By Lori Zlotoff
One of my favorite metaphors (and I do love a good metaphor) is when I talk about Harlam as a beautiful tapestry, woven together by the many different threads that make up our community. Our differences, experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives make us a rich, vibrant, and multifaceted group, brought together by the commonality of being part of the Harlam family. The history, legacy, relationships, and values that unite us as a camp community are the force and the golden thread that bind all of us together.
As protests fill our screens with both hope for an antiracist future and the long overdue conversations about race that are happening in many spaces, we would be remiss and, dare I say, ignorant, if we did not acknowledge the work that we still need to do to ensure every camper can bring their whole self to our community, particularly our Black and Brown campers. At Harlam, we strive every day to create a summer environment that is free of bias, hate, and judgment, in the hopes that it can sustain us outside of Harlam’s gates during the rest of the year, and in the rest of the world. The sustainment benefits both those who experience prejudice in our world, and those who have not – giving everyone the fortitude to pursue justice in the face of racism, ableism, classism, sexism, antisemitism, and heterosexism in their everyday lives
We want Harlamites – from our current campers to our alumni, to our staff past, present, and future, to our stakeholders, and to our prospective families – to know that we are committed to constantly learning, challenging ourselves, and looking inward as an organization to dismantle the racism and unconscious bias that have influenced our practices. We will continue striving to make sure the voices of our families of color and multi-racial families are represented in our conversations about welcoming, nurturing, and working with our campers.
In addition, we are committed to remembering the notion that just as everyone’s nuclear family structure may not look the same, not everyone’s Judaism is the same. Rather than make assumptions about people’s backgrounds, we continue to learn and educate our staff to avoid making generalizations about a camper’s home life and the way they practice their Judaism. This is one small step we can take in helping to normalize the variety of backgrounds of our families and welcome the diversity that is among us. We will continue to teach our staff how to acknowledge their implicit biases and to make intentional choices in the use of their language when they are speaking to or about campers. This work was paved, in part, by the time and energy spent by our LGBTQ task force and Interfaith task force grappling with and examining our practices in this realm over the last few years.
In March of 2020, just a couple of days before we all went into quarantine, Harlam entered into a b’rit – or covenant – with the JewV’Nation Fellowship program through the URJ’s (Union for Reform Judaism, Harlam’s umbrella organization) department of Audacious Hospitality. After an extensive search for an organization that could help us take a deep dive into examining our biases, we were thrilled to be accepted into a program at our very own parent organization, the URJ. We sought to convene a task force that represented many different stakeholders, as well as the diversity we wanted to honor and represent.
Just as the world was shutting down in mid-March, this amazing and dedicated group of lay leaders and staff committed to doing the work of what is now known as our DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) Working Group. Members include: Marc Landis, Camp Council representative; Ilana Samuel, staff member; Hannah Lafargue, leadership team member; Rabbi Victor Appell, parent of current camper and former faculty member; Michael Davis, former staff member; and Jared Klein, Gesher participant of 2020. Under the leadership of Jaimie Green from the URJ and Tamar Ghidalia, our JewV’Nation fellow, we have spent the last three months looking critically at the inner workings of Harlam’s infrastructure to start to make inroads at changing the things that need changing, bringing to light the needs of those we may have overlooked, and generally educating ourselves. We trusted each other and with the help of our facilitators, pushed each other to be our best selves in the face of difficult dialogue and to do the hard work of acknowledging our internal biases, all the while striving to imagine how Harlam can truly become a place where everyone feels comfortable, welcome, and celebrated for being their most authentic and best selves.
As the formal work of this group is about to conclude, I know this for certain: our commitment to DEI work is ever evolving and we will never be “done” with educating ourselves, pushing ourselves, and seeking to find deeper connection and meaning for our community members. We welcome the feedback of our community members to help us understand your experience from your perspective. Please do reach out with any feedback. We will be working on turning our assessment into measurable goals to enact over the next several months. We welcome more input and hope to be held accountable by the community to demonstrate our progress.
And in the spirit of Pride month, our physical distance from one another during this pandemic, and the unbelievable heartbreak of the Black and Brown communities in recent weeks, I want to offer you the hope of Harlam as a personal prayer – Harlam is a place that transcends walls, exists outside of cancelled summers, pandemics, and crises in our communities. Harlam is us. Harlam is you.
For a list of resources that Harlam families can use to join us in addressing the systemic racism that exists in our communities, read Director Lisa David’s blog post “Creating a Space for Conversations about Racial Justice.”
Lori Zlotoff, LCSW has served as URJ Camp Harlam’s Inclusion Coordinator since 2015. During that time, she has participated in the task forces for camp’s DEI work, Interfaith work, and LGBTQ inclusion, as well as in the realm of inclusion around disabilities and mental health.