What Happens After Summer Camp Ends? Lithuanian Jews Look For An Answer

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

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

In secular communities where Judaism as religion has a diminished importance, and in the absence of established Jewish schools or an education network, Jewish summer camps have proven central and pivotal to the reconstruction of Jewish life in post-communist spaces.

From the most notable example – the pan-eastern European annual summer camp in Szarvas, Hungary – down to regional and national gatherings in the former Yugoslavia and the Baltics, these summer camps not only educate children in Jewish history and culture but help fashion communities through the establishment of life-long friendships, relationships, and connections and the training of madrichim who become – in some countries more successfully than others – the next generation of Jewish leaders.

The Baltic Olameinu summer camp program serves the small Jewish communities of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, encompassing hundreds of participants annually for such things as Israeli dance and song workshops and sports tournaments. “From the age of twelve, we had our own community,” Dina Gold, who lives in Vilnius and attended summer camps throughout her teenage years, told eJP. Currently, the Olameinu camps break down into two age groups: those for young kids, aged 7 to 13; and teenagers aged 13 to 17 or possibly 18. Once Jews in the Baltics turn 18, however, thoughts naturally turn to what comes next – and that’s precisely what Jews in Lithuania who have gone through the Olameinu system are now trying to answer.

One proposal, currently being worked on by among others Valentin Solomiak – who, like Gold, I met earlier this month in Vilnius – is to create an alumni network for former Olameinu participants. “People are quitting the Olameinu camps, starting student life, and asking, ‘What should we do next?’” Solomiak explained that creating an alumni association was the easiest way to bring young Lithuanian Jews together, since one is drawing upon an established network and, in a sense, drawning people back to one of the most important and formative periods in their lives.

“I started to go there when I was 15,” Solomiak said of the Olameinu summer camps. “It changed a lot in me and my understanding of what I need to do with my life, how I need to spend my life. I believe for most people, who don’t hold any traditions at home, this is the main Jewish experience in their lives” outside of the Jewish community and the JCC. What’s especially important about Olameinu, Solomiak continued – and this could be said of all Jewish summer camps – is that is brings young people at a formative age, for ten to twelve days, to a space where everyone else is Jewish and therefore shares a kind of common experience, language, and understanding – something that’s often hard to find day-to-day in smaller Diaspora communities.

An Olameinu alumni network would give young Lithuanian Jews a structure within which to connect, or re-connect, with their Jewish identity. “Lithuania is a country where Jewish people are only really being Jewish at events or in the camps. In their regular lives, they don’t really go to synagogue a lot or make a seder in their homes – something connected to their Judaism.” This is why it would important, Solomiak believes, for events organized by the Olameinu network to have Jewish context or a Jewish background “to help them understand that their Jewish lives didn’t finish when they were kids. Even now, being students, they can still be Jewish.”

“At the same time, we would like to make a professional network,” Solomiak continued. As students and young adults, “they’re starting their own business start-ups or working for big companies. We would to be able to share our experience with each other, and maybe work together or do business together.” Thus, the Olameinu alumni network would be about creating a balance between exploring Jewish tradition and having contemporary relevance to their educational and professional lives within a Jewish context. Solomiak is currently aiming for a September start date.

As for Gold, her work has a slightly different focus. Three years ago, she and other members of the Jewish community of her generation whom had got married and had children set about creating programming for young families – starting with a summer camp. “We got to meet people we hadn’t seen for ten years,” Gold said. “It was like bringing your childhood to the present,” she added, and that it was also a chance to give their children a taste of the summer camp atmosphere before they were old enough to go to the Olameinu network.

The second camp two years ago had twice as many participants of the first, Gold told me, and in between the camps, the young families take part in sporadic Shabbatonim. The next step, though, is turning what is now very occasional – summer camps and Shabbatonim – into something more regular, although since organizers are also volunteers with young children and full-time jobs, it is a logistical headache. Celebrating the holidays together, Gold suggested, would be a good way to begin. Evidently, for both the young families program and the Olameinu alumni network to flourish, the workload would need to be taken out the hands of volunteers by a full-time professional employee of the Jewish community dedicated to the needs of young adults.