TORONTO — The father of a 13-year-old Richmond Hill boy who was refused entrance to Camp Solelim because the teen isn’t Jewish said another Jewish camp has offered to accept his son.
Andrew Weir said he spoke to one of the directors of Camp Wingate, a new private camp on the site of the old Pripstein's Camp Mishmar that serves kids ages seven to 16 and is located just north of Montreal, and was told by her that his son Tyler and any of his friends who wished to join would be welcome at the camp.
Director Laurie Wiseman explained that the Jewish-owned Wingate is primarily attended by Jewish campers, and camp rituals include reciting blessings before meals and singing Hatikvah, but there is no policy on admitting children based on religion.
“I’ve actually never heard of such a thing in my life,” she said, noting that she was “shocked” to read about Weir’s situation in news reports.
“Tyler won’t go to a camp unless his friends go with him… so we’re thinking about trying to make a movement [to encourage Solelim kids to join Tyler at another camp]," Weir said.
"I hate that I’m causing all this junk, but I have to think to myself, ‘Do I let them get away with this? Do I actually want to bring kids away from their camp?”
The story of Tyler’s refusal by Camp Solelim on the grounds of being non-Jewish, despite the fact he attended one of Solelim’s feeder camps, Camp Shalom, last summer, was picked up by several news outlets after Weir contacted a Richmond Hill-based Metroland reporter earlier this month about Tyler’s case.
Weir said it hadn’t been his intention to “put the Jewish People in the spotlight like this” and stressed that his beef is with Solelim, not the Jewish community at large. He added that he was initially reluctant to go to the media, but said a Jewish friend of his encouraged him to do so.
“I didn’t expect it to go this far,” said Weir, who has raised Tyler as a single father since birth. “I just promised I’d do everything I could to help my son go to camp with his friends.”
Tyler goes to school with many Jewish kids, he said, and a large proportion of his friends are Jewish.
Camp Solelim is located near Sudbury and serves 14- and 15-year-olds. It’s part of the non-profit Canadian Young Judaea (CYJ) movement, which has seven affiliated camps across Canada, including Shalom. The cost of Solelim’s six-week program is around $7,000.
Weir said that the phone call he had last fall with Risa Epstein, national executive director of CYJ and director of Solelim, in which she informed him that Tyler would not be allowed to attend camp, made him “sick to my stomach,” and that she was “incredibly rude.”
“She told me I shouldn’t even be calling and was ignorant of the fact that Tyler shouldn’t be going to a Jewish camp.”
Speaking to The CJN, Epstein denied saying those things, but would not offer further comment on her discussions with Weir.
Solelim spokesperson Sindi Kachuck told The CJN the camp has not heard from any parents who say they’ll pull their kids out to join Tyler at another camp, and that Solelim has only received one e-mail from a camp family that said Tyler should be admitted.
She said a Solelim board member spoke to Weir about the camp’s mission as a “place for Jewish children to explore their Jewish identity” and that Weir expressed disappointment, not anger.
Tyler, who spent three summers at Camp Walden, a Jewish-owned for-profit camp with many Jewish campers, prior to attending Shalom last year, said, “At Shalom, I got to make a lot of new friends… I feel really upset and not welcome anymore.”
Adam Shulman, director of Shalom, told The CJN that Weir had been approved at Camp Shalom as the result of an oversight.
“The official policy at Camp Shalom is we look for campers who have at least one parent who is Jewish, and on the application, we ask if the mother and father [respectively] are Jewish,” Shulman said.
He explained that although Weir’s application indicated that he’s not Jewish and doesn’t have a parent who is Jewish, this was only caught by the camp after the boy was officially accepted.
“It was only after his approval that we realized [he isn’t Jewish],” he said, noting the camp did not want to rescind Weir’s approval at that point.
He added that even within the Young Judea system, each camp has its own individual policy on the issue of admitting campers based on Jewish identity or parentage.
Weir said, however, that he had, at the time of applying to Camp Shalom, explicitly told the camp on the phone that Tyler wasn’t Jewish and asked if that would be a problem. He said he was told there was no issue with it.
Epstein told yorkregion.com that the camp must adhere to its mission to develop future leaders of the Jewish community by nurturing Jewish identity and values and fostering a sense of pride in Israel.
“This mission statement is foremost in our summer training and educational programming,” Epstein said. “For this mission to be accomplished, it is essential that our campers be Jewish.”
On March 17, Epstein sent out an email to parents from Camp Solelim's board of directors stating that the article about Weir that appeared on yorkregion.com news was “one-sided and many statements in the article attributed to camp director Risa Epstein were untrue.”
It added: “We differ from other camps as our primary focus is… to offer a unique, positive, immersive Jewish experience for 14-15 year olds… This value of developing one’s own culture is also recognized in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Faith-based schools, camps and other organizations are protected under the Human Rights Code. These rights and freedoms are fundamental to the success of our democratic Canadian society.”
Further down, it continued: “Camp Solelim prides itself on Jewish-values programming. Within that context, we believe strongly in interfaith dialogue and the necessity for the Jewish community to build and sustain relationships with other faith groups. Guided by the Jewish tenet of tikkun olam… our summer leadership programming educates campers on the importance of outreach and contributing to the Canadian community at large.”
Kachuk noted that since the email was sent out, the response from families has been mostly in support of the camp’s decision.
Weir said he’s not sure if he would at this point be willing to send Tyler to Solelim, assuming the camp reversed its decision to reject him, though Tyler emphasized he still wants to go.
The CJN contacted several other Jewish camps to inquire about their policies on admitting non-Jewish campers and was able to reach the acting director of Camp Northland-B’nai Brith, Simon Wolle, who said Northland does not ask campers or their families if they are Jewish on the camp application.
“Over the years, non-Jewish campers and staff have attended Camp Northland,” Wolle said. “If we become aware that a potential camper applying to camp is not Jewish, we would likely contact the parents to make them aware that the majority of campers and staff are Jewish and part of the camp’s mission statement is Jewish identity-building…We would do so simply to ensure that the parents and potential camper are aware of these facts and are making an informed decision.”
Weir, who said he and Tyler are not religious, noted, “I even asked Tyler at one point if he wanted to convert. But he said, ‘I’m like you, Dad. I don’t want to practice it, but I enjoy learning about this stuff.’ He’s not willing to commit to anything at this point, but he loves learning about Judaism and thinks the history behind Judaism is amazing.”