Reinventing the Hebrew Language

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.

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?

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.

“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.’ ”

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