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Canada’s first LGBTQ Jewish summer camp to open this summer

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Canadian Young Judaea is launching a new overnight summer camp for LGTBQ Jewish campers called Machane Lev.

Machane Lev, which will be Canada’s first Jewish camp for LGBTQ youth, will be housed at Camp Shalom in Gravenhurst, Ont., and will run from Aug. 19-26, for kids aged eight to 16 years old. Machane Lev is committed to being an inclusive Jewish summer camp that celebrates identity, encourages creativity, enhances leadership skills and evokes a love for Israel and the Jewish community. Machane Lev mean “Camp Heart” in Hebrew.

“Machane Lev became particularly important to me when I was approached last fall about a young trans Jewish girl who was looking for a camp. I felt that it was time to create a safe place option, where accommodations didn’t have to be made,” said Risa Epstein, national executive director of Canadian Young Judaea and director of Machane Lev.

“I think, as a community, we haven’t created enough safer spaces for the Jewish LGBTQ+ community. Over the years, we have been successful at times in including more people who have a range of sexual identities and sexual orientations, but I don’t think we have done as much for kids with gender identity and gender expression. This camp is really an opportunity to look at affirming identities of lots of different kids and I think that’s really exciting,” said Gaela Mintz, the director of camper care at Machane Lev.

The camp will not only cater to LGBTQ children.

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“It is also for parents of LGBTQ+ who are raising their children non-binary or either gender and don’t want to have to explain their choices,” said Epstein.

Added Mintz: “I work a lot with little kids, as young as three and four, who have a range of identities that are not necessarily cisgender. There are some little kids who know very early on that they don’t fit in to the gender binary that our society sets up. We are appealing to those kids, as well as those who may not even have a label for their identity, but who recognize that our typical camps are very gender-segregated – boys’ cabins, girls’ cabins – and realize they can’t participate in the basic programming that is set up at those camps because of that barrier of gender.

“We are also going to have families who may be in same-sex relationships, or different identities that are looking for a Jewish experience for their kids. These kids may not be identified as anything, but they have just grown up in a queer community. They are looking for somewhere, as a family, where they will feel comfortable sending their kids, so that they really understand that there is a wide range of expressions.”

Machane Lev will have all the trappings of a regular camp, including drama, dance, arts and crafts, swimming and water skiing.

“It will also include experiential, very high levels of Jewish education. The program director has significant experience in the Young Judea community and is also a member of the LGBTQ+ community,” said Epstein.

Children play games at Camp Shalom in Gravenhurst, Ont.

The staff will receive extensive training and will be chosen to represent a cross-section of the LGBTQ community.

“We are bringing in someone who has done a lot of work both as a Jew and as a queer and trans person, who will be responsible for queer and trans programming. We want to fuse the intersection of identities,” said Mintz.

“It all works with the Young Judea philosophy and vision of being pluralistic and celebrating Jewish life. Our goal is to make this a Jewish LGBTQ+ national camp, where kids are going to be welcome,” said Epstein.

For over 100 years, Canadian Young Judaea has been following its mission to provide high-level Jewish and Zionist experiences, while celebrating the diverse backgrounds and identities of all campers.

“Our existing summer camp network will continue to open its doors to any and all Jewish campers. We know that the addition of Machane Lev will provide an open space for the affirmation and celebration of all sexual identities, gender identities and gender expressions in a Jewish setting,” concluded Epstein.


An information session will be held at 7:00 p.m. on Feb. 7 at 788 Marlee Ave. in Toronto. For more details, email jen@youngjudaea.ca.