Apr 24, 2024

At Diane Tobin’s Summer Camp, There are No Barriers

“Funny, you don’t look Jewish” was never more true

By Ed Goldman

We live all around the world,” says Diane Tobin about the Jewish people, “so why not embrace that?”

That’s exactly why she created what she calls her “multicultural summer camp” 15 years ago. Be’Chol Lashon is Hebrew for “In Every Tongue,” with “tongue” being a mostly outdated term for “language.” 

Edgy Cartoon

All in the family: Left to right, Tobin’s son Jonah (the inspiration for Be’chol Lashon when she adopted him in 1997), Tobin, her grandson Josiah, her daughter and director of Camp Be’chol Lashon, Sarah, her other grandson, Raphel.Photo by Jaqueline Martin.

Located on Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma, which is about a one-hour drive north of San Francisco, where she lives, the camp draws 8-18-year-olds “from major American cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, but also from towns in Oregon, Arizona, Wyoming and Montana.” The campers, who also hail from countries all across the planet, come in all shapes, sizes and colors; and while the venue is open to everyone who registers, almost all of the attendees are Jewish. 

This is where it gets exotic and life-affirming. “You’ll find Persian Jews, South African Jews, Black Jews, Asian Jews, even Black-Asian Jews,” Tobin says with the enthusiasm of a young entrepreneur and the energetic optimism of a junior-varsity cheerleader. The fact that Tobin is 72 and the mother of six adult children isn’t relevant to our discussion today.

“I gave birth to three of my children,” she clarifies, while two were from her husband Gary Tobin’s earlier marriage. Then there’s that sixth kid: Jonah. He was adopted by the Tobins just after he was born in 1997. Jonah is Black and Jewish.   

Gary Tobin was a celebrated scholar whose final years were spent teaching at Brandeis University. After he died of esophageal cancer in 2009, Diane, who’d helped care for him during his three-year illness, started Be’Chol Lashon.

Since the word “Jewish” or “Jews” has already been used eight times in today’s column, it may surprise you to learn, as it did me, that Tobin was neither born nor raised as a Jew. While her father was a German Jew, “He didn’t practice the religion,” Tobin says. “And my mom’s folks were Baptist missionaries in Jamaica, so it’s not as though I was born into this.” But after her parents divorced when Tobin was young, she spent “a lot of time” with her grandparents and learned more about the religion and culture. She converted during a marriage that pre-dated her union with Gary Tobin.

Tobin is one of the more enthusiastic camp counselors at Be’Chol Lashon. The curriculum includes classes in arts and crafts, music and dance, cooking, making friends, Shabbat (the Hebrew Sabbath) and counseling. “Almost all of the counselors at the camp came out of our program,” she says (and yes, they’re paid). 

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She confesses that she especially enjoys teaching the art classes. Doing so is a natural for her: She attended the oft-revered California College of the Arts in Oakland, California (it’s since moved to San Francisco) where she learned metal art and graphic design.       

The camp has two one-week summer sessions this July: from the 14th to 21st and the 21st to 28th. There’s also a two-week session, from July 14-28. The one-week sessions are priced at $2,100 and the two-week session at exactly double that (visit https://globaljews.org).  

Here’s an offer I’m glad to pass along: If you decide to register your kids or grandkids for any of the summer sessions this year, Tobin will give you a 10 percent discount just for mentioning this column! Best of all, she didn’t specify you had to mention it favorably. Now, that’s a good deal in any tongue. 

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).