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Camp Ga’avah founder optimistic for summer 2021

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A new camp introduced by the Friedberg Jewish Community Center in Oceanside recently completed its third summer program and has grown into a year-round platform for LGBTQ children ages 6 through 17.

Camp Ga’avah (Pride) began as a pilot program in 2018 with a grant from the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York, according to co-founder Ellen Diamond, of Merrick, and had nine children and teens enrolled for a one-week summer camp. In 2020, despite the challenges of the pandemic, 13 people took part in the camp over a seven-week span, including five newcomers.

“The only difference between this year’s camp and the first two was the location,” said Stephanie Abrams, the director of camping services at Friedberg JCC. “Instead of at the campgrounds in Wheatley Heights, it was held on site here at Friedberg JCC. It’s exciting to have new kids on board. We still had arts and crafts, sports and fireside chats where they all really bond.”

Abrams described the camp, which starting this year is increasing to eight weeks beginning on June 28, as a safe, welcoming place for kids who identify as LGBTQ as well as gender fluid, gender creative and gender questioning. Allies, such as siblings or friends, are also encouraged to enroll.

Diamond said the camp has been “life-changing for some of the kids . . . This is a place where they can totally be themselves.”

Year-round activities, with the exception of a weekly virtual meeting, are on hold due to Covid-19. In the past the camp has featured field trips to Broadway shows, museums, ice skating, hiking, nature walks and guest lecturers that serve as “LGBTQ role models for our kids,” Diamond said.

Friedberg JCC also offers a parent/guardian support group that meets virtually on the first Thursday of every month. Diamond moderates the group, which Jen Chasin, of Merrick, is a part of. After her son came out as transgender in early 2019, she began looking for an outlet to provide him with support. At Camp Ga’avah, she said, “My kid felt at home.”

Chasin’s son, who wished to remain anonymous, attended his first summer at Camp Ga’avah in 2019. It was there, he said, that he “finally” found a place where he could relate to other kids. His favorite activity is the daily fireside chats, where he and other campers can talk openly about current events, feelings and LGBTQ topics.

“It’s a good place to get things off my chest,” he said. “I met a lot of friends and met really nice people [at camp].”

Diamond said she’s had parents say their children never had close friends before enrolling at Camp Ga’avah. Abrams noted that some of her campers have started Gay Straight Alliance clubs in their schools. “I think kids feel more empowered by our camp and gain confidence and become more active in their everyday lives,” she said.

Chasin recommended other parents with LGBTQ-identifying children to join the support group so they can better understand what their kid is going through. “The kids from camp have encouraged me to think twice about certain things, and it gets the parents to accept that this is who their child is,” she said. “For the kids, it’s all about validation and confidence, and to parents with kids bringing it up, be open, be loving and be accepting.”

For more information about Camp Ga’avah’s summer and year-round programs, visit friedbergjcc.org.