber had conversations about how to create antiracist Jewish spaces with McCarty-Caplan and Jordan Daniels, a Black, Jewish and queer writer. The three met in 2020 in the Selah Leadership Program, which is offered by the progressive Jewish nonprofit Bend the Arc.

“Tawonga has been on a journey around racial justice,” Gelber explained. “We have been focusing on organizational change and really working to center and empower people of color in our community. This weekend is in line with our work to make sure people of color feel seen.”

The Jewish Families of Color Weekend is the second “affinity space” for specific identity groups that Tawonga holds each summer. Since 1998, the camp has hosted a weekend for LGBTQ Jewish families in conjunction with Keshet. (This summer, the Keshet LGBTQ Family Camp is taking place Aug. 18-21.)

David McCarty-Caplan and family at the first Jewish Families of Color Weekend at Camp Tawonga, Sept. 2021.
David McCarty-Caplan and family at the first Jewish Families of Color Weekend at Camp Tawonga, Sept. 2021.

In addition to the standard Jewish summer camp activities — kayaking, stargazing, archery, a Shabbat service and dinner — the Jewish Families of Color Weekend will include a talent show and a silent disco, where people dance to music that they listen to through headphones. Guest educators will offer workshops for adults on a variety of topics. McCarty-Caplan, an associate professor of social work at Cal State Northridge, will lead one session on how to talk about race with children and another on “the power of the vulnerable dad,” a forum to discuss issues surrounding fatherhood and masculinity.

Other scheduled guest educators include Ilana Kaufman, executive director of the Berkeley-based Jews of Color Initiative; wellness guide Kimmy Dueñas, who will lead yoga and mindfulness sessions and a cacao ceremony; and Daniels, who will teach about intersectionality and self-liberation.

An East Bay native now living in San Diego, Daniels, 27, attended and taught at last year’s weekend. He described it as a “spiritual” experience. “I got to access parts of myself through all the lenses of who I am rather than having to check some part of me at the door,” he said. “I felt my most godly there.”

Tawonga’s is one of a small number of weekend-long gatherings in the U.S. for ethnically and racially diverse Jews. Be’chol Lashon, the San Francisco-based Jewish diversity nonprofit, held a family camp at Walker Creek Ranch in Marin County every summer from 2004 to 2019. And in May, the JOC Mishpacha Project held a “JOCSM Shabbaton” — the acronym stands for “Jews of color, Sephardic, Mizrahi” — at a retreat center in Maryland.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.