Summer camp for Ukrainian refugees was a vacation to disconnect

A bus went on a 48-hour journey to collect Ukrainian refugees around Europe for a summer camp in Sastreria, Italy.

 UKRAINIAN REFUGEES cross a bridge at the buffer zone to the border with Poland, Zosin-Ustyluh crossing, western Ukraine, in March (photo credit: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)
UKRAINIAN REFUGEES cross a bridge at the buffer zone to the border with Poland, Zosin-Ustyluh crossing, western Ukraine, in March
(photo credit: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

On a Monday morning, the bus – with two drivers who took over from each other every eight hours – left from Kyiv on the way to a summer camp for teenagers, Ukrainian refugees dispersed all over Europe.

There were about 10 youngsters from Kyiv. After a 16-hour journey, they arrived in Poland, where they picked up refugees in Krakow and then Warsaw. From there, the bus made its way to Austria, where more boys and girls got on in Vienna, and after another four hours, another pick-up in Munich, Germany. By this time, the back seats had been taken. On to Zurich, Switzerland; Milan, Italy and then only another four hours to the campsite in the Alps on the French-Italian border.

After a 48-hour journey for the Kyiv group, the final stop was the holiday village of Sastreria, Italy.

Four months ago, I had met some of the participants on the Moldova-Ukraine border, when then to they came off buses. But then, they had fled their homes in Odesa, Kharkiv or Kyiv in the death of night, with the aim of crossing the border westwards.

This time, the long journey was a trip to take a break. A vacation detached from the detached life these young people have been living for the last few months.

 UKRAINIAN JEWISH immigrants – including this small child – arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport, in February.  (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) UKRAINIAN JEWISH immigrants – including this small child – arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport, in February. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

The right to be a refugee

These young men and women came together from all over Europe – groups of three, five, ten, from Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Turkey, Germany, Austria, France, Spain, Switzerland and Italy.

They are all connected to the social networks, which is where they saw a “Zionist Midrasha” advertisement for a summer camp for young people who had left war-torn Ukraine. One friend told another, and then another, and the ad passed like wildfire from parents to children and children to parents all over Europe on the various WhatsApp groups.

The temptation was irresistible. Seven days of vacation amidst a life without a home. However, there were concerns.

The conditions are clear. You are forbidden to leave the country that let you in as long as you are considered a “refugee,” a status you hold for the first two years. If you complete the refugee process smoothly, only then can you acquire the coveted citizenship – whether Austrian, German, or French.

Although the borders are open and chances are slim you’ll be caught, the fear of losing their “refugee” status is still very real for the parents. Who would have believed that the right to be a refugee would be so precious?

As I’m pondering that, one of the camp staff draws my attention to the fact that should any of them choose to immigrate to Israel, an Israeli ID card and Israeli citizenship will be already waiting for them at the airport.

What’s your story?

Each of the participants has a fascinating story. Approximately 50,000 Jews who fled from Ukraine are now in various European countries, having chosen a different option from the 35,000 who immigrated to Israel over the last few months.

Some are still waiting for the war to end so they can go back to Ukraine. Others fled to the West and then, when they realized the war was not ending any time soon, they returned to their bleeding homeland to be together with their families and their relatives who had enlisted. Still others decided to begin a new life in Europe and are waiting for citizenship. Some even made aliyah years ago, returned to Ukraine and for various reasons cannot go back to Israel.

They have been living out of suitcases for four months, tossed between the wish to empty their bags and settle down and the hope of returning to their homeland.

Call-up to the reserves

Twenty years ago, The Zionist Midrasha was set up in Ukraine to introduce a Jewish educational perspective integrating Judaism and Zionism. It was active for more than a decade all over the Former Soviet Union and hundreds of young people returned to their Judaism and developed a connection to the State of Israel. Many of them made aliyah and are living in Israel today.

It’s now five years since the Midrasha was last active. It essentially killed itself off, for each cohort of graduates became a new generation of leaders who made aliyah to Israel, and with the leaders leaving year after year, they just couldn’t continue operating effectively in Ukraine.

Their “Leadership Engine” is planted well and truly in Israel. The war has reignited the Midrasha. With one blow of the commander’s whistle, the gang has signed up for “reserve” duty. Within just two weeks, they set up a team, found a hotel, recruited the participants and planned the educational program. About 20 staff members turned up for the counselor training (on Zoom) to declare “We’re In!”

The Midrasha had come alive again. And thanks to the World Zionist Organization, Mosaic and the Jewish Agency, the camp was able to happen.

