In War-Weary Ukraine, American-Staffed Summer Camp Bolsters Jewish Youth
By Dovid Margolin
ZHITOMIR, Ukraine – Eleven-year-old David Tesla sat on sun-speckled steps, fingering a gold sports medal draped around his neck. It was a year ago, July 2015, the last day of the summer session at Camp Gan Israel Yeka, Ukraine, and the boy was pensively waiting for his ride home.
Not that the one room where he lived with his parents was home. A Jewish child of the war-torn far-eastern city of Lugansk, Tesla has not had a home in the nearly two years since his family packed their meager possessions and drove out of rebel-controlled city in August of 2014. His home and school – since the age of 4, David had attended the Chabad-Lubavitch Or Avner Beth Menachem Jewish Day School in Lugansk – are both gone.
The boy smiled shyly as he discussed what he loved most about his summer at Gan Israel Yeka – a Chabad summer camp that is a part of the Federation of Jewish Community’s (FJC) network of 61 Gan Israel summer camps throughout the former Soviet Union. The summer had been a bright spot for David, who back in Lugansk had heard the deafening boom of artillery shells land on neighborhood soccer fields and could describe the yellow streak of rockets passing overhead. He had made Jewish friends his own age and connections with his American counselors; he loved the energy that filled the dining room during the Friday-night Shabbat meal. His team had even won the camp’s sports league championships, a victorious 1-0 soccer game. And there was no war. But now, it was over. “Of course, I’m going to miss camp,” he said quietly.
In the year since, life has not gotten easier. David’s mother passed away five months ago. After that, the family’s plans to immigrate to Israel via the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews’ aliyah program came to an end. Tesla now lives with his father, who is not Jewish, at the nascent Anatevka Jewish community outside of Kiev, which is made up mostly of refugees from Ukraine’s devastated east.
In two weeks, David will head back to the camp he knows simply as “Yeka,” a place that has become for him a place of Jewish educational growth and an island of stability and love. He is not the only one.
From Aug. 16 to Aug. 30, more than 250 Jewish boys from all socio-economic levels will arrive for another summer there, which for the first time will be held at the state-of-the-art Goluboya Plamya (“Blue Flame”) campgrounds on the shore of the Azov Sea. With manicured soccer fields, well-paved tennis and basketball courts, a volleyball pitch and a professional extreme skate park, organizers say that Yeka’s new grounds have raised interest in Jewish camping in Ukraine to a new level. The robust growth of programs for Jewish youth, they add, foreshadows a more optimistic future for Ukraine’s Jewish community.
Partners on the Ground
Camp Gan Israel Yeka opened 16 years ago as one of a string of Gan Israel summer overnight and day camps stretching from Zhitomir, Ukraine, to Vladivostok, Russia.
During the 2008 worldwide economic crisis, Yeka saw much of its funding cut, but it managed to remain open. Conditions became even more difficult during the aftermath of Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution, which precipitated the two-year-old war with pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east that has claimed 9,400 lives and caused a total collapse of the Ukrainian economy.
Yeka was propped up for years by dedicated groups of young American Chabad rabbinical students, who aside from fundraising large portions of the camp’s budget summer after summer also worked with the FJC and Chabad emissaries on the ground to organize camper registration and logistics. This year, Yeka is partnering with Shiurei Torah Lubavitch, or STL, a Dnepropetrovsk-based Chabad organization that creates and runs innovative programming for Jewish youth throughout Ukraine.
“For us, camp is not just a side project; it’s an integral part of a much larger program of providing a Jewish education and a positive Jewish experience to young people,” says STL’s director Dan Makagon. In the last year, STL has also partnered with the Chabad’s international teen network, CTeen, as well as its children’s organization, CKids. “Children who come to camp have an amazing time. Those who do not attend Jewish schools meet children in similar circumstances as them from around the country, and it’s a significant step towards them joining STL’s CTeen and CKids programs, and becoming more actively involved in Jewish life.”
The first Camp Gan Israel opened in 1956 in Ellenville, N.Y., with the Lubavitcher Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory – emphasizing the impact that a powerful Jewish summer experience could have on a child.
“During the summer months, when children are not restricted to school discipline and are less inhibited by their secular studies, it is an excellent time to give them every opportunity to attend an overnight camp, or at least a day camp, which is administered by a staff who treasure the Torah-true way of life, and that together with their regular recreational activities time be set aside each day for Jewish educational study and instruction,” stressed the Rebbe in 1977. “This summer experience could imbue the young boy or girl with the necessary warmth and vitality of Yiddishkeit which would remain with them for the rest of the summer and the year to come.”
Gan Israel Moscow became the first-ever Jewish children’s camp in the eastern bloc when it opened in the then-USSR in the summer of 1990.
‘Feeling of Responsibility‘
What has set Yeka apart from other camps is its all-volunteer structure. Not only have Yeka staff members never been paid, but along with their own tickets, they fundraise much of the budget needed to ensure that the camp continues functioning. This summer they are in the midst of a $150,000 campaign.
