PETALUMA, Calif. On a cool Sunday evening, Jewish campers with nervous smiles took to the stage one by one to perform poems they had composed on the theme of identity.
One girl riffed on being taunted for having fuzzy eyebrows and bushy hair.
Another rhymed about being told You dont look Jewish too many times to count.
If this doesnt sound like your typical summer camp fare, its because Camp Bechol Lashon has a markedly different mandate than most Jewish camps.
Nestled in the misty hills of Marin County, the northern California camp is the countrys only Jewish sleepaway camp geared to Jews of color.
Part of the goal is to make these kids feel normal in a Jewish context, said Diane Tobin, the founder and executive director of the camps parent organization, the San Francisco-based nonprofit Bechol Lashon, which promotes racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in Jewish life.
Tobin, 61, and her late husband, the eminent Jewish demographer Gary Tobin, founded the nonprofit in 2000, three years after adopting an African-American son.
Now entering its sixth season, the organizations camp integrates traditional Jewish practice with educational activities that speak to the diversity of Jewish life around the globe.
EACH morning, after the more typical fare of Wiffle ball and field sports, campers gather clues about the country they will travel to that day before going through Customs and having their makeshift passports stamped.
Throughout the day, between kayaking and swimming in the pond, campers make food and crafts inspired by the particular country they are visiting.
During a JTA visit to the camp, campers spent an afternoon writing poems in an art room decorated with cultural items they had made, including woven baskets from Mexico and feathered raffia masks from Colombia.
Aaron Levy Samuels, a New York-based black-Jewish performance poet, had flown in for the day to facilitate the poetry workshop.
Samuels, 25, whose first poetry collection, Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps, was published last fall by Write Bloody Publishing, said that growing up in Rhode Island, he and his brother were the only two black kids at their local synagogue.
The son of an African-American, Samuels said he identified with the struggles that Bechol Lashon campers were going through and wished he could have attended such a camp.
Maia Campbell, 14, of San Francisco, who has attended Bechol Lashon since its founding, echoed that sentiment.
Its been really cool because my synagogue is basically all white people, said Campbell, whose mother is African-American. So I saw that there are other people like me.
The camp is not just for Jews of color, as evinced by one white campers poem about her identity as a nerdy Jewish girl. Its also very much a family affair. Tobins son, Jonah, is a junior counselor and her daughter, Sarah Spencer, serves as the campco-director.
The kids all come with very different stories about who they are and where theyve come to be, said Spencer, 38, a marriage and family therapist who is also the mother of two biracial children.
Here they get to practice explaining who they are to one another and we help them to feel good about whatever that is.
Savannah Henry, a 21-year-old counselor whose father is African-American, said that before her rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, Calif., told her about Bechol Lashon, she had spent a miserable summer at a more mainstream Jewish camp.
I was the only Jew of color, she said of her experience at a Reform Jewish summer camp in Santa Rosa. I just didnt connect that well.
When she discovered Bechol Lashon four years ago, Henrys outlook changed completely.
If I had been a camper here, I would have fit in perfectly, she said. Its definitely made me more of a proud Jew.