The team came from diverse situations and backgrounds: singles aged 20-25; Zionist Midrasha graduates who had made aliyah; counselors who had escaped to Israel from the war but a few months ago and now want to go back to help those left behind; families who made aliyah 20 years ago together with their Israeli children who grew up with stories of their parents’ history and heritage… but all were committed to the task in hand. They were living their mission, a mission embedded into their DNA. Like Leah, born in Israel to new immigrants in the ‘90s, who struggled with her memory to retrieve her Russian mother tongue, even though it is not the language of her people.

The professionals

There is often a tendency to think that informal education is a collection of improvisations, spiced with fun with a shallow message thrown in here and there. Not so with the professionals at the Zionist Midrasha. The theme of the camp, “Giving a Future to Our Past,” included a historical perspective of a nomadic people wandering in exile for thousands of years, and a search for answers to the question of why? For what purpose?

What is the meaning of all the various wanderings in Jewish history? And how do they compare to the participants’ experience of exile and refugeeism today, model 2022?

Everything at the camp carried meaning, even that it took place in Italy (though, practically, it was the only place available two weeks beforehand). The “Informalists” of the Zionist Midrasha understood that if they were already going to Italy, the camp should at least address the significance of the location. Eliezer Sharodensky, the camp’s educational director, explained to me, “Italy represents a double gateway. Titus’s Arch and the destruction of 2,000 years ago, and the gateway of return and redemption, with dozens of illegal immigrant ships sailing from its ports after the Second World War.

Italy was a transition point for some of the most significant chapters in our history. In that context, the participants were also at a crossroads in their lives and could identify with the Jewish story as their story too. “That enabled us not only to touch key points in Jewish identity, but also to speak frankly about what these young people are experiencing right now, without it sounding boring or unconnected.”

Why the camp?

When I asked the camp’s educational coordinators for their answer to the question, “What for?” They told me: “Something has shaken up reality and this is an opportunity to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It was 25 years ago when the Iron Curtain collapsed and a million Jews immigrated to Israel. There are still hundreds of thousands who have yet to hear the call.”

This horrific war is another wake-up call for those on the fence. In the camp, we challenged them with the questions, showed them the historical processes and allowed them space to choose how they wanted to respond.

When the Italian camp ended, the entire team switched to France, for another camp, this time for families. For the 50 families who attended (without the men who had stayed back to fight in Ukraine), who have been living out of suitcases for months, the question became more practical rather than merely philosophical. By the first of September, they’ll have to decide where they want to send their kids to school. Refugee stipends will stop and they’ll have to find work, still waiting with “unpacked suitcases” in the hope of an imminent return to Ukraine. They have to make decisions and the Zionist Midrasha team are there to direct the traffic at this critical junction in their lives.

We’re on vacation now!

I was chatting with a few of the girl participants who had joined me in the elevator. They told me they were from Odesa and they were going back to Odesa after the camp. I was curious to know what they were feeling. Did they experience the bombings themselves? Has anyone from their families been hurt? Why didn’t they escape? Despite their excellent English, they didn’t really cooperate and I saw they weren’t particularly impressed by my empathy or curiosity.

When I told Elisha, the camp director, he said the rules were very clear. “You don’t speak to the children about the war. We’re not here to help them process their war experiences. We’re on vacation now! Having a good time, enjoying some fun learning and just detaching. If the children want to speak, we give them the space to do so, and we listen.”

Tisha Be’av at camp

In 1997, I took my first steps in the world of Diaspora Jewry when I was sent to Kyiv to be a counselor in a camp run by the Bnei Akiva youth movement and the Jewish Agency. Tisha Be’av fell in the middle of the camp and I remember the deliberations about how we should talk to the children about this day that they had never even heard of before. In the end, to mark the day, we asked them to build a model of the Temple all night and to position it at the entrance to the camp in the morning.

As soon as they did so, the counselors rushed in to destroy it, in front of the shocked participants. We had wanted to create a feeling of loss among the participants, as an opening trigger to simulate the story of the destruction of the Temple.

With 25 years of hindsight, that was obviously quite an appalling tactic, an act that would not necessarily have induced any identification with the message. At this year’s camp, we didn’t need any dramatic or manipulative techniques. Over the last few months, these boys and girls have experienced a very personal exile and the literal destruction of their own homes.

All that remains for us is to show them the way to the Land of Israel.

The writer is director of spiritual services in the Diaspora in the World Zionist Organization and the Mizrachi representative in Israel’s National Institutions.