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Camp let kids come out of the closet

Machane Lev campers

This past summer, while many of us were sewing name tags into our children’s clothing and stuffing camp duffel bags, Risa Epstein was preparing to open a very different, and much-needed, kind of camp: Machane Lev, Canadian Young Judaea’s inaugural Jewish overnight summer camp for LGTBQ youth.

Epstein, the national director of Canadian Young Judaea and director of Machane Lev, beamed with pride, as she described the camp experience at Machane Lev, which was housed at Camp Shalom in Gravenhurst, Ont.

“I have been doing Jewish work for 40 years and I have never had a more memorable, emotional week in my life. We had 24 campers ranging in age from eight to 17. Approximately 80 per cent of these children identified in the LGBTQ+ community, or their family was an LGBTQ+ family, with a child growing up in a queer community. The remaining 20 per cent came to support Machane Lev as allies, to meet new people and learn about a new community,” said Epstein.

In Hebrew, Machane Lev means Camp Heart and for the many families who enrolled their children, the name couldn’t be more fitting. Epstein, along with Gaela Mintz, the camp’s director of camper care, shared some comments from parents and campers alike.

“You don’t have to tell me anything – I haven’t seen my daughter smile like that in three years,” said one camper’s mother.

“He hasn’t felt comfortable going swimming in the last four years and this summer was his first time he went swimming,” said another parent.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to finish high school – if I would make it. It’s because of Machane Lev and my ability to come back here next year that I know I will graduate,” said a boy who identified himself as trans.


Many of the campers and staff have struggled with their own painful experiences of having to compartmentalize their identities.

Mintz explained that, “One camper confessed, ‘I’ve been in a lot of LGBTQ+ spaces, but the intersection of the Jewish community at peace with the LGBTQ space was really unique – having a space where we were able to come together. Judaism was always used against me in my identity and this camp has shown me that there may be another way.’

“Others said, ‘I’m Jewish and in the closet in one setting, or I’m completely in the LGBTQ community, but I never talk about my Judaism and I can’t mix them.’ These people were in tears as they were talking to me, because they couldn’t believe this space could exist.”

Mitz said that the other thing that was quite special was the power and support of the allies.

“We had the institutional power of Canadian Young Judaea and then a different community comes in that has often felt marginalized, and suddenly they own the space and the allies became humbled and were there to understand that Machane Lev is a place of belonging,” said Mintz.

The campers showed compassion and kindness. Some were reintroducing themselves to religion within this safe and accepting environment.

“We looked for ways to incorporate Jewish practice. We tried to provide opportunities for that. Rediscovering prayer for some kids was really quite powerful, especially if it was with a new identity than they would have had previously explored,” said Mintz.

The campers travelled from Montreal, Baltimore and Toronto and were divided into three all-gender cabins.

“We had a high school cabin (grades 10 to 12; a middle school cabin (grades 6 to 9); and a little kids cabin (grades 2 to 6),” said Mintz.

Machane Lev staff

The vast majority of the 12 staffers running the camp identified with the LGBTQ community.

Mark Kachuck, the camp’s program director, said that he “watched gender have no boundaries. I saw campers experiment with personal expression, and not feel embarrassed or judged. I watched people swim safely and with joy for the first time without judgment. I witnessed the future of a Jewish identity that celebrates and welcomes the LGBTQ+ world into it, as if it was always intersected.”

Exceeding their goal of 20 campers, Machane Lev anticipates having upwards of 50 campers next summer. And, starting in October, Machane Lev will introduce a monthly education and social program.

“It’s a way to keep feeling the love and acceptance all through the year, and it’s for anyone who might be interested,” said Epstein.


To register for Machane Lev’s monthly programs and summer camp, call 416-781-5156. Canadian Young Judaea offers scholarships to those needing financial assistance.

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