Summer Camp is Life, the Rest is Just Details | Errel, Israel

It was about a year and a half ago, in the summer of 2014. I was a counselor at a Reform Jewish summer camp in California, and had an absolute blast. I have always been very fond of education and working with kids and this was the first opportunity I had after a long time.

The summer camp was a community that renewed every couple of weeks with new kids: new kids, new me. Every time a new group came, I would think about whether the kids would be accepting of my sexual orientation. I have been openly gay for a few years now but whenever I arrive at a new place, I rethink the way that I behave, as if to make it so that “no one can tell.” The thing about camp was that different from other places, I felt like I had to be a role model for the kids. Summer camp is supposed to be a formative experience for teens, something they look forward to throughout the entire year. Thus, I wanted to create a positive experience for them and myself, and my job as a role model was amplified by the intensity of work and by my job as an alternative “parent”. Also, it was imperative that we communicate well, since we slept in the same room, ate at the same table, and I practically supervised them 24/7.

I had just been a counselor for a group of extremely smart and sensitive sixteen year olds for over a month who I came out to after a couple of days, and who have been wonderful ever since. Not only that, but I also felt that it was a learning experience for them. So I felt rather confident about my ability to be myself in front of the group of thirteen year olds that just arrived. I did not know when, what or how I would tell them, if at all. One of the boys who arrived was Rafael, and we had a really good connection, talking about Judaism and about life in general. One day, two days before the kids left for their homes, I saw Rafael standing by his cabin and went to check up on him. As we started talking, I noticed that he had nail polish on his fingernails, so I asked him about it. He was very shy about it, and said that a girl painted it on him during one of the breaks. I thought it was nice, so I told him it was pretty, but all of a sudden he seemed really embarrassed by it and blurted: “but its gay.” So I asked him, trembling on the inside, furious and hurt: “Well, what’s wrong with that?” He thought for less than a second, and then said another sentence, even more hurtful than the previous one: “Well gays aren’t really men.” At this point, I had realized that too often I find myself living in a bubble, not understanding that the question of alternative sexuality is still very much neglected and stereotyped in certain communities. So I started reasoning with him, but as thirteen year old usually do, he became disinterested and went back into the cabin. After that day, I had trouble sleeping. I felt I had failed my role as an educator and my intention to be a good representative for my community. A day later, it was the last night, and it is a tradition to have an “ask the counselor questions” night. One of the kids requested that I tell something that I haven’t told them, and on a whim, I decided that if I wanted to be a role model, then I had to be true to myself. And I told them. There was silence for a second, and then we just continued talking. I looked at Rafael, and I couldn’t really ascertain what was going through his head. He seemed introverted, and looked mostly at the ground, contemplating, and biting his fingers inadvertently. After twenty minutes, he asked if we could talk outside. We walked out. He was full of embarrassment and wasn’t able to look me in the eye. I could see he was struggling as he hopped from one foot to the other. I tried being patient, and kept quiet for a few seconds. Then, he whispered: “I am sorry for yesterday, and I really appreciate you.” I was proud of myself but I was even more proud of Rafael and of the remarkable ability of kids to understand the world and to reach out and react to the people around them. The next day he left camp and before leaving, gave me a very strong hug. I looked at the bus leaving, and even though I doubt we will ever meet again, I felt like his words to me have made everything worthwhile.

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