Program Spotlight: August 2009
Jewish Agency for Israel FSU Summer Camps
For Jewish youth around the world, summer camp means more than friends and freedom. It has also become a way for young people to create, connect with and deepen their Jewish identity. While immersed in sports and arts through a Jewish lens, they bond with their peers and discover themselves. By the end of the camp session, many leave motivated to become leaders in their communities.
For the past 18 years, the cornerstone of the Jewish Agency’s youth-related activity in the former Soviet Union (FSU) has been its network of summer camps, which receive funding from UJC/Jewish Federations of North America. Since the first such camp opened in 1991, the Jewish Agency has reached out to over 100,000 campers across the FSU.
In communities struggling with assimilation rates as high as 80%, such experiences are an entry into Jewish life for thousands of youth. Week-long camps, staffed by young role models from the FSU and Israel, provide youth, ages 7-17, and college students with a fun and highly creative introduction to their Jewish heritage. Just last year, more than 5,000 young people in the FSU attended a Jewish Agency summer camp and the vast majority wants to come back for another year.
These summer sessions are more than a way for Jewish kids to socialize with each other. The innovative programming deals with real-life Judaism and contemporary Israeli culture, helping campers form meaningful roots that are relevant for today. In fact, after attending the camps, many children are motivated to enroll in Jewish youth clubs during the school year and nearly 50% return for another year, with many going on to become leaders within their communities and prime candidates for Israel experiences, both short and long-term, such as Taglit-Birthright and MASA.
The art of being Jewish
Throughout the more than 40 camp sessions at 14 FSU locations, there is a definite emphasis on creative techniques for expressing Judaism. For example, in Moscow, when studying Judaism’s approach to prayer, children make their own prayers books, which they then design – concentrating on both content and decoration. At the Art Study Center in Kiev, Ukraine campers use photography, filmmaking, theater, music, dance and literature to develop their take on ancient Jewish themes, while in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine campers not only learn Israeli songs and dances but are encouraged to make up their own versions.
This kind of openness to creativity within tradition seems to nurture a passion for Judaism in the campers. Since hearing about a Jewish Agency summer camp three years ago, Vlad Issacov of Fergana, Uzbekistan, has not missed a summer. When asked what being Jewish meant to him, Vlad said: “I feel that I am part of something bigger than myself, that I am a tiny spark in a huge bonfire.”
Embracing Jewish roots
Living in contemporary FSU culture, campers are closely tied to their Russian heritage but often know little of the history of Russian Jewry or even the struggles which their own families have encountered. Jewish Agency camps encourage research of family and community history in order to discover a more complete sense of self.
At the Kiev camp, campers participated in an exciting simulation game called the shtetl game where they divided into nine former Jewish communities in the Ukraine, towns and villages which still exist today. Counselors taught the history of each shtetl and offered each group the challenge of solving a community problem. In the Bratslav shtetl, for instance, there was a growing need to build a Jewish elementary school. Using their own ideas and imagining themselves in an earlier period in history, campers worked together to provide ideas for improving educational opportunities, and then presented them to community leaders. In another summer camp in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine young people spent two days researching and learning about their personal Jewish roots and family stories.
Emphasis on discovering roots contributes to a positive Jewish self image. When asked what being Jewish meant to them, Sarah, 14, and Solomon, 15, Elnotov, both of Bukhara, Uzbekistan, said being Jewish meant being a good person, being like their mother and father, and observing Jewish traditions and customs.
The FSU-Israel connection
Getting campers acquainted with Zionist ideas and the modern state of Israel is a crucial part of the picture for the Jewish Agency. Learning to view Israel as a center for all Jewish people encourages campers to feel themselves a part of a global network of support. Emphasis is placed on balancing the study of ancient history with providing grounding in modern day reality, granting youth with a sense of Israel’s rich past leading to a complex and hopeful present and a constantly developing future.
In Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine campers spent two days devoted to the study of Israel, yet they also got a chance to watch popular Israeli TV programs in Hebrew (with Russian subtitles) and to learn songs and dances from Israel.
“Our people have had to rove and wander, to lose their land and then regain it. I am happy that my people now have a home. It is the State of Israel, a land that we need to take care of and be proud of,” said Vlad Issacov, a camper from Fergana, Uzbekistan.
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