This summer marks 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union and the beginning
of a new era for Russian Jewry. For pain-filled decades this population suffered
from discrimination, both in the practice of their religion and in the pursuit
of educational and professional opportunities.
Today, the situation has
changed dramatically. No longer hindered by the constraints of the communist
regime, Russian Jews, alongside their compatriots in post-Soviet countries, now
enjoy most of the liberties previously associated with the West.
this transformation, openly displaying Jewish pride in Russia and other former
Soviet republics remains a very complex issue. While Russian Jews are free to
observe their faith and enjoy freedom of expression, many stigmas still surround
public displays of observance, a reflex rooted in the communist era. Sentiments
of this kind continue to pervade Russian society.
In recent years,
community leaders recognized that in spite of our new freedom, we were losing
the battle to sustain Jewish souls. The answer came in the form of one of
childhood’s most beloved institutions – summer camp.
Project Rimon, an
initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Genesis Philanthropy Group,
has for the past three years been gathering campers together in locations around
the world and providing a common ground for Russian-speaking Jewish youth united
by this unique cultural challenge.
Participants in the Israel program
include Russian- speaking teens from former Soviet countries, new immigrants who
have come to Israel over the past few years and children born in Israel to
parents who were part of the great Russian aliya in the early nineties. These
children often consider themselves more Israeli than Russian.
the population is more of a mosaic than a melting pot. Those with strong
identities that deviate from the standard Israeli one can often feel alienated.
The Rimon camp organizers realize that while the campers do not have to “feel”
Russian, they can uncover the other ways they are one cohesive group – their
As is the case with many Jewish Agency programs, the
focus is on Israel as the source of Jewish pride and inspiration.
two-week period, these children, many of whom viewed Judaism as only their
ethnic heritage but never as a fundamental, defining aspect of who they were,
begin to discover that their Jewish identity had the potential to become a
central facet of their lives.
By developing leadership and creative
skills, and through dialogue about Judaism and Israel, the campers begin to
change their outlook on what it means to be a Jew and how to incorporate their
Judaism into their daily life.
For example, on a day trip to Hasmonean
Village in central Israel, campers discovered their personal and family
connections to the land and people of Israel through the language, food and
dress of various local attractions. Actually seeing the how they are part of the
history and heritage of the Jewish people is an important part of the Rimon
educational program and one that has the most powerful impact on its
The camp never tries to distance the child from his or her
cultural identity – the opposite actually – and we firmly believe that this must
remain an integral part of how the campers views themselves.
questions campers have regarding their “dueling identities” are addressed with
compassion and knowledge and children begin to recognize that their strength and
uniqueness lies in the very complexity of their cultural heritage, with the
connection to Israel at the core.
The author moved to Israel from Moscow
in 1990 at age 8. She most recently served as a staff counselor at Project
Rimon’s summer camp in Israel. She currently resides in Jerusalem.