In Kiev, the chestnut trees will soon begin to blossom along the central Shevchenko Boulevard – and with spring comes the promise of summer.
Anton Gotlib, director of The Jewish Agency’s summer camp in Kiev, is busy preparing for the busy season ahead. “Camp each year is a new and unique experience of communication with participants,” he says. “We had an exciting training seminar, and we are already planning camp projects, both in art and education. In May we will meet our Israeli colleagues, who will work here for the summer, and in June the camp will begin, so we’re already starting camper recruitment.”
In the former Soviet Union’s Jewish communities, it’s no secret that Jewish summer camp has been the single most powerful tool in connecting young adults to their Jewish identity and empowering them as members of a global Jewish family. Each year, The Jewish Agency summer camp program throughout the FSU creates an immersive Jewish experience for 6,000 Jewish youth. Here, campers are immersed in a fully Jewish experience – often for the first time in their lives.
Art, music, history, cooking, drama, tradition – Kiev’s young Jews are offered a vibrant mix of experiences in a Jewish environment. At the end of the program, campers return home and seek out ways to stay connected, through local Jewish activities and programs. Many of them go on to participate in Taglit-Birthright Israel and then for long-term programs through Masa: Israel Journey.
And many, of course, come back as counselors in Kiev. “Day camp is an important Jewish experience because I can help teens with their Jewish identity, like my madrich helped me,” Kiev resident and counselor Alla, 18, says. “I like working with teenagers. When you prepare something for them or ask yourself about some themes in Jewish history or religion, you can explore it yourself too. It’s a chance to ask yourself those very questions.”
“It gives you experience and leadership skills, to be a counselor,” says Dasha, another madrich, age 26. “Teenagers are so different, and have interesting opinions on all issues and current events. They are creative, gifted and clever. They are open to the world, that’s why I can so much take from them – ideas, thoughts, emotions and approaches, and after that I can see the world in the different light. It inspires me, and helps me create something important.”
In an informal setting, counselors work hard to introduce Jewish and Israel education in ways that appeal to campers of all backgrounds – those who are more affiliated and those who come with no Jewish background whatsoever.
“All Jews should have a connection to Israel,” Dasha says. “It doesn’t depend on the background, age or place. Our young Jews can be the future generation of Israel, or the madrichs for the new generation. It’s very important to get teens involved, because they can change the future of the Jewish world.”
Anton Gotlib still reminisces about a fourteen-year old camper named Aleksandr. “During a session on discovering one's roots, I suggested the campers build a genealogical tree of their families,” he says. “Some participants didn’t know the details about their grandparents, and called home to ask their parents and other relatives. Aleksandr called to find out the last name of his grandfather, and then found out during that conversation that his grandfather was a rabbi in one of the shtetls in western Ukraine. This made a deep impression on Aleksandr and on the whole group. Later on, after the camp, Aleksandr went with his parents to this small town near Sambir, in the Lviv region, to see what has remained there from the shtetl times. Since then, I have heard that Aleksandr became active in Jewish activities in his native Lviv.”
“It reminds you that the primary job of a madrich is not to teach everything Jewish,” Gotlib adds. “The job is to offer an impetus so that the person starts his or her own Jewish journey.”