A Camp Grows Out of Ukraine
By Rabbi Ahreleh Loschak
Camp Gan Israel Yeka opened in 2001 as one of a chain of many such summer camps all over the former Soviet Union. Located near Dnipro (whose Czarist-era name, Yekaterinoslav, gave the camp its moniker), it served Jewish children from across Ukraine, with a heavy concentration of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The very first Camp Gan Israel opened in 1956 in Ellenville, N.Y., with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, zt”l, emphasizing the impact that a powerful Jewish summer experience could have on a child.
A branch in Moscow became the first-ever Jewish children’s camp in the eastern bloc when it opened in the then-USSR in the summer of 1990.
Of all the Gan Israel camps, even those in the former USSR, Camp Yeka has always been unique. Since its inception, it has been fueled by dedicated groups of young American Chabad rabbinical students who personally undertake fundraising large portions of the camp’s budget. That’s right — it is entirely volunteer-based. And for many of these American students, this camp transforms into something larger than life, as they return year after year and remain involved with their Ukrainian campers throughout the entire year.
Camp Yeka Girls
For many years, Camp Yeka operated as a boys-only camp, directed and run by the devoted staff of young rabbinical students from the States. In 2013 things started brewing in Dnipro to change that situation.
“I was a madrichah for girls in the orphanage in Dnipro,” explains Hindy Levy (née Golomb), originally from Sheffield, England, and now living in Buenos Aires, Argentina with her husband, Ari, as Chabad shluchim. “I was there for two years and I realized that we should bring the summer experience the boys enjoyed to the girls as well.”
Mrs. Levy is quick to explain that “orphanage” doesn’t quite mean what the average reader might imagine. Many of the Jewish children in Ukraine are from single-parent homes. Often the fathers are serving time in prison or are not Jewish, while others simply disappear. Some girls are from homes on such a low socioeconomic level that their parents had no choice but to hand their children into the care of the Bayit Lebanot in Dnipro.
Two years later, Mrs. Levy was able to find a partner. Menucha Hanoka (née Matusof), originally from Madison, Wisconsin, and now living with her husband, Laibel, as shluchim in Pasadena, California, served as madrichah in the Dnipro orphanage in 2014. After a year there, the two impassioned and energetic young women decided to start “Yeka Girls.”
“Menuchah and I took on this project entirely on our own. It was already Shavuos when we made the decision, and within six weeks, with the help of Hashem, we were able to pull it off.” Fifteen staff members and close to $100,000 later, the fresh team were on their way to Ukraine to kick off the summer of a lifetime for a group of girls who had never experienced anything like it.
“The Chabad emissaries in Dnipro were a major support, and we reached out to other emissaries across Ukraine for infrastructure help as well. Rabbi Shneur Vigler from the orphanage in Odessa helped us secure a campsite in the southern part of the country near the Azov Sea. That first year, 120 girls enrolled — something beyond our wildest dreams.”
Ever since, Camp Yeka Girls has operated each year, seeing girls from all over the country arrive for three weeks to receive bucket loads of warmth, love and Yiddishkeit.
A Unique Brand
The energy and warmth of Camp Yeka are legendary. While most teenagers spend their summers working side jobs and earning money or join camps that at the very least, pay a minimal salary, the staff of girls at Yeka do the exact opposite: each staff member is tasked with raising $3,000 before she even gets on the plane.
The environment these young staff members create in the bunks and fields of camp is one of tremendous warmth and love. “Considering the homes they come from, the main thing these campers need is a large dose of love. And that’s exactly what they get. Every day is a party, with singing, dancing, and deep connection between counselors and campers.”
One of the most remarkable things is the language barrier — or lack thereof. “Many people ask how young American teenagers can arrive in Ukraine and connect with the girls here when they don’t even speak the language. First-time staff ask the same question before they go. But I tell each one: ‘It’ll work, you’ll see.’ And indeed, it does. There’s a language of love, a deep connection that forms almost instantly that transcends words.”
The family atmosphere is rounded out at every opportunity. Before going to bed each night, campers and counselors connect with stories and niggunim and conclude the day by saying Shema together. After just a few nights, campers feel as if their mothers are tucking them into bed lovingly, as Jewish mothers have done for millennia.
“I’ve never been to a place where there was so much giving,” said Malkie Moss, a counselor this year. “Every night I would feel like I couldn’t give anymore, and then the next day I would find more to give. It’s amazing: I would have never known I had that much to give until now when I was compelled to do so.”
