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Jewish Life Flourishes at Belarus Summer Camp

Jewish Life Flourishes at Belarus Summer Camp

The fears and uncertainties surrounding the continuing crisis in Ukraine has had an effect on this year’s Inter-Regional Summer Camps, hosted by the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Minsk and Belarus. The crisis begin in the fall of 2013, when President Yanukovych rejected a proposal to strengthen ties with the European Union. In March 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed Crimea, and fighting continues between Ukrainian and pro-Russia separatist rebels.              

Last year’s Inter-Regional Camps, held in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine, were a spectacular success. In years gone by, the Carpathians were the summer retreat for Jewish families all over the Former Soviet Union, a place where they could escape the cities yet still be in Jewish communities for their summer getaways. Many families in Minsk and Belarus heard stories from the older generation of time spent in the Carpathians, and their nostalgia was well-fed last summer.

Unfortunately, because of the continuing lack of security caused by the fighting, we could not guarantee campers’ safety in the Carpathians. In response (and because parents were understandably reluctant to send their children there), campers from Ukraine and Crimea were moved to the Inter-Regional Camps in Minsk and Belarus, which are more secure locations.

This year’s madrichim (counselors) came from Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Israel. They are working with about 430 campers, 180 of whom are from Belarus, including 80 from Minsk. The focus of camp was “Heroes of the Torah,” so campers learned history and appreciated the global nature of the Jewish experience. Combining the triumphs and tragedies from the time of Abraham through the present not only gave them an appreciation of who we are, it also reinforced their Jewish identities and values. Hopefully, it gave them strength to confront the uncertainties facing them today.

This was the first exposure to modern Judaism for many of the campers; in fact it was the first exposure to any kind of Judaism for quite a few of them. They learned the basics of Judaism, and experienced the mitzvot of wearing tallit (prayer shawls) and wrapping tefillin (phylacteries), the central value of tzedakah (charity), and how prayers reflect and reinforce those values. Some of the girls were surprised to be treated equally with the boys when it came to prayers and Jewish rituals.

Among the campers was 12-year-old Vlad. He lives in Pruzhany, a town that was 60% Jewish before the Holocaust and now has two Jewish families. Camp was his first contact with the Jewish world outside of Pruzhany – and it is now anticipated that he will join the b’nai mitzvah school in Minsk, at least through the Internet, and share what he learns with his family.

At camp, progressive Jewish values are taught in a way that the campers can absorb and take home with them after the summer. The crisis in Israel has not been overlooked, and sadly, it is well understood here, as the campers from Ukraine share what is happening to them back home. The translation of the picture shown above is “Shabbat Shalom, dear soldiers.”

The last day of the Inter-Regional Camp fell on Shabbat. The camp hosted a moving Havdalah ceremony, where all the campers and madrichim locked arms. They exchanged telephone numbers, made plans to meet during the year, and almost all said they wanted to return next year. Ken yehi ratzon, may this be God’s will.

Steve Goldberg is the director of grants for the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Rita Fruman is director of youth activities in the Former Soviet Union for the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

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