Jewish camp revival spreading across FSU

The summer getaways were formed to do much more than just entertain children.

jew camp 224.88 (photo credit: )
jew camp 224.88
(photo credit: )
By the time Nikita Khrushchev took the premiership of the former Soviet Union in 1958, most of the 5,000 synagogues functioning prior to the Bolshevik Revolution were closed. During this period, the practice of Judaism had became impossible in a land so many Jews called home. In the last two decades, however, the region has seen a revival of Jewish life spearheaded by religious youth camps established in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). If Stalin were alive to see the flocks of Jewish children congregating at the growing number of camps, he may have wondered where his vision for an atheist society went awry. Gan Israel, which has been running for 19 years is the largest network of Jewish camping in the world according to their website. The network has locations across the FSU from Siberia to St. Petersburg, with 85 day camps hosting approximately 2,000 participants, and 24 overnight camps with approximately 6,000 campers. "The goal of the camp is that children who are year around not exposed to anything Jewish can come and enjoy 24 hours surrounded by Jewish tradition, history and fun," explained Rivka Klein, director of Gan Israel camps in Moscow. "We hope they see how interesting, pleasant and fun being Jewish can be, which is so opposite of what their parent's grew up with." The FSU camps spend a little over $2 million annually and are funded exclusively by private donors. "Around 20 to 30 percent of the funds come from local donors and the rest is international," Klein said. While each camper requires $240 in funds, the families themselves only pay about $20 per child. All staff and counselors are volunteers, and in Moscow the counselors are alumni of Gan Israel while in other camps counselors often come from the US and Israel, according to Klein. "I think the first seed is planted at Gan Israel. When you have a child that is excited, impressed and learning it's a very important part of the community. We hope that [the camps] will give them tools and good memories," said Klein. "It should inspire them to find out more and research and develop their roots." The summer getaways were formed to do much more than just entertain children. "The long-term goal of the camps is to fight assimilation and intermarriage," said David Mondshine, general director of the Or Avner Foundation, a fund for Jewish education in the FSU. "Most of the kids do not have Jewish fathers. It is hard to find kids with two Jewish parents, which is reflective of our situation." The camp identifies a child as Jewish exclusively by the mother's religion. "You see a big change in the families. We hear a lot from the parents [who] didn't have a chance to learn the things that the kids are learning now. They are learning from the kids and are happy about it," continued Mondshine. With about 50% of the children attending public schools upon returning to their communities, Gan Israel must address the issue of absorption back into secular society after the summer is over. "What I hear from the children is that Russia is becoming more and more accepting. I don't think that being a minority is extremely hard for them because they get bad stuff for it, it is hard because they are alone without a support system," said Klein. "That is why we try to provide events weekly." Gan Israel has established centers throughout the FSU for children seeking to continue their Jewish education throughout the year. Other organizations have also begun establishing camps throughout the FSU in an effort to extend religious education into the world of Russian Jewry. The American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee and the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey have been running a camp in Cherkassy, Ukraine for 11 years. The camp has about 100 participants including parents, who are directly integrated into the camp's activities. Families pay a minimal fee for participation, most of the cost being covered by the MetroWest Jewish Community. "I can see a change in the community. They are celebrating a new Jewish life. You see a family learning together how to do a Shabbat and celebrating together for the first time," said Michal Zur, program director for MetroWest Jewish Communities Israel office. "It's sad that they had to go through dark periods of nothing connected to Judaism, but now they are rediscovering [their heritage] and we feel that people are committed and really want to learn more." The UJC is sending two counselors each from the US and Israel to the Ukraine this year. The representatives will be training for their summer positions this week in Jerusalem. "I have worked with Jewish teens from all over the world and [my experiences in the Ukraine] were the most inspiring for me. You see people that have a desire to connect and to learn. The connection triangle between the Americans, Israelis and Ukrainians is exciting. Even with the language barriers they make connections," Zur said.