Rabbi Alan Iser
You are going where?! And why? Such were the questions that I faced when I told incredulous friends and family that I was going on a support mission to Camp Ramah in Ukraine in August.
Unknown to many American Jews, the camp under the auspices of the Masorti (Conservative) movement is celebrating its 31st year, returning to Ukraine after a one-year absence in which it was based in Romania because of the war. The seven-person mission was organized by the Schechter Institute of Jerusalem, which funds the camp.
When you cross into Ukraine from Romania on the way to the camp, you go through rolling fields of sunflowers, a Ukrainian national symbol, and an important crop for the Ukrainian economy, because of the sunflower oil derived from the plants. The camp is located in a resort in a forest, about 40 kilometers from the border, in a region with a rich Jewish history.
Nearby is the city of Chernivtsi, which still has a small functioning Jewish community, but in 1900, the majority of the city was Jewish and it had a Jewish mayor. Besides the sunflower fields, you pass by the former home of great Chasidic dynasties, such as the Rizhyner and Boyaner Chassidim. The camp is in the only province in Ukraine which, so far, has suffered no bombing, missile or drone attacks.
This summer, the camp housed 122 campers, aged 9 to 16, and some 20 staff members, during the 11-day session. The staff are mainly Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking Jews. Some of them have made aliyah, but they return every year to help at the camp. We spent three days interacting with campers and staff, helping to lead Shabbat services, and participating in discussion groups and question-and-answer sessions.
There is a sense of routine and normalcy provided to the children by the camp in this war-torn country. The rhythms of the camp day and week are similar to American Jewish camps: daily prayers, activities such as swimming, Israeli dancing, arts and crafts, cooking, spirited singing at Shabbat meals and Havdalah at the lake.
Yet the war and its effects are present in both obvious and subtle ways.
The language of the camp, for nationalistic reasons, is changing from Russian to Ukrainian as is the translation and transliteration of the siddur. There is a psychologist on staff to help with the many issues the children are confronting; some of them are internally displaced refugees who have moved from cities under bombardment or Russian occupation.
I met a girl from Mariupol, now living in Odessa, whose home, no doubt, was destroyed, along with the rest of that city. There was a boy from Kharkiv, who showed us videos he took of bombed buildings, near where he used to live. Teenaged girls from Bela Tsverka, which was briefly under Russian occupation, told us how they feared the possibility of rape by Chechen soldiers.
Many children have parents serving in the army, which, of course, creates anxiety. In a first aid class, campers were taught how to apply a tourniquet to stop bleeding from shrapnel wounds.
There is an air raid siren for the entire country, so the siren goes off everywhere, no matter where the bombs or missiles fall. However, there is an app for smartphones (much like the Tzeva Adom in Israel) that indicates the specific location of the bombardment. Although the use of cellphones is officially prohibited on Shabbat in this halakhically observant camp, the staff looks the other way so that campers can know if their families are safe.
Despite all this, the camp is permeated with joy, love of Judaism and love from the staff for the campers. Never in one weekend have I hugged so many children who needed and deserved affection and affirmation. The staff and campers of Camp Ramah in Ukraine are a testimony to the resilience of the Jewish people and the power of Judaism to provide light in a time of darkness.
My brief experience in Ukraine reaffirmed my belief in the principle of “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh” (All Jews are responsible for one another). The presence of our small delegation of American and Israeli Jews clearly meant a great deal to both the staff and campers and bolstered their spirits.
When asked why we had come so far to visit them, my answer was as follows: I draw an analogy to a Sefer Torah. If just one letter is missing from a Torah, the entire Torah is rendered pasul (unfit for use). So, too, if one Jew is not taken care of and nurtured, we as a people are incomplete.
Am Yisrael Chai!
Rabbi Alan Iser is a member of the board of directors of the Schechter Institute of Jerusalem.