September 4, 2007 / 21 Elul 5767
This summer, for the second year in a row, Elya Kalnitskaya attended a Jewish Agency summer camp in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. The 17-year-old grew up knowing that she was Jewish but remembers hearing her family tell her that it was dangerous to be Jewish. While Elya’s grandmother survived the Holocaust, many of her extended family members were not so lucky. As she grew older, Elya began to explore her Jewish identity through a number of Jewish Agency programs including youth club activities, holiday celebrations and summer camp. "Now that I am older, I understand that it is ok to be Jewish," Elya acknowledges.
Like it is for so many youth, for Elya, the summer camp experience was transformative, lighting within her a Jewish spark that has enriched her life. She had the opportunity to develop relationships with other Jews her age and discover her role as part of the Jewish people. During her first summer in camp, Elya learned about Shabbat and now she lights candles every Friday night along with her mother and grandmother. "The camp atmosphere, friends and counselors make camp such a memorable experience," she says.
The summer camps are one of the Jewish Agency’s most successful Jewish identity building activities in the FSU and they have increased in popularity with each year since the program began 16 years ago. For many youngsters from small, peripheral communities, these camps may be their only organized Jewish educational activity for the entire year. For others, from larger cities, summer camp is a catalyst for becoming more involved in their local Jewish community and joining other Jewish Agency programs run throughout the year.
This year, there were about 70 camp sessions, generally one week long, at 22 locations throughout the FSU, with 11 locations in Russia, four in the Ukraine, and one each in Moldova, the Baltic States, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Over 10,000 children and youth, ages 7-17, participated in the camp sessions. Additionally, another 2,000 university-age young adults attended camps for college students.
Tanya, a 15-year-old from Minsk, Belarus always thought of being Jewish as something shameful. She hid her Jewishness from her friends and conditioned her going to a Jewish Agency summer camp on her parents not telling anyone. At the beginning of camp, Tanya did not participate in any activities. On the third day of camp, after a session about famous Jewish people like Freud and Einstein, Tanya came up to her counselors and asked them: "Are you serious? All of these famous people were Jewish and they weren't ashamed and everyone around them knew about it?" For the rest of camp, Tanya was an active participant, expressing much interest in Jewish history and religion. When she saw a Torah for the first time, Tanya almost burst into tears.
Sometime toward the end of camp, Tanya called her friends and told them that she is Jewish and proud of it. Though Tanya had expected her friends to turn away from her, that didn't happen. In September, Tanya plans to attend a Jewish Agency youth club in Minsk.
A major component of the summer camps is teaching youngsters about Israel – both as an ancient homeland and a modern state. Additionally, the camps present an opportunity to inform campers and their parents about unique aliyah opportunities including the Jewish Agency’s Na’aleh and Selah programs which facilitate the immigration of high school and post-high school students from the FSU.
“This year, I was in the Jewish Agency’s camp in Odessa for the first time. I came with a friend, and it was great,” says 15-year-old Michael of the southern Ukrainian city of Simferopol. “It was very different from all other non-Jewish camps I had been to before. We felt as if we were in Israel! We ate Israeli food, sang Hebrew songs, and danced Israeli dances. I learned a lot of new things about Jews and our traditions. Now, I want to share all these interesting things with my family. I also want to ask my mother and sister to light Shabbat candles.”
The educational team in every Jewish Agency summer camp consists of bright, educated, and creative young people from both Israel and local FSU communities. Much of the camps’ success can be attributed to these exceptional individuals who exhibit deeply-rooted Jewish identities and a love of Israel, as well as strong backgrounds in Jewish history, tradition, and current events. Most campers develop close personal relationships with their counselors and a significant number of youngsters go on to become counselors themselves.
An external evaluation of the summer camps conducted in 2005 by Dr. Daniel Bar-Tal and Dr. Leonard Saxe of the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University concluded that the summer camps play an exceptionally important role in helping children and youth construct meaningful Jewish identity. “Almost all the campers reported learning about Jewish issues and Israel,” they wrote in their report. “The experience contributed to the evolution of Jewish awareness and identity and there was much evidence of how the experience had left its mark. For some campers, it is an addition to their already formed identity and knowledge, while for others it is a basis for further construction of their self-identification.”
All across the FSU, Jewish Agency summer camps have become a cultural lifeline for thousands of young Jews, connecting them with their rich religious and cultural roots and strengthening their relationship with Israel.
See the FSU summer camp blog