August 24, 2007
The Jewish Agency’s network of summer camps
Randi Sherman - Staff Writer
Kharkov, Ukraine — On the outskirts of this Ukrainian city, 428 miles northeast of Odessa, a roaring party is under way.
Russian music blasts through the speakers as dozens of Ukrainian teenagers hit the dance floor, wearing T-shirts proudly displaying the words “Israel is Real.” Hundreds of tiny Israeli flags fly in their hands and their cheers for Israel nearly shake the ground below them.
Welcome to “Israel Is Real,” one of 22 camps operated in the former Soviet Union (and one of four in Ukraine) by the Jewish Agency for Israel.
JAFI has provided summer camps for aliyah-eligible children in the FSU for the past 16 years, bringing a sense of Jewish heritage to children ages 6 to 17. The camp sessions, which vary from one to two weeks, are estimated to reach 10,000 kids this summer.
One, an “Artists’ City,” caters to 60 children between ages 6 and 10. The children are taught Jewish values and Jewish identity, and turn those concepts into art experiences.
One group, having studied the Hebrew alphabet, created a city of small homes on foam cutouts of the letter Bet, complete with people and furniture made of paper and clay.
“I liked the group with the bet houses because God chose that letter to start the Torah,” says Louisa, a cheery, blonde 9-year-old from Odessa, who already speaks two languages.
When she was only a year old, her parents left Ukraine and moved to Israel where she learned to speak Russian at home and Hebrew at school. When her mother decided to take Louisa, an only child, back to Ukraine a year ago, Louisa was distraught.
“Maybe my parents missed Ukraine too much,” she recently told journalists through a translator on a JAFI-led mission. She was sitting in the television room at camp, a run-down building that once housed a resort.
No longer immersed in the 24/7 Jewish experience of living in the Holy Land, Louisa’s mother searched for a way to connect her to Judaism, finding it at the JAFI camp.
“These children, you can’t just speak to them,” says Natasha Voskovoinik, director of the Odessa-region camp. “Their attention is gone after 10 minutes. They have to feel it, experience it.”
Twenty percent of the children this summer are having their first Jewish experience, says Voskovoinik.
Before World War II, the height of Jewish life in Odessa, an estimated one-third of its 400,000 citizens were Jews. Today estimates of Odessa’s Jewish population range from 14,000 to 40,000.
“I don’t know how many Jews are here ... I tell them I’m from Israel and everyone has a Jewish story,” says Voskovoinik, who made aliyah from Riga, Latvia, in 1993.
Many of the children come from interfaith households, “Shabbat candles on Friday and church on Sunday,” she says. “You have to deal with it patiently; you can’t discredit a parent.” It is also a challenge to separate Russian secular culture from Christianity, which is done by connecting everyday things to Jewish concepts like Shabbat and Jerusalem.
Camp is the cornerstone of Jewish youth activities in Ukraine, which run year-round. The close of a camp session becomes a bridge to attract children to youth groups and Sunday school programs.
Is the camp’s aim to have a flourishing Jewish future in Ukraine, or to prepare children to make aliyah somewhere down the road?
“It is important for me first to let people build their identity as Jews,” Voskovoinik says. “This is definitely to help them build the community, let them stay. I personally made aliyah. ... I don’t tell them Jewish is to go to Israel, but Israel is inside, it’s part of it.” There is a Jewish future here, she promises, “Otherwise we wouldn’t be here. There’d be nothing to do.”
Vova, an 8-year-old from Odessa, is the only camper wearing a yarmulke. He is very excited to return home to inform his friends about his camp experience.
“I will tell them if they hang out on the street, they learn nothing,” he says. “If they come here, they will learn stories, make friends. They can keep Shabbat. I liked Shabbat.”
Back in Kharkov, the party is raging into the night. The dancing gives way to an Israeli flag ceremony, eight flags parading down in rows, carried by madrichim and Jan Friedman, the camp’s director.
