Camps for Volunteerism:
reshaping the future

by Anna Litovskaya

While having tea with my groupmate Olga Savchuk at Paideia (The European institute of Jewish Studies in Sweden), we started sharing our backgrounds. I had just graduated from the International Relations department of the Linguistic University, Russia, while Savchuk is an ecology student at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy. Yet we had something in common: the experience of going abroad to volunteer at Jewish camps. I did social work in Spain and Israel, some farming in the Czech Republic and Russia, and volunteered as an interpreter, while she had worked as an educator for Jewish camps every summer.

Then we came up with an idea: to create a volunteer Jewish summer camp that would reshape Jewish life in Ukraine.

The vision behind the idea is to create and train a core of volunteers serving small- and medium-sized communities in the Ukraine. Doing so responds to the main need of those communities: sustainable self-development. Currently most communities are sponsored by external funds while many young members remain inactive. The volunteer summer camp aims to promote the notion of volunteering – not a very established one in Ukrainian society – through facilitating a win-win situation: enabling communities to obtain services for free while participants receive new knowledge and skills useful for their professional development. The most important task, of course, is to simultaneously meet the needs of the community and make the camp attractive for participants.

While we received organizational support, it took us more than a year to find the right contacts, raise money, and recruit participants for the pilot camp for the Bila Tserkva Jewish community, which took place last summer. It brought together 14 volunteers ages 14-23, from all over Ukraine as well as Margarita Kortsenshteyn from Moscow and two full-time JDC volunteers from New York.

We figured out the needs of the community while negotiating with Tatyana Kirishun, the head teacher of the Jewish school in Bila Tserkva, who helped us with local logistics. She said that they would need volunteers for cleaning the cemetery, preparing for the celebration of Victory Day, cleaning the grounds of the Jewish summer base, and painting the school front yard. Due to the weather forecast and other scheduled activities, we focused on two tasks. One was to paint the staircases and pavilions in the front yard of the school. That was the creative part of work. In the end, one of the pavilions became a place for self-expression.

“I liked staying in the countryside, meeting new people, visiting the Jewish school, and most of all painting. I’d like the next camp to have more creative activities, singing, dancing, and interacting with kids,” said Margarita Kortsenshteyn, 23, from Moscow.

The other task was to collect wooden sticks and branches on the grounds of the Jewish summer base, where we were living. It was a cozy place in the middle of the woods with little two-room wooden houses and tall old pine trees. Fresh air and a river nearby made us wake up not later than 8 a.m. to enjoy a morning walk. When the participants had free time, they played sports outside, had tea in one of the wooden houses, read, or just talked.

The director of the summer base, a resort mostly for elderly people, was appreciative of our work. Instead of a greeting, she started every morning with a request: “Girls, you have to make more camps like this and bring more young people here – then this place will live!”

Surprisingly enough, the practical part of the work was also embraced enthusiastically. It seems that any task can be entertaining if you turn it into a competition or leave space for self-expression.

“The friendly, family-like atmosphere didn’t let me feel down, even on the coldest days,” said Sergey Rudyansky, 17, from Bila Tserkva, Ukraine, referring to the bad weather of rain five days out of seven.

A volunteer summer camp is not something that has been experienced previously in Eastern Europe. Yet now, as the pilot camp is over, we will continue our work – training volunteers during educational seminars and helping communities through summer camps.

Anna Litovskaya lives in Krivoy Rog, Ukraine.

image: At camp this summer; courtesy Olga Savchuk.

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