By Avital Chizhik
special to eJP
With the arrival of a breezy autumn in Kharkov, students have begun a new school year amidst continuous tension.
With the 5-month-old conflict’s death toll reaching 3,000 according to UN reports, and talks of a ceasefire, most Ukrainian high school students are returning from summers rife with anxiety and fear.
But for dozens of Jewish youngsters, this summer was a rare breath of fresh air – having spent their summer in Israel.
This past summer, 40 young Jews from war-torn Ukraine found necessary, if not ironic, respite in a quiet kibbutz in southern Israel – despite the conflict raging on the Gaza border. Flown to Israel for relief from Ukraine’s most dangerous regions, including Donetsk, these students were participants of ZMAN.IL, a special Jewish Agency for Israel project funded by the Jewish Federations of North America and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.
For most of the youngsters, this was their first introduction to Israel – for weeks, they toured the country, studied Hebrew, delved into Israeli culture, and learned about Jewish history, accompanied by Russian-speaking Israeli staff. The program included a joint activity in a Jerusalem forest with Makom.il, a camp funded by UJA-Federation of NY for 100 Russian-speaking participants from Israel and the former Soviet Union, including ten campers from Kiev.
“There are so few camps for young people from the former Soviet Union in Israel,” said Yana Stepanchenko, 16, one of the participants. “And there are especially few like ZMAN.IL, where you can really see the entire country and introduce young people to daily life in Israel. And especially for those who can’t afford it in normal circumstances, this is an amazing and generous opportunity to see Israel and try to feel, for just a moment, like an Israeli.”
Set in the scenic Kibbutz Kalia with breathtaking views of the Dead Sea, the ZMAN.IL summer camp experience emphasizes Jewish identity with a strong, modern Israel at its center. “I’ve never been in a Jewish camp like this,” said Sasha, 17, of Sumi, Ukraine. “I didn’t know such places even existed in the world. Every day has been incredibly eye-opening for me.”
“At home, things are not calm,” said Nikita Trofimov, 17, of Kharkov. “And this was a great opportunity for a distraction, to get away for a bit and appreciate every day that we spent here, to enjoy Israel with good friends.”
Natan Sharansky, Chairman of The Jewish Agency, commented saying that this programming is central to The Jewish Agency’s work in Ukraine. “This is important not only from a Zionist perspective, but from a humanitarian perspective, as well,” he said. ”I grew up in southeastern Ukraine at a time when our lives were devoid of Judaism, and Zionism was a dirty word. Today we at The Jewish Agency are able to help children in that same region connect to Jewish life and strengthen their ties to Israel … we will continue to do whatever we can to ensure that Jews are safe and secure no matter where they are.”
The Zman.IL program was one of many summer camps organized by The Jewish Agency for children of Ukraine in 2014; another 400 children participated in Jewish Agency camps closer to home, throughout Odessa, Kiev and Primorsk (for children from Dnepropetrovsk and Kharkov).
The growing interest in Israel and Jewish identity among Ukrainian Jews is significant, with Ukrainian Aliyah at a staggering high this year. The Jewish Agency’s Russian-Speaking Jewry unit reports that immigration to Israel from Ukraine has more than tripled since the beginning of 2014, with over 2,000 olim coming to Israel since January of this year, compared to 600 during the equivalent period in 2013. The highest percentage of olim arriving are from southeastern regions of Ukraine, where fighting is heaviest, and some 400 individuals have been rescued from the strife-torn areas and brought to Israel. Interest in emigration continues to grow across the country, with over 1,000 Aliyah consultations in Jewish Agency offices in Dnepropetrovsk in July 2014 alone and 24 Hebrew immersion courses offered; this month, another 80 young adults are making Aliyah alone through Jewish Agency programs.
As for those returning to the streets of Kharkov and Kiev, from the shores of the Dead Sea – they’re hoping for a brighter future, with Israel still on their minds. “I hope that the coming year will bring us quiet in Ukraine,” says a 16-year old Dasha, from Kharkov. “But this summer camp experience in Israel – I hope this program always remains for us, a tradition for us. This camp was truly special, and every child in my community deserves the opportunity to visit Israel, both in wartime and in peace.”
photos of participants at ZMAN.IL; courtesy RSJ Unit of The Jewish Agency