The teens, split into families by assigned occupations, perform routines they wrote that show their connection to Israel, where many of them have never been. An interpretive dance pits “Israel,” a girl dressed in white, against enemies dressed in black. “Israel” starts as a timid lump on the floor, only to bloom like a flower before ascending from a battle with the three foes. Another group dresses as Jews from all over, including Brazil and China, and performs a song the teens wrote to a popular Russian tune. The teens sing “Hatikvah” and “Shalom Aleichem” with pride on their faces and eagerly rush to the large Israeli flag brought to them near the end of the evening, grabbing on to it as if they are playing a childhood parachute game, flipping their much smaller Israeli flags around the center star. The love and excitement is so palpable that it brings a few to tears.
Kharkov’s camp breaks its weeklong program into stages of the life of an Israeli, covering school, army life, university, Israeli solidarity, working life and retirement in only seven days. They take mock exams, do drill instruction and obstacle courses, visit the camp’s reproduction of Yad Vashem and on Saturday, retirement day, celebrate Shabbat and go to the beach.
The camp, funded in part by UJA-Federation of New York, has taken in 750 kids in six sessions.
Friedman, originally from Gomel, Belarus, before making aliyah in 1990, runs the camp with her husband, Guy.
“We want to let them know that Jewish identity is a choice with a lot of responsibility,” she said. “We’re trying to give them options but it is important to keep them in this community.”
The question of staying or leaving is a big one here. Of the students that go on birthright israel from the FSU, 50 to 60 percent within five years will make aliyah or travel to Israel for other long-term projects. With a Jewish history dating back to at least 1795, Kharkov was another of Ukraine’s Jewish centers, with 190,000 Jews comprising a third of the town’s population prior to the Holocaust.
Prior to the Israel Solidarity rally, students toured the camp’s Yad Vashem exhibition. Clinging to each other, looking at pictures and watching video, they saw the atrocities that went on in Europe, some of it in their own backyard. Just off the highway on the way to camp is the Drobitsky Yar memorial, commemorating the deaths of approximately 15,000 Jews there.
As madrich Vitali Tikhi, a Kharkov native, took his small group of teens around the Yad Vashem exhibit, he knew how important it was but worried what it would do to the campers.
“There are so many memorials in the city, it’s important to speak to them about that,” he said. “At the same time, it makes people here uncomfortable bringing up bad memories. It’s hard for campers to leave with this knowledge.”
So why stay in Ukraine? “The fact that we all still live here; we are children and grandchildren of survivors. It protects us,” he said.
The resurgence of Jewish life also helps. Katya Volkava, a madricha who made aliyah in 2000, has seen a great change since she left. “Through these seven years, dealing with Jewishness here became more open,” she says. “They don’t hide it as they did before.”
Even though Edward Dolgin, a 19-year-old madrich from Restov, Russia, plans on making aliyah in the next two years, he believes his hometown Jewish community is not in peril.
“The community is not ending, because every time I go to synagogue, I see new Jews,” he says.
Talking to some of the teens in Kharkov, the future looks bright. Ella Karnitskya, a 17-year-old from Kharkov, takes more pride in her Jewish identity now than ever. “[Being Jewish] allows me to be different,” she says. “Kids my age pierce their ears, but I am different because I am Jewish.” She will return home to continue lighting Shabbat candles with her mother and saying the Shema before bed, something she learned at a Chabad camp.
A friend of Karnitskya’s, Dima Ruchinsky, also 17, feels he already lives a good Jewish life in Kharkov. He has already spent 10 years attending Jewish schools in the city and has been attending JAFI camps for three years.
“Ten years from now, I see myself active and connected to the Jewish community here,” he says. “I’ll visit my father in Israel. I’ll be visiting the JAFI camps.”
Like any other teen, Ruchinsky is disappointed to see the summer end, and even more disappointed that it means the end of another summer at JAFI.
“You go out to the city and regret only being here for a week,” he says.