Another much-anticipated feature of Camp Yeka is “Jewish Name Day.” As so many campers don’t have Jewish names, a special event is staged where each girl is given a Jewish name in the presence of a sefer Torah, gifting them with a strong link to their heritage and the entire Jewish nation. This year campers participated in “Bas Mitzvah Day,” where those who didn’t get the chance to mark the precious day due to the war were finally able to do so.
It’s hard to put in words precisely what it is that makes the feeling in this camp so magical. After just one day, Chana Bracha, a counselor, felt as though she had already been there forever. “Only in Camp Yeka do I feel that I can just hop in and make relationships in a week. I’m no longer interested in any other camp opportunities — despite all the hard work. I don’t have the words to explain it: you come wanting to give, and I gain so much from giving. I feel spoiled to be here.”
“Externalities mean nothing here,” Sara D., another counselor concurs. “The girls who seem to need nothing can pull everything out of you, and even the ones who seem to have a bad attitude walk away touched and in tears. We drop all judgments and walk in with love for all.”
Miriam Chernyak, a refugee from Dnipro who was in Camp Yeka for the first time this year, was blown away. “This is my first time here, and you can see and feel how much the kids are loved here more than anywhere else.”
In the simple words of one counselor: “Yeka is emes. I never wanted Moshiach as much as I did the past two weeks.”
Hungary: Not Just for Locals
For years, Camp Yeka has hummed along, making its outsized impact on young Ukrainian Jewish youth. But then war broke out and threw everything up in the air. With the entire country in upheaval, who could think about camp? What would be with the hundreds of Jewish children who look forward to this lifesaving experience all year long?
“We didn’t know what to do until the very last minute. There was a large group of refugees in Berlin, many of them from the orphanage in Odessa, and for a while, it was unclear if they would be able to leave Germany. When matters sorted themselves out and they were given the green light to exit the country, we kicked into high gear and decided to make not one, but two ‘Camp Yeka Girls’ this year — one in Hungary, and another in Israel.”
Mrs. Levy and Mrs. Hanoka chose Hungary as the location for their camp because it is there that a mammoth refugee operation has taken shape over the past few months. Rabbi Slomó Köves of Chabad of Hungary and Chief Rabbi of EMIH (United Hungarian Faith Community) recently secured an abandoned resort on Hungary’s Lake Balaton and turned it into a sprawling refugee camp for Jews from Ukraine.
The enormous campus, which belongs to the Hungarian government, has 180,000 square meters (1,937,500 square feet — about 44.5 acres) of indoor space, including a dining facility that can accommodate up to 1,000 guests, many detached bungalows, and ample room for activities, davening, and entertainment.
Once a popular lakeside resort known for great weather, the campus is about 130 kilometers southwest of Budapest. It had been abandoned for several years and it was only through Köves’s restoration efforts that it was readied for hundreds of refugees. Funding came from EMIH, the FJC (Federation of Jewish Communities) of Ukraine, the Hungarian Government, as well as generous donors from the United States.
The campus has been operating as a mini city, with Rabbi Dov Axelrod of Chabad of Cherkasy, Ukraine, overseeing Torah classes, davening, and all other activities related to Yiddishkeit. The campus hosted the Yeka Boys camp at the beginning of the summer. When Mrs. Levy and Mrs. Hanoka needed a place for the girl’s camp, the campus in Hungary with its fresh air, abundant space, onsite swimming and sports facilities, and regular trips available to local entertainment, was an ideal spot. This endeavor is heavily funded by the FJC in Ukraine, headed by Rabbi Meir Stambler.
And so, for two weeks, 90 Ukrainian girls converged on Lake Balaton to taste the sweet and loving tam of Camp Yeka. A busload of girls was brought in from Ukraine, while other refugees arrived from countries all over Europe — England, Austria, Germany, Romania and Georgia.
Volunteer staff joined, loaded with clothing, treats, activities, and games. The camp exploded with happiness as classmates, cousins, neighbors, and friends were reunited after having fled to different countries.
Hebrew literacy is an important part of this camp experience. Campers were able to learn and advance their Hebrew reading skills with remarkable speed in just two short weeks. Of course, after losing months of precious study time throughout the ongoing war, such educational endeavors are doubly important.
This year, with so many former campers displaced, a division for university-aged girls opened as well. Mendel Borodkin, who fled Dnipro with his family and with the students of the Bais Chana Seminary in the early weeks of the war, is now the onsite manager for the university program.
“I came from Ukraine just a week before camp started,” said camper Sara Lada. “I’ve been living in a war-torn city since it [the war] started, and when I got to camp, I felt like it was the first time I could finally breathe.”
