Since that time, hundreds of teenagers from scores of Jewish communities throughout Ukraine have experienced the love and learning that is synonymous with Ramah camping. And from this vast pool, over a thousand campers and counselors have made aliyah or have assumed leadership roles in their Jewish communities in the FSU.
Gila, who retired two years ago as the director of Midreshet Yerushalayim, the Schechter Institute department responsible for Jewish education in Eastern Europe, together with Masorti Olami, remembers her initial shock when she was offered the position of camp director:
“When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, there were only Communist camps for children to attend. I so wanted to go, but my parents never allowed me. My dream was to attend a camp.”
That dream came true in 1992 when then director of Midreshet Yerushalayim, Rabbi Yossi Penini, asked Gila to run Camp Ramah Yachad in its first season. She told him she had never been to camp. He retorted: “All the better! You’ll come with fresh ideas and originality,” remembers Gila fondly.
The rest is history. Twenty years later, Camp Ramah-Yachad is known throughout Ukraine for its high level programming, rich in experiential Jewish studies and camp life. Each year, close to 200 teenage campers from across Ukraine, including Kiev, Kharkov, Donetsk, Berdichev, and Chernowitz attend the camp.
This year, from July 31-August 9, special 20th anniversary celebrations are planned, with Gila at the helm, together with Schechter-ordained rabbis Rafi Kassimov, current Midreshet Yerushalayim director and Reuven Stamov, camp rabbi, who recently took up his post in Kiev as the first Conservative-ordained rabbi in Ukraine.
Graduates of Camp Ramah Yachad-Ukraine to Reunite
“During this camp season we will have a reunion,” explains Gila (see photo, above). “Camp graduates from around the world will be attending a special Shabbat 20th birthday party at the camp this year. It will be a time of remembering and sharing.”
Gila remembers the last day of camp for those first campers 20 years ago: “We all stood at the railroad station to say good-bye. With a hall filled with locals from the area, the children spontaneously broke out singing ‘Oseh Shalom’ and ‘Heveinu Shalom Aleichem.’ You have to remember this was just after the fall of Communism, but these children, without fear or shame, proudly declared their allegiance to the Jewish people as the train pulled up.”
Clearly, times have changed. The Jewish community is more self-confident and knowledgeable. Close to a generation of Jewish children growing up in independent Ukraine have experienced the life-changing powers of a summer at Camp Ramah. They, in turn, have taken this Jewish spirit, energy and knowledge back to their homes, classrooms and communities.
Happy Birthday Camp Ramah-Ukraine and Kol HaKavod to Gila, her staff of talented educators and to the thousands of children who are today adults, leading full Jewish lives!
Originally published on CampRamah.org