As our bus pulled up to the Jewish Agency camp in Odessa, Ukraine, I was bursting with excitement. Having been a proud camper for over 10 years, I know the impact it can have on one's life and I was dying to see what Jewish camp was like in Ukraine.
Historically, Odessa has been one of the major centers for Jewish life and thought. Many of the most prominent Jewish leaders are from Odessa including Chaim Bialik, Ahad Ha'Am and Vladamir (Zeev) Jabotinsky. While there is a rich history, there is also a significant story of anti-Semitism, including pogroms, Nazi annihilation and Communist purges. With the support of the Jewish Federations of North America and our partners, the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and World ORT, the Jewish community in Odessa is experiencing a period of renewal and revival. This 10 day camp experience, a program of the Jewish Agency, is designed to bring Jewish life and culture to teenagers in the Ukraine.
I never expected the kind of experience I was about to have...
When we arrived, every teen was line dancing to Israeli music, and immediately someone grabbed my hand to join in on the dance floor. It took a few missteps before I remembered the choreography, but after about five minutes, I was in my groove, swaying and twisting to all of my favorite dances. These were the same songs and routines I learned at camp 15 years ago. I was shocked by the universality of these dances, and at once I bonded with these teenagers over this common love of Israeli dance.
And the camp...it was amazing! Honestly, I was expecting it to be closer to my idea of a shtetl than the kind of experience I was used to in the US. I was definitely wrong! Not only were the camp grounds exquisite, with a huge communal area, basketball courts, nice bunks, etc, but the decorations and details were out of this world, amazing. Every path in camp was marked by a city name in Israel. When we broke up into small groups we experienced Israel, holidays and different parts of society through engaging, creative and inspiring Jewish programs.
And then, we were brought to an area with a magnificent huge Kotel structure. It was 30 feet long and seven feet high. It was made of bricks that were painted to look like Jerusalem stone, and there was greenery and shading and spacing to make it feel like you were at the Kotel, in Jerusalem. We all put notes in this wall together and shared our most intimate dreams, aspirations and thank-yous. Because our group was heading from Odessa to Israel, one teen asked me if I would take their note with me to the real Kotel...I was honored.
For many of these teens, this camp provides them with their Jewish identity. These children learn about holidays, religion, community and culture and with the help of our partnership organizations these teens can continue to celebrate with a community...a community that not too long ago, did not exist. One child I spoke with only discovered his Judaism weeks before, when his grandmother learned about the camp and encouraged her grandson to attend because it would be fun and because he was Jewish.
It was at this moment, when I heard this, that I realized the following: you could be me, or I could be you. My grea- grandparents were fortunate enough to leave the Ukraine before the war and were able to practice Judaism freely in the US. For my Ukrainian counterparts, their fate was entirely different. During much of the time since my grandparents left, no communal or cultural life was permitted, private prayer groups were dispersed and Jewish texts were confiscated.
Through my experience on the Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission (organized by the Jewish Federations of North America), I have come to realize how important it is that we as Jews care for one another. All people should be allowed to practice religion freely and I am so proud to be a part of a community that supports and promotes the revitalization and renewal of Jewish communities worldwide.
For more information on the details and specifics about what we support, please visit: http://www.juf.org/donate/where.aspx.