As one native Ukrainian co-counselor put it, “This place helped me forget about the situation with the war.” Or, in the words of Yasmin, another co-counselor, “The war took away our smiles. Yeka gave them back.”
One particularly powerful and much-needed element incorporated into this year’s programming was a resident social worker. Esther Rosenson is a Russian-speaking, frum social worker, clinical mental health counselor, and relationship therapist living in Israel. She traveled to Hungary to be with the girls and to counsel them through the tremendous trauma of war and death, displacement, and other challenges. After a short while, her titles and credentials were irrelevant to the campers. To these emotionally starved children, she was simply Mamuchka.
“I want to acknowledge the true success of Camp Yeka,” Rosenson said. “The camp has tremendous vision, a vision to do whatever it takes…”
Stage Two: Israel
With a large concentration of Ukrainian refugees currently in Israel, the staff at Camp Yeka decided to continue the experience in Israel, a natural outcome of their success over the Yom Tov of Pesach. It was then that they pioneered their very first Pesach camp in Israel for girls who had fled there. “The goal of the Pesach camp was to create a haven of familiar faces and songs; to bring a taste of home to our girls. There, surrounded by their favorite staff, they would be able to truly experience the joy of the holiday.”
The day Pesach Camp started, the staff was struck by the campers’ dejected, low moods. “You could see on their faces that they were going through so much trauma; the atmosphere was so heavy. And then a day or two later it was as if they had come alive again,” said Fraidy Theler, a dedicated staff member.
Building on that success, making a summer camp in Israel was a foregone conclusion, for both boys and girls. Kfar Hano’ar Hadati located in Kfar Chassidim, near Haifa was obtained. The facilities are well suited for a camp, with buildings for sleeping and learning, as well as a shul and even an onsite animal farm. Tired in body but thrilled in spirit, the staff from Hungary flew to Israel and were joined by local reinforcements, recreating the Camp Yeka magic.
For two weeks, 150 campers were given this chance to feel alive. A full program of trips, activities, and of course, a fun and loving Yiddishkeit was generously served.
A particularly poignant moment was when the campers visited the Kosel together. One of the counselors described the scene: “We explained the significance of the Kosel to the campers and that they can ask Hashem whatever they wish. We told them to write down their request and put it into the wall. When discussing it afterward, almost every one of the campers had made the same request: for the war to end so they could go home. It was so moving to see such young children — no older than nine — with the overriding concern of a simple desire to just go home.”
Not Just for the Summer
The camp’s impact continues well after camp. Even now, with the camp doors in Hungary and Israel closed, counselors are continuing to conduct the nightly ritual with their campers over Zoom, singing niggunim and saying Shema together.
It’s somewhat of a tradition: Camp Yeka is not just a camp, it’s an institution. The staff is invested year-round, with countless stories of individual connections and interventions.
One alumna eventually became fully frum, moved to Israel, and started her own family. Somehow, her former counselor got wind of the news that her camper was unable to afford the enormous cost of making Pesach on her own in her new home. Without hesitating, the counselor raised the amount of money needed and sent it to her beloved camper to celebrate Yom Tov in a fitting manner.
As of this writing, an entire group of Camp Yeka Girls alumnae is on its way to Montreal, Canada, to begin a year of studies in the seminary there.
Mrs. Levy’s younger sister was also a staff member in Camp Yeka, and she recalls a young boy and girl, ages six and eight respectively, who arrived at camp some years ago. Their non-Jewish father had murdered their mother and was living with them in a small village in the Ukrainian countryside. The children became quite close with their counselor, and to this day, she manages to keep in touch with them, their only line to the outside world and someone who cares for their physical, emotional, and spiritual welfare.
As one mother said when she heard her daughter was sick, “Why should I take my daughter home if she isn’t feeling well? You do more for her in camp! In camp she feels loved by everyone!”
The last few days of camp were particularly emotional. As one counselor described it: “I looked around the room and could see all the precious faces and recall all the short precious moments. I couldn’t fathom the thought of leaving the kids and found myself beginning to cry a few times. I would always try to be strong for the children, so I left the room so they shouldn’t see me crying. But little Lara noticed.
“The last day of camp, as the buses were being loaded to leave, I went onto the bus to say my last goodbyes and give one last hug to all the princesses. Though I wasn’t particularly close with her, little Lara came over and hugged me tight, and said in Russian, ‘Don’t cry, Chana. It hurts me so much to see you cry. It’s all going to be okay.’
“She then handed me one of her few precious possessions — a pull-apart eraser — and told me, ‘Anytime you’re sad or missing us, take out this eraser and remember that it will all be okay.’”
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