My introduction to Ukraine began in the check-in line at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Despite torrential rains, our flight was scheduled to leave on time, according to a Ukrainian man standing behind me who spoke in a heavily accented English. Nervous to be flying on the Ukrainian national airline, I turned to him for assurance that AeroSvit would get me there in one piece. Unfortunately, he had none to offer - he hadn't been back to his birthplace in the 14 years since he immigrated to the US. Instead assurance came via a young haredi, who seemed ready to vouch for the airline.
He was one of many haredim to board my plane, a strange counterpart to the high-heeled, flashy Ukrainians - mothers and daughters alike - with bare midriffs and summer bronzed skin.
I had heard about Chabad's efforts in the Ukraine. The "Rebbe's army" acts as a strong presence, sometimes the dominant one, in Jewish outreach efforts throughout the former Soviet Union.
My understanding had been that Chabad and the Jewish Agency were engaged in a turf war, each wanting to shape what was left of the Jewish community in their own mold, particularly in the realm of summer camps. But over the next five days as I traveled to Odessa and Kharkov with a group of journalists, organized and paid for by the agency, it seemed that in Ukraine the organizations had to flex their muscles to suit the needs of the community. Chabad here was not the Chabad of the US nor was it that of Israel.
Ukraine's Jewish community seems to be barely surviving. Most of those who sustained a strong sense of Jewish identity through the post-Stalin era emigrated from the Soviet Union, leaving behind a large group of relatively unidentified Jews, who know very little of their heritage. It is hard to determine exactly how many Jews remain in the former Soviet Union, in part because of problems with lost documentation, but a population survey in 2002 estimated 450,000. With a high intermarriage rate and few affiliated with any Jewish framework, the community is at risk of dying out. That's why for over a decade, Jews of all stripes have been rushing to their rescue, setting up schools and summer camps, ulpanim and community centers, before the window of opportunity closes.
The underlying question for all those engaged in outreach efforts - be it Chabad, the agency, the Orthodox Union or the Reform Movement - was whether Jews have a future here and, if so, what kind.
My instinct was right. The haredi in line with me at the airport was on his way to a Chabad summer camp. When I mentioned the purpose of my trip - visiting Jewish Agency summer camps - our conversation ended abruptly. And when the Ukrainian who stood behind me realized that perhaps I was also a Jew, he too turned away, leaving an awkward silence.
Ukraine, which was known for its fierce anti-Semitism, has not yet transcended its past. Traveling through Odessa and Kharkov, residual anti-Semitism was physically noticeable in several desecrated memorials we visited.
Last year, an Israeli photography exhibit in Kharkov called "That's How We Live" was set on fire two days after opening. Agency officials believed the burned exhibit showed even more poignantly the way Jews live, and demanded that the exhibit remain open in its desecrated state.
Visiting the monumental memorial at Drobitsky Yar, a ravine just outside Kharkov, where in December 1941, Nazi troops began a year-long massacre of local inhabitants, we noticed several Ukrainians picnicking. Some farmers had even begun growing potatoes in the fields surrounding the monument, where thousands of Jews were transported to be killed.
Today's anti-Semitism may be complicated by envy, explained Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz, the chief rabbi of of Kharkov, sitting in his office in the only remaining synagogue in the city. Originally built in 1909, it is a large impressive building that, unlike the rest of the buildings on the block, is set back from the street to conform to a law requiring synagogues to be a certain distance from the cathedral down the block.
"Last year I stopped someone in the park on Succot, as Lubavitchers often do, and asked if he was Jewish," said Moskovitz, who was sent here from his home in Caracas, Venezuela. "He said, 'Unfortunately not.'" Moskovitz used this anecdote to explain the complicated relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish populations.
Maybe in part it was envy, not anti-Semitism, that contributed to the cold shoulder I received from the Ukrainian standing in line with me at JFK. His story, which he warmed up enough to tell me as we crossed the Atlantic, is worth mentioning. Fourteen years after immigrating to America, he was being deported back to his motherland. Upon discovering he was an illegal immigrant, he was sent to jail for three months. And now it was unclear when he would be allowed to return to the US, if ever, and what would become of his family - wife and twins - in New Jersey. He, unlike many Jews in Ukraine, could not rely on relief efforts to come to his rescue.
