In many ways it’s a typical Jewish overnight camp, packed with activities and trips in an exhilarating atmosphere with an infectious sort of happy energy. Except that here the counselors communicate with their charges through interpreters, or, alternatively, says one counselor, “with lots of hugs, smiles, and the four Russian words I’ve learned.”
Set in the outskirts of Kharkov, Ukraine, Camp Gan Israel Ohr Avner—part of the global network of Gan Israel summer camps—attracts a total of 300 children throughout the summer, with the girls and boys division drawing even numbers of campers each. They come from across Kharkov, nearby towns and distant cities. Tuition is more token than payment, a mere four dollars for the entire three-week session, and the counselors, seven young women (for the girls division) culled from places like Milwaukee and Kansas City, U.S. and Sydney, Australia, must pay for the privilege.
On Monday, the girls division drew to a close, and amidst tearful goodbyes and exchanges of email addresses, the profound impact of these last three weeks was lost on none.
Images of 150 candles flickering each Friday night, the sound of 150 voices in Jewish song, the mastery of the Alef-Bet and morning blessings, are but a few slices of the vibrant Jewish life that promise to leave a lasting impression on campers like Aviva. A teenager from Slotska, a 6-hour train ride away from Kharkov, Aviva was initially apprehensive about joining the camp: “I thought camp would be about praying, all day long.” But her fears were fast allayed, and Aviva, who was raised with hardly any knowledge of Judaism, and who, like her friends, adopted a Jewish name only upon coming to camp, has decided to attend a traditional yeshiva when she makes aliyah to Israel this fall.
“Aviva is one of many girls whose lives have been dramatically impressed by their Cam Gan Israel experience,” says camp director Miriam Moscovitz, who founded the camp with her husband Moshe in the summer of ’92, and has seen its effects on hundreds of campers. Of the 150 girls who attended this session, roughly half have had no prior Jewish education, says Moscovitz, but thanks to camp, applications for the upcoming school year at Or Avner-Chabad day school are pouring in fast. Mrs. Moscovitz expects an additional 40 female students to register by September, but what she finds so surreal about it all is seeing children take the initiative to secure their own Jewish future.
“Children here are convincing their parents about the value of a Jewish education,” says Moscovitz, “it’s just incredible.”
Malky Hecht, a counselor from Chicago, spent much of the summer fielding questions from her 16-17 year old campers. A pair of sisters from Lubny, a four-hour drive from Kharkov, wanted to know how they could keep their Judaism alive outside the camp environment, and a girl from Gluchov was determined to find a way to keep kosher at home even though her parents aren’t kosher.
But it hasn’t all been one-sided, says head-counselor Rivky Wineberg, from Kansas City. “We’ve really gained so much more than we could ever give these kids,” she says. The experience allowed the counselors to observe firsthand the hurdles that Jewish children in the Former Soviet Union must overcome to maintain an observant lifestyle. “I really gained a new perspective, and an appreciation of the self-sacrifice these kids must practice on a daily basis,” says Chana Moss, a counselor from Sydney. Wineberg admits the work was difficult, “but it was well worth it,” she says. “We came thinking we’d be on the giving end, and now we feel we’ve really learned so much from the experience.”