By Sarah Leah Lawent
Like their counterparts in the West, most Jewish campers in the former Soviet Union receive the most extensive, joyous and impactful encounters with their heritage and traditions during the summer months. What makes some of the 5,000 campers in the 61 Chabad-Lubavitch Gan Israel camps in the FSU so different than others, though, is that many of them have suffered through the trauma of war, displacement and even witnessing death, while many others come from families whose connection with their Jewish roots was severed during decades of Soviet oppression.
The Gan Israel camp program was established in the 1950s by theLubavitcher Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory; it opened the first camp in the former Soviet Union in 1990. Today, under the auspices of the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC), that number has grown to include dozens of Gan Israel camps throughout Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Estonia and Latvia.
Following the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991 the pressing needs of Jewish communities in the post-Soviet world led to the formation of an organization whose goal was to unite many diverse and widespread communities – the FJC, which was brought into existence through the efforts and generosity of businessman and philanthropist Lev Leviev and his wife Olga. Lev Leviev continues to serve as president of the umbrella organization, which supports Jewish life in hundreds of communities in 10 time zones.
“That first year was a tremendous success, even though there was no running water or other basics,” said Rabbi Daniel Gordon, who works with the FJC. “Today, we provide basic humanitarian relief to these children – children who have seen more tragedy and death than anyone should have to see. We are able to give them hot meals, beds and provide campuses for their activities that include crafts, sports, swimming, and also are designed to connect the kids to their roots. And this goes for all campers, whether they are with us for two days or two weeks.”
Chabad’s emissary in Rostov, Rabbi Chaim Danzinger, who has been active in Gan Israel programs for many years, explained, “You have to understand, we start planning activities for months in advance. We want the children to also receive as much Jewish connection as they can – but in a fun way. So special outings, Shabbatons, etc are geared to make Judaism an enjoyable thing to learn about, not a heavy weight around their necks.”
“You need to be aware that the counselors receive special training in how to supply the kids with what they need – physically and spiritually. It is a huge blessing that so many of our alumni who have taken it upon themselves to keep the mitzvot return to function as staff. And from here, we have young people who are local, with knowledge of the language, history and culture, who really know how to connect with the children, and go on to really connect in their home towns, villages and cities to become the next leaders of the Jewish communities,” Danzinger continued.
‘Everything Is Good’
The story attracted the attention of the Lugansk Jewish community. Community activists turned to the Jewish community of Rostov in neighboring Russia with a request to place Katya in camp.
The Rostov Gan Israel summer camp caters to children who have been exposed to the war that’s been raging in eastern Ukraine for the past two years. Most of the children have lost loved ones or are in other ways traumatized by what they have heard and seen. “There is a matter of sensitivity to be considered,” the request read. “The young girl is attached to her grandmother and won’t go without her. Could grandma also come to camp?”
The unusual request was received in the affirmative: Katya went to camp with her grandmother.
The camp has just opened its doors to 35 child refugees from war-torn Ukraine, in addition to the 125 children from the city of Rostov itself. The children take part in swimming, boating, outdoor sports, dance, art, woodwork, acting and a host of other activities. The camp is run within a framework for Jewish discovery, in which the children learn about their heritage in entertaining and educational ways. In Rostov, as in all Gan Israel camps, youngsters are introduced to the concept of unity and “Ahavat Yisrael” (‘love of a fellow Jew’), and in that same vein encouraged to perform deeds of kindness.
While most Gan Israel campers in the FSU come from homes far from zones of war and terror, hundreds in camp this year are refugees from armed conflict.
Ten-year-old Katya Ivanova, an orphan who lives with her grandmother, Anya, was frightened and alone during one particularly severe day of bombing earlier this year in Lugansk, in eastern Ukraine. Her grandmother said she returned from work that day to find the young girl in a fetal position, shaking and begging her: “Please never leave me again – never leave, never leave me, please!”
One evening, reporters from a local news station visited to interview some of the campers. The previously introverted Katya made her way over to them and by her own volition asked to say a few words. She told them: “I was invited to attend this camp and fulfill my dream.”
Continued the little girl: “I live with my mom. She is really my grandma, but I have been with her ever since my parents died. I am from Lugansk. I am afraid of war. I don’t even step outside the house without my grandmother. But here,” she paused to look around at the campgrounds and her new friends, “here everything is good, calm and peaceful. I have so many friends, and the views are amazing. I love the things we learn about Judaism and the stories they tell us. I can’t wait to come back next year.”
“But you didn’t tell us what your dream is?” asked one of the reporters.
“That I should stop feeling sad over the loss of my parents. That when the war is over, I will have my own violin and I’ll practice every day. And that when I grow up, I will be a famous musician.”