In the Baltics, Energizing Young Leaders

At Olameinu, summer 2011; photo by Debbie Zimelman - courtesy JDC (eJP summer camp archives).
At Olameinu, summer 2011; photo by Debbie Zimelman – courtesy JDC (eJP summer camp archives).

For 11-year-old Alisa Kukla of Riga, Latvia, participation in Jewish community programs offers a dual treat – the chance to meet people “as crazy as I am and as Jewish as I am.”

This summer, she’s attending Olameinu, JDC’s regional summer camp for children from the Jewish communities of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The camp brings together about 500 kids from across the region.

For the relatively small Jewish communities of the Baltics – about 4,000 Jews in Estonia, 14,000 in Latvia, and 7,000 in Lithuania – cross-communal programs like Olameinu are a critical tactic for building Jewish connections in young generations and strengthening regional bonds.

“The most valuable part of Olameinu is the fact that it manages to attract kids who are normally not involved in Jewish community life at all, and the camping experience itself become their connection to their Jewish identity,” said Ariel Nadbornik, JDC’s representative to Lithuania. “The connection to Jewish identity comes from the things they learn at camp – learning about Israel and Jewish holidays, and learning to be proud of being Jewish in countries where society doesn’t always give that message.”

Alisa said JDC programs have been critical in fostering her sense of Jewish identity, adding that the chance to meet peers from across the Baltics is an exciting opportunity that can’t be overstated.

“I knew nothing about Judaism before I started going to the camps and programs in the community. Everything I know now is from there,” she said. “I want to keep making friends and participating in the Jewish community as long as I can.”

Daniel Kuzmin, 14 – also from Riga – attends a music high school in the Latvian capital and participates in a variety of Jewish programs: community Chanukah and Purim celebrations, Jewish youth group programs, summer camps, and more.

He said he enjoys Olameinu because the campers are “people who enjoy life and are optimistic about the future.”

“I like to be part of the community that is created there. Everyone is happy and enthusiastic, and it’s a great time,” he said. “And I like that I can spend my time with other Jewish kids.”

As for Daniel’s own future, he said he hopes to become a madrich at Olameinu, instilling the same love of Jewish community and culture that he received from the camp to a new group of children in the Baltics.

“I got a lot of knowledge about Judaism and Jewish practices by going to the camp, and more than that  – I got to know that it’s so easy to spend time having so much fun. I want to pass that on to others,” he said. “When we are together at Olameinu, I know we’re all unique, but still, the fact that we are Jewish brings us closer.”

courtesy JDC