Today, the camp’s director is 23-year-old Yisroel Eichenblatt, who first came to Yeka six summers ago after being convinced to go by his older brothers, both Yeka alumni. After his first summer, Eichenblatt returned to the United States determined to learn Russian.
“That year, I sat down every day and practiced my Russian-language skills,” he recalls. “I started with Russian in 10 Minutes a Day and then memorized lists of common words, then moved on to phrases.”
Ever since, the California native has spent each summer and most Passovers in Ukraine, speaks a fluent Russian and easily converses with campers. Other American counselors have been known to pick up the language, especially staff members who keep returning.
“There’s a certain feeling of responsibility that you get when you become involved with Yeka,” says Eichenblatt. “You feel a responsibility to the kids; you know they’re relying on you. As important as a Jewish summer experience in America is, giving Jewish children in Ukraine an amazing summer can literally change their lives and their entire family.
“For us, there’s a feeling of: If we don’t make Yeka happen, who will?”
It’s the dedication and passion of the American yeshivah students who have run Yeka year after year that attracted STL.
“We could make our own summer camp,” says Makagon, “but nobody has such counselors. They bring a life into camp that no amount of professionalism could make up for, and that’s why partnering with them was such a natural step for us. Together, we could give the children the best of both.”
Makagon explains that STL brings with it a lively Jewish-educational curriculum designed for children, and a level of professionalism that has allowed them to attract more kids from middle- and upper-class families.
“We want all children to have a good Jewish experience,” insists Makagon. “By basing the camp on a beautiful grounds – with conditions up to par with every top-level non-Jewish camp in this country, and there are some amazing camps here – we’re able to give all Jewish children that opportunity, those who can’t afford to pay tuition, but those who can, too.”
A separate Yeka session for girls, which drew 120 participants and is currently in its second summer, is now wrapping up at the FJC’s Or Avner Educational Campus in Zhitomir.
‘I Chose Shabbat’
Kiev native Aron Vaskovskyy began kickboxing at age 10. By age 12, he was training five days a week and taking part in Ukraine Boxing Championships for his age range. Boxing is a widely popular sport in Ukraine (Ukrainian brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko are former world heavyweight champions; Vitali Klitschko is now the mayor of Kiev), and Vaskovskyy was advancing rapidly.
During the summer that he was set to turn 13, he was already training twice a day. When Vaskovskyy’s mother heard about Camp Yeka from a Chabad rabbi in Kiev, she suggested that her son take a break and spend two weeks in the relaxing atmosphere of the Jewish overnight camp.
“I really didn’t want to go because it was a religious camp, and I wasn’t interested,” says Vaskovskyy, today 17.
His first days were difficult. He didn’t know the Jewish songs. He had never seen children his age praying. But as the days went by, he started to let it all sink in.
“I had thought religious Jews just sat and studied all day long,” he says. “In Yeka, I saw these Americans counselors in kipahs and tzitzits running around, playing sports, having fun. You could be a normal person and live like a Jew, and I had never realized that before.”
Towards the end of camp, Vaskovskyy asked to have a brit milah arranged for him. When it – and camp – was over, the young boxer was in no condition to compete in the boxing championship he had hoped for. When he finally was back to form, he didn’t want to train on Shabbat, and so began trying to exchange his Saturday training sessions for Friday.
“Then my trainer told me that if I was serious about competing, I needed to train every day. I needed to make a decision,” he recalls. “I took a few days to think about what I wanted, Shabbat or boxing. I chose Shabbat.”
Soon thereafter, Vaskovskyy’s older brother David, also a boxer, became interested in his Jewish heritage as well. His parents were at first mixed about their talented sons’ decision to leave the sport, especially his father, who is not Jewish.
“Today, both of my parents look at it very positively,” says Vaskovskyy, who ended up going to the yeshivah in Dnepropetrovsk, and is this summer himself a counselor at Camp Gan Israel Moscow. “Even my father, he sees the friends we grew up with – not all of them are on the straight path in life. We are living an entirely different life than the one so many of our peers are, and they’re thankful for that. “Yeka was the beginning of all of this.”
Eichenblatt and the camp’s longtime American staff see a bright future for Camp Yeka in its slightly reincarnated form, happy to see the project they put so much time and effort into expand.
Makagon notes the support they have received from Dnepropetrovsk’s chief rabbi and head Chabad emissary Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki; and Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. In the last year specifically, Merkos has been investing heavily in youth activities in Ukraine through its CTeen and CKids programs.
Makagon also rejects predictions of the demise of the Ukrainian Jewish community, adding that plans are in place to grow Camp Yeka to 450 boys and 450 girls for the summer of 2017.
“This generation of children is our Jewish future,” he states. “Each year, we’re growing. In five years, we are going to show the world what Ukraine’s Jews are capable of.”