From Ukraine to Jerusalem
A letter from Rabbi Mitch Cohen
Camp Ramah US National Director, who led a Reshet Ramah adult mission to Camp Ramah-Ukraine, August 3, 2016
…Coming to Israel is always exciting. But arriving after a week of leading a Reshet Ramah adult group to Budapest and Ukraine is extraordinarily emotional.
Once again, like after a Poland trip, I feel the relief, pride and euphoria of coming to a sovereign Jewish nation after standing at the sites of the murder of millions of our people.
But just as in Poland where there are some hopeful signs of co-existence and even Jewish renewal, there are also some amazing things happening in Hungary and Ukraine which bode well for the Jewish future.
Our entire group was simply blown away at the excitement of being at Ramah Yachad in Ukraine. Director Gila Katz and her incredible tzevet, with all the support they receive from Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, perform miracles on a daily basis. Simply being there, and witnessing this oasis of Jewish vitality in a small village near Munkatch, where once-thriving Jewish life has been almost totally silent for 75 years would have been enough. Dayenu.
*Reshet Ramah Adult Group Visits Camp Ramah-Ukraine.
All of us know the challenges of running high level Jewish summer camps in regions of prosperity, community support, and parental understanding. At Ramah Yachad, campers living in very tough economic conditions arrive from all over Ukraine, most with little Jewish knowledge.
Yet Camp Ramah is Camp Ramah! Sitting in a crowded chadar ochel singing birkat hamazon with hundreds of joyful children and young adults – everyone banging and clapping and making hand gestures at the same moments as in our North American camps – simply amazed us. Again, dayenu.
Add to that the fact that 11 of our finest camper graduates from our North American camps and two staff members are pioneering a new partnership, spending two weeks volunteering as madrichim, communicating mostly through tefila, song and dance, and lots of smiles; and, in their own words, “having the most powerful Jewish identity building experience of their lives.” Dayenu.
And add to that the fact that on the day we visited, Rabbi David Golinkin from Jerusalem was performing (in three languages) the wedding at camp of Lev and Yulia! Lev, who grew up at Ramah Yachad since age 6, now leads the rejuvenated Jewish community in Chernovitz, Ukraine, and brings dozens of his students to camp each summer. “Mitch,” he exclaimed to me at his own wedding party, “you have to understand just how transformational Camp Ramah can be for these children.”
Yes, Lev, I understand! Whether in North America, South America, Ukraine or elsewhere, I understand the power of Ramah. It’s just so great to see it happening here in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine, with children returning to communities so lacking in Jewish support.
The beautiful bride, Yulia, is a recent convert to Judaism. Lev again exclaimed to me something that I have often heard in North America: “I really wanted her to be at camp wth me so that she can better understand me as a person and as a Jew.”
And so we danced. He stepped on the glass and hundreds of campers, staff, volunteers and visitors shouted “mazal tov” and danced the hora, once again bringing Jewish joy to the Pale of Settlement in Transcarpathia – Od Yishama! Once again voices of joy and gladness, of hattan and kallah are heard in these hills. (Gila now counts ten Ramah Yachad marriages and expects many more!)
In a few hours I will be singing and dancing Kabbalat Shabbat with Seminar. Ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu. How fortunate we are to live in this time. May we all enter the somber month of Menachem Av with a newfound determination to bring more joy to our world, more Jewish heritage to children world-wide, and let all of us who count ourselves as living with extraordinary privilege understand our responsibility to give back, as so beautifully exemplified by our 11 pioneer teen volunteers.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom from Israel.
Camp Ramah-Ukraine is like big foot. You need to see it to believe it. I was told that it was a just a Jewish summer camp but it is so much more. No one could have possibly described the vitality of the kids, their love to sing and dance, the amazing scenery, the welcoming and amazing Ukrainian, Israeli, and my fellow American staff, the amazing pehulot, and how much I would love it here.
*Ramah-USA Junior Counselors in Ukraine. Sam Margolis far right.
My day started off like usual with a bright and early 6:30 wake up for my morning workout with Sergei the security guard. Then at 7:45 I got to go up 4 flights of stairs so I could wake my campers and get them ready for tephilah. This involved a lot of yelling and a lot of kids telling me five more minutes. Later in the day, one of my co-counselors covered for me during my sport elective after tephilah so I could hang out with my sick friend. I taught him how to play chess and just joked around with him so he would be able to focus on something other than his sickness.
After that we had Macabia. For macabia the kids circled between nine stations which included dance, Jump rope, chess, team building exercises and more. At the chess station we set up chess puzzles for the kids where they had the ability to get checkmate in one move and they had to figure out how. For the afternoon sport time I played volleyball with my kids which was very entertaining. However I needed to train myself to stop saying “me me me” when I was going for the ball and to start saying “ya ya ya” which is Russian for me.
The evening activity was especially entertaining. The kids simulated making Aliyah. They had to run around the camp getting different signatures on their passports, all the while avoiding the security forces who were looking to arrest any illegal immigrants. Us Americans were in charge of the visa station and we could only give visas to campers who had all of the necessary signatures. The campers then had to ask for their visas in English to simulate the difficulty of the language barrier. And of course some of the kids needed to be pulled aside for additional questioning and asked in a very up close and loud way ARE YOU A SPY?!?!? And after they got their visas and thought that they would be allowed into Israel they found out they needed to collect money in order to buy their plane ticket. The kids had a fun time in this activity and we greatly enjoyed running the visa station. Then we got to enjoy one of Camp Ramah Yachad’s awesome dance parties to celebrate all of the campers making Aliyah.
Throughout the trip I have been working on my Russian and it has gotten much better I know how to ask for хлеб (bread) соль (salt) перец (pepper) чай (tea) and the ever present картошка (potato) which we have at least 2 times a day.
Since my last blog post I have just become more enamored with the camp, campers, and staff. Camp Ramah Ukraine is a truly unique place and as we near the end of our trip I know I will always remember my time here.