"The Jewish community around the world cares so much about the Jews in Ukraine," the man in the park told Moskowitz.
It was the manifestation of this - in particular, Jewish summer camps - that we came to view first-hand.
"Israel Is Real"
We arrived on a Wednesday evening at a summer camp in the outskirts of Kharkov. The following evening, standing in front of a makeshift barricade, we watched as a group of 14-17-year-olds were told about the various ghettos. They listened attentively and asked questions. For several of them, this appeared to be the first time they were exposed to a history that has directly impacted their families and their own identity as Jews.
The evening, billed as a "Visit to Yad Vashem"- a mini-version of the real museum that counselors and camp directors imported - was one segment of the seven day sessions which this year centered on the theme: "Israel Is Real."
At this camp, one of several the agency operates, Ukrainian youths get a chance to live like their Israeli counterparts: They study in an Israeli school, spend a day in the army, they enroll in a university, learn about the history of Israel and its contemporary political situation, go to work and relax on Shabbat in typical secular Israeli fashion-at the beach.
The campus, situated on the northeastern Ukrainian countryside, is a resort called "Eilat" which is owned by two Jewish businessmen and one non-Jew. For the past four summers, the agency has rented the site. The walls throughout the campus bore evidence of the activities - names of political parties side by side with a list of Israeli universities and possible professions.
Inside the makeshift museum, the walls were studded with photographs framed with barbed wire. Many of the photos were of Holocaust memorial sites in cities across Ukraine, including Kharkov, where some campers live. Some showed contemporary youth visiting concentration camps. The room was meant to inspire kids to think about the various ways in which we remember the Holocaust.
When visitors make it through the narrow tunnel of harrowing exhibits at the new Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, they exit onto an incredible vista that overlooks the city. The trajectory sends a not-so-subtle message, that after the Holocaust comes Israel. The relief is tangible for all who exit.
A similar vista awaited campers in Kharkov as they emerged from their visit to the mini-Yad Vashem. The relief at the end of the tunnel was a "Solidarity with Israel" celebration intended to reflect celebrations that took place in 1948 when the UN voted to establish the State of Israel. Here too the relief was tangible.
Campers flooded "Tel Aviv," a tent decorated with hundreds of Israeli flags. Most of the 100 teenagers attending the camp participated in the opening ceremony with a coordinated dance to "Kan Noladeti" which blasted from the loudspeakers. A screen projected the night's motto: "Jews of the World, Unite," a play on "Workers of the World, Unite." Old Russian folk songs were sung, but the words had all been changed to glorify Israel. The air was thick with anticipation as campers and instructors made speeches arguing in favor of the Israeli state.
The evening closed with a broadcast of the UN vote, and the group broke out in loud applause. Campers and counselors alike rose for "Hatikva," and then stormed to the edges of the tent to watch an impressive array of fireworks
Stay or make aliya
For many children, camps such as the one in Kharkov are an entry point into year-round Jewish activities that focus on issues touched on during the summer.
"Seven days of camp are not enough to reach our goals," said Jan Friedman, the agency educational emissary who directs the camp. Aside from helping Jews to develop their identity, the camp tries to provide a venue for Jewish kids to socialize with each other. "It's important for kids, especially for those who come from small towns, to feel they aren't alone in this experience, that they are part of something bigger." At the end of the summer, Friedman, 30, will return to Israel after having spent three years in the Ukraine.
This year there are approximately 70 agency camp sessions, generally one week long, at 22 locations throughout the former Soviet Union, with 11 locations in Russia; four in the Ukraine; and one each in Moldova, the Baltic states, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
In all, an estimated 10,000 children will participate in the camps. In addition, another 2,000 university-age young adults are attending camps for college students. In total, the camp operation (which mainly focuses on the summer, but also includes some winter sessions) costs the Jewish Agency approximately $10 million.
