The weekly "Shabbat stroll" at Camp Tawonga in 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Camp Tawonga)
The weekly "Shabbat stroll" at Camp Tawonga in 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Camp Tawonga)

Tawonga to be first Jewish camp with full-time DEI director

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Camp Tawonga has been a trailblazer in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion for decades. The camp launched its annual LGBTQ family camp with Keshet in 1998, created an all-gender cabin for gender-nonconforming campers in 2019 and held its first Jewish families of color weekend in 2021.

In a sign that the camp near Yosemite National Park intends to continue to prioritize inclusion efforts, Tawonga announced last week that it has appointed a full-time diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) director. When Kiyomi Gelber, 37, steps into that role later this year, she will become the first DEI director at a Jewish summer camp.

“I feel really excited to have this professional opportunity, and I’m excited for Tawonga,” Gelber, the camp’s current associate director, told J. after the Feb. 23 announcement. “We cannot achieve our mission of supporting campers in building self-esteem and in building community without centering values of equity and justice. I believe that this work strengthens our community and really benefits everyone.”

Kiyomi Gelber
Kiyomi Gelber

Gelber, who began at the camp as a counselor in 2004, has Japanese heritage and identifies as a Jew of color. She said she will work with Tawonga’s board, year-round staff and summer staff to create more programs and affinity spaces for members of groups that have been historically marginalized in the Jewish community, including people of color and those with disabilities.

The goal of such programs and spaces, she explained, is to help both campers and staff “feel seen for various aspects of their identities.”

According to the New York–based Foundation for Jewish Camp, some camps have staff members who work on DEI initiatives, but Tawonga is the first to hire a full-time DEI director.

Rebecca Meyer, Tawonga’s new CEO, said in a press release that camp leaders determined they would need to hire someone to do DEI work full time in order to achieve the “transformational change” they desired.

“Kiyomi’s passion for equity and racial justice, proven track record leading this work at Tawonga and beyond, excellent relationship-building skills and intentional, innovative approach make her an ideal fit for the role,” Meyer said in the press release. She added that she hopes Gelber’s appointment will inspire other Jewish organizations to devote more resources to DEI work.

Gelber has taken a major role in Tawonga’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion initiative, which was launched in 2019. For example, she helped organize the first two Jewish families of color weekends.

This year, that program will be held Aug. 17 to 20. Keshet LGBTQ Family Camp will take place the following weekend, Aug. 24 to 27. Registration is currently open for both weekends.

Prior to joining Tawonga’s year-round staff in 2018, Gelber worked in the fields of youth development and experiential education at different organizations. She has a masters in education from Harvard.

Gelber’s appointment comes as Tawonga looks to hire more employees following a multi-year capital campaign that raised more than $17 million, according to camp leaders.

As she settles into her new role this summer, Gelber said she will be documenting her successes and challenges to share with other camps. “We know this work is iterative and nonlinear, and we hope to share our learnings as we go,” she said.

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. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.