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Acts of Faith

A camp tries to reinvent the Hebrew language, so transgender kids can fit in

By Julie Zauzmer

August 11, 2016 at 6:00 AM

Sam Newman starts a cheer after lunch at Habonim Dror Camp Moshava on Monday in Street, Md. The campers rewrote their cheers this summer to use special gender-neutral Hebrew plural nouns. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

When Zev Shofar, a 14-year-old from Takoma Park, started going to Jewish summer camp seven years ago, the children all learned the Hebrew words to introduce themselves. "Chanich" means a male camper; "chanichah" means a female camper.

But what if Zev didn't feel male or female — neither a chanich nor a chanichah?

Related: [Pope Francis says it’s ‘terrible’ that children are taught they can choose their own gender]

Zev's camp didn't have a word that worked for Zev. In fact, the Hebrew language doesn't have any words. Like many other languages — Spanish, French and Russian, for example — Hebrew assigns each noun a gender.

In Israel, or anywhere else that Hebrew is spoken, there's no linguistic solution, either. But now there is at camp. Zev is a chanichol.

The seven Habonim Dror camps, spread across North America, are pioneering a new gender-neutral form of Hebrew this summer. They hope to set an example that Hebrew-speakers worldwide might someday follow.

Related: [I’m a transgender Christian in North Carolina. My faith should not stop at the bathroom door.]

"It really reinforces the impact of summer camp as a safe space," said Sara Zebovitz, the North America director for Habonim Dror, a youth group based in Israel. "Camp has always made it okay to say, 'I can be myself here.' "

As Zebovitz spoke, the 80 campers spending the second session of the summer at Habonim Dror's Camp Moshava in Street, Md., jumped on the tables and chairs in the camp dining hall to scream their age in group cheers.

Those cheers have had to be rewritten this summer to fit the new gender-neutral Hebrew. Plural masculine nouns in Hebrew — including any group of people that includes at least one man — typically end in im, while feminine nouns end in ot. At Camp Moshava, all groups of both boys and girls now end in a blend: imot.

That means the 15-year-old age group at camp, formerly the Bogrim, is now the Bogrimot. So their acrostic cheer ("B is for banana! O is for ostrich!") can no longer conclude, "I is for igloo! M is for maxipad!"

The 15-year-olds huddled at the beginning of the summer to pick more words to end the cheer, camper Sam Newman of Takoma Park says. They picked, "O is for orange! T is for turtle!"

Related: [Barber refuses to cut transgender Army veteran’s hair, citing the Bible]

Then there was the Nitzavim group, who used to chant the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl's famous line: "We are the Nitzavim! If you will it, it is no dream!"

Now Herzl's words get twisted a bit by the Nitzavimot: "If you will it, it is no dreamboat!"

Zebovitz said that the issue of gendered language in Hebrew came up at a conference for Jewish camps, and none of about 50 other camps had thought of changing the language. And some camp alumni have criticized Habonim Dror's move, complaining that the camps are teaching the children fake Hebrew that they won't be able to use in the outside world.

In Israel, some LGBT communities have adopted the –imot plural, but few seem to have decided on a non-binary singular.

"They're talking about it. But no one's coming up with a solution yet," Zebovitz said. "We can't wait around."

Related: [‘I never wanted to be gay’: Christian musician comes out, in a moving letter to fans]

So Habonim Dror decided on its own that –ol would be its singular non-binary ending, based on the word kol, which means "all."

That's the ending for any camper or counselor who doesn't use either "he" or "she" as a pronoun in English, picking "they" or another non-binary option instead. At every Habonim Dror camp, there's at least one such participant, Zebovitz said.

Jen Silber, Camp Moshava's executive director, said one counselor and three campers at the Baltimore-area camp use non-binary pronouns this summer.

That includes Zev, who used male pronouns for six summers at camp, then came out as non-binary this year. "People are accepting," Zev said. Still, Zev's fellow campers are learning. "They really suck at remembering and using my correct pronouns all the time."

Zev lives in a boys' tent this summer, but has discussed the possibility of living in an all-gender tent in the future.

Zev Shofar, 14, passes their plate to Arielle Gottlieb, 17, as campers eat lunch. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Zebovitz said that the camps accommodate transgender campers in either boys or girls tents, wherever they feel comfortable, and makes sure every camp has gender-neutral bathrooms somewhere on the grounds. They haven't yet had a camper who doesn't feel comfortable in either gender's tent. They're considering what they'll do when that situation arises.

Related: [The Catholic Church puts one foot forward on the path to including women]

This is a camp where those conversations feel normal. On Monday morning this week, 30 teenagers convened in an open-air pavilion for a discussion.

They sat cross-legged or stretched out on their stomachs, some subtly subverting the gender binary as they talked. A male counselor leading the group sported silver studs in each ear and thumbnails flicked with glittery nail polish; one male camper was braiding a gimp chain, and another wore a "Bill for First Lady" T-shirt. Not all the girls in their summer shorts and tank tops shaved their legs or armpits.

The topic? "The patriarchy."

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Julie Zauzmer is a religion reporter.

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