camp comforts

Camp Ramah Yachad returns to Ukraine, offering teens a ‘cocoon’ of calm in wartime

American-Israeli mission visits overnight camp in ‘Sunny Valley,’ hear harrowing stories from participants

Camp Ramah Yachad returned to Ukraine this summer, with over 120 children attending the 11-day session, after being forced to relocate to neighboring Romania last year because of the war.

Despite being located inside Ukraine, which is still regularly bombarded by Russian rocket, drone and artillery strikes, the camp — in Sonyachna Dolyna, which translates to “Sunny Valley,” outside Chernivtsi in western Ukraine (not to be confused with a place of the same name in Crimea) — offered participants a respite from the fighting, which all of them have experienced firsthand to some degree.

“They were living in a cocoon, in a paradise. They were smiling, they were dancing and everything was Jewish,” said Rabbi Leonid Feldman, who was born in the former Soviet Union and served for decades as a pulpit rabbi in West Palm Beach, Fla., before moving to Israel last year.

Feldman was part of a group of American and Israeli supporters of the camp, which is affiliated with both Ramah and Jerusalem’s Schechter Institute, that visited the site over the weekend.

Feldman, who has worked in Jewish education for some 40 years, said the visit was “one of the highlights of my educational life. It was an exceptional experience on so many levels. We were choking up, crying, every 15 minutes.”

Camp Ramah Yachad, which has been running for more than 30 years, relocated to Romania last summer because of the fighting. The transition came with a number of logistical challenges, notably that Ukraine’s military recruitment laws meant that almost no male staff or older male campers could attend as they were barred from leaving the country.

This year, conditions allowed for the camp to return to Ukraine, and the session began on July 28 and ends Aug. 7, with 123 children and 36 staff members, including 24 counselors, two physicians, a psychologist, a number of teachers and kashrut supervisors (mashgichim).

David Kekst, vice chair of Schechter Institutes’ board of directors who helped organize the mission to visit the camp, said the group was relatively small. “Nobody was really that eager to go into Ukraine,” he told eJP, speaking from Romania while waiting for his flight home.

Kekst, a film producer from Los Angeles, said that the American contingent was made up of himself, along with two other Angelenos — Jonathan Anschell, general counsel of Mattel, and Eric Diamond, COO of NKSFB, both of whom are members of Sinai Temple— and Rabbi Alan Iser from Philadelphia. They were joined by Feldman and Schechter Institutes president, Rabbi David Golinkin.

Kekst said the children were constantly expressing their appreciation for the camp and for the foreign visitors, giving them hugs and notes thanking them for coming.

While the campers were all in high spirits, Kekst said the difficult experiences that they had been through and the effects of the war on them were immediately apparent.

Kekst recalled noticing one camper who came up to them, told them his name and then immediately started showing them videos that he’d filmed of bombed buildings and destroyed cars from near his home. “Not, ‘Hi, how do you do? How are you?’ He was really transfixed by this,” he said. “And then a little later, I saw him sitting by himself and looking at his phone… and I see he’s looking at the same images. These are kids who are really being exposed to this horrendous situation.”

Feldman said he’d spoken to one girl from an area that had been occupied by Russian forces who described her experiences and fears during the invasion. “She said, ‘I experienced occupation. I saw with my own eyes when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was sending Chechen soldiers. They were animals. Some of them were running toward us, and I knew that I would either be killed or raped,’” he said. 

The content of the camp also reflected the fact that the program was being held in a country in the middle of a major conflict.

“One of the doctors holds a chug [elective class] on First Aid.  She told the kids that if someone loses a limb, they must tie a tourniquet and note the time that they did so so they can tell an adult or a medic who subsequently arrives,” Kekst said. “I don’t think this is being taught at most Jewish summer camps but obviously this is something these kids need to know.”

During the session, the camp was visited by an alumnus who is now an officer in the Ukrainian military. 

Feldman said he noticed that the soldier was wearing a patch with a Jewish star on his uniform. “I asked him, ‘You’re not worried? There’s no antisemitism?’ He said, ‘No, we’re all in a bunker together, we’re all fighting for survival. I went out of my way to put this on. Putin is saying he’s fighting Nazis, I want people to see what kind of ‘Nazis’ he’s fighting.”

Kekst said the alumnus gave them “a gift” from the Ukrainian military: three MRE (meals-ready-to-eat) rations. “I don’t think he had anything else to give us, but he was moved we’d come all this way and wanted to give us something,” he said. Kekst said they repaid the gift by inviting him to have some whiskey with them.

Kekst said he was still affected by the experience, by hearing the stories from the campers and staff.

“After talking to all the kids, I went back to my room on Saturday night and I called my wife in L.A. and I tried to tell it all to her and I just kept choking up. I couldn’t even finish my sentences,” he said.

There were also more peaceful — but no less dramatic — events during the 11-day session, including a bat mitzvah.

“They trained her to read the Torah and this Shabbat she went up for an aliyah… She was shaking, and they threw candies at her,” Feldman said. “The camp never had a bat mitzvah before. Right after she finished, she ran up to her mom, who came specially for the day — usually they don’t invite parents — and she was weeping and crying. She understood how important this event was in her life.”

Kekst said the camp organized a question-and-answer session over Shabbat, where the campers could ask the visitors whatever they wanted. 

“They said, ‘Why did you come to see us?’” Kekst said. “And I got up and I said, ‘Look, I helped organize this trip. And the reason is that the Jewish people stand as one, and we wanted you to know that we see you, that we hear you, and that we care enough to come and visit you to show solidarity with you.’”

Kekst said he, Anschell and Diamond planned to go back to Los Angeles and talk about the trip at their synagogue and in order to raise money for the camp, which this year had to turn away some applicants for budgetary reasons.

“They want to raise about $50,000 so that next year they don’t have to turn anybody away,” Kekst said. “And we’re gonna do that for them — for sure. I don’t think we’ll have any problem raising it.”

However, Kekst stressed that raising the money for the camp is only a part of the reason why this trip was so important. 

“The American community didn’t do enough in World War II for the Jews of Europe,” he said. “So I think it’s important for the American Jewish community to show [Ukrainian Jews] that we’re paying attention, that we’ve got you and we’re doing everything we can. And that was the real purpose of the trip.”