In preparation for the 2007 summer camp season, approximately 610 local counselors took part in a series of training seminars whose curriculum emphasized Jewish identity, history and tradition, contemporary Israel and Jewish festivals.
Each camp has its own emphasis, which depends in part on the age range and in part on funding. For instance, camps funded by the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims tend to focus heavily on the Holocaust. Other camps, such as the "Artists' City" which we visited in Odessa, funded largely by Jewish federations in the US, offered kids ages six to nine an opportunity to work with physical materials to create their Jewish world based on their thoughts and feelings. One of the main principles of the camp is "we will do and we will understand," a Jewish concept that emphasizes the importance of deeds even before learning the full meaning behind them.
If the camps are only one part of the agency's agenda, what exactly was the underlying objective behind its overall outreach efforts? In the four-day trip, this question emerged again and again.
Does the agency believe Jews have a future in the former Soviet Union, or is it promoting aliya as the best available option? The camp in Kharkov seemed to suggest the latter. But agency officials insisted time and again that they weren't advocating either, they simply wanted to give Jews the ability to choose what was best for them.
"At the end of the day, everyone chooses what to do with his life," said Chaim Kapelnikov, head of the agency in Ukraine and Moldova. "We are not in any way against the community here, and we don't tell anyone to make aliya, we only give them the option. If someone chooses to live here, we want him to be part of a flourishing community."
The heavy concentration on Israel at the Kharkov camp is relatively new, explained Friedman, who has been running it for the past three summers.
Before she took over, the camp focused more on Judaism and Jewish history. "The kids asked for the camps to be more focused on the Israel of today because it was the easiest way for them to connect," she said. "They know the religious aspect is available to them through rabbis and synagogues in the area, but we are the only Zionist organization here and we can give them something they lack."
With the years the camp has moved thematically more toward Israel. Three years ago the seven-day sessions were based on the creation story - every day was based on one day of creation. Last year, the theme was "Building a City," and each day was devoted to unraveling one word in the "Hatikva" line that begins: "To be a free nation in our land."
"This year we thought about how best to connect them to Israel today, and we decided on a cycle of life, where every day they get to experience another stage of life," said Friedman. "The goal is to present Israel as part of Jewish identity, whether they stay in Ukraine or make aliya."
Despite differences in emphasis between Chabad and the agency, which each sponsors a range of educational and social activities, both groups spoke respectfully of each other. Sometimes the two cooperate on certain events. More significant is the fact that many kids often participate in camps and other activities sponsored by a variety of organizations.
"Once kids get interested in Judaism, they go to as much as possible," said Rabbi Moskowitz. Chabad operates a day school, a yeshiva for boys (50 students), a machon for girls (40 enrolled) and an academy for girls who finish the machon. Many of the kids who study at the Chabad school in Kharkov attend agency activities in the afternoon. "They end up seeing Israel and Judaism as one thing."
Last year, 7,500 Jews made aliya from the former Soviet Union, 35 percent of the worldwide total. This year, the agency expects that number to drop by 10%, according to Alex Selsky, who led the trip to Ukraine for journalists. Whether the camps and other outreach efforts contribute to aliya is hard to measure, but based on responses from participants and counselors, they seem to have a tangible impact.
"This is the third time I'm here and every time I feel more and more proud to be Jewish when I go back into the world," said Dima Ruchinsky, whose father lives in Israel. In a room of about 20 campers and counselors, a handful said they were considering aliya.
Asked what leading a good Jewish life meant, Ruchinsky responded: "I lead a good Jewish life; leading a good Jewish life is feeling comfortable as a Jew."
On my flight back from Ukraine, I was reminded of something Kapelnikov told us at the end of our tour of Kharkov: "Here you see the horror of our people and the hope of our people." After visiting several memorials throughout Ukraine, monuments to a century that did not bode well for the Jews, to see a group of young Jews dancing to Israeli music was a vista more real than the one at the end of Yad Vashem.
Against all odds, the Jewish community in Ukraine was being offered a second chance, whether through strengthening itself or by relocating to Israel.
And then I thought again of the Ukrainian who had been deported from the US and separated from his family, and I thought about the unlikelihood that he too would get a second chance.