Betsy Gidwitx Reports
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Visits To Jewish Population Centers
And Summer Camps In Ukraine

July 14-30, 1997
(continued)


Immediately after tables were cleared (by campers assigned to that task), a senior counselor mounted a chair in the middle of the dining hall. Using a bullhorn, she signaled the campers to stand on their chairs and she proceeded to lead them in several songs, many of them quite loud and accompanied by intricate hand movements. Occasionally, the senior counselor would jump down from her chair and run over to a table to encourage girls who seemed insufficiently energized. The majority of veteran campers seemed to know all or most of the words to the numerous songs, even those in Hebrew. Birkat Hamazon, the traditional blessing after meals, was also sung; although song sheets with a Russian transliteration of the Hebrew text were distributed, many of the campers appeared familiar with the blessing.

Each day’s schedule was posted on a bulletin board near the dining hall. Despite unpleasant weather, campers seemed constructively occupied and happy throughout the four days that the writer spent at the camp. Notwithstanding language barriers, many of the counselors seemed to have developed close relationships with campers in their group; most counselors learned a few key words in Russian, some campers spoke a sort of pidgin English and/or day school Hebrew, and generous use was made of informal sign language and gestures.

Shortly before my departure from the camp, I met with the counselors to consider several questions. A very lively discussion ensued. When asked about the major differences between the Yad Yisroel camp and [mainly Orthodox Jewish] girls' camps they had attended in the United States, the counselors responded:

-- Many girls at the Yad Yisroel camp seemed to come from unstable and unhappy homes; the majority of parents seemed to be divorced; few of the girls had siblings; many campers lived in poverty and resented constraints on their lives imposed by family financial distress.

-- Because most campers were also deprived of a positive Jewish identity, the counselors felt a certain urgency to instill Jewish learning and Jewish pride that was unnecessary in American Orthodox Jewish camps where most youngsters had strong Jewish backgrounds.

-- The family and Judaic deprivations affecting Yad Yisroel campers led many of the counselors to develop an emotional investment in the girls that was more intense than ties that evolved in their American camping or teaching experiences; because language barriers impeded communi-cations, both counselors and campers were forced to express themselves “differently”.

-- Counselors were surprised at the tactlessness with which the campers addressed each other and the counselors as well; girls asked them how much they weighed, whether their parents treated them well, and whether their families were wealthy.

When asked what benefits their volunteer work at the camp brought to the campers, the counselors responded:

-- The girls could observe how “civilized people”, i.e., the counselors, behave regarding personal hygiene, table manners, and other issues of conduct; many campers had been deprived of positive parental and school influence in such matters.

-- The girls would learn that religiously observant people, i.e., the counselors, were normal people and not strange or exotic.

-- The girls would see Jewish observance as positive.

-- The girls would benefit from the affection that counselors felt for them; many girls appeared deprived of affection in their troubled homes; many counselors maintain contact with campers throughout the year, sending letters and holiday greetings.

-- On a material level, the campers were extraordinarily grateful for small, inexpensive gifts that counselors brought them (upon advice from their predecessors); it was clear that many girls had few personal possessions beyond absolutely essential clothing and footwear.

When asked what they, the counselors, gained from the experience, the counselors responded:

-- Fatigue [accompanied by laughter].

-- The counselors felt a renewed sense of appreciation for their own upbringing, particularly their strong, intact families and positive Jewish homes and Jewish education.

When asked their priorities for changes in the camp, counselors responded:

-- More counselors

The camp is clearly understaffed at both the counselor and management levels. Counselors had little free time. Several counselors became ill during the season, apparently in part from overwork and lack of sleep.

-- More medical staff in the camp, including a child psychiatrist.

-- A lifeguard for the swimming pool.

Most of the counselors said they were comfortable swimmers, but none was a qualified lifeguard. Further, they were so busy trying to teach swimming (for which many were also unqualified) and to look after basic discipline that elementary pool safety was often overlooked.

-- More showers.

-- More clothing for campers.

Aware that many campers did not possess suitable apparel for a camp experience, Yad Yisroel had sent a container of appropriate clothing to the camp. Ukrainian customs authorities had delayed release of the container until late in the camp season.

The counselors also expressed some reservation about the presence in camp of воспитательницы (vospitatel'nitsy or upbringers), a Russian occupation of childcare workers responsible for non-professional aspects of education.19 Some counselors felt that the presence of these women, several of whom were middle-age teachers, threatened their own authority with the campers.

The last question posed to the counselors was: What future do you wish for the campers? The counselors were asked to consider three options: (1) that the girls remain in Ukraine, attend one of the Jewish day schools in Ukraine, and endeavor as adults to build a Ukrainian Jewish community; (2) that the girls emigrate to Israel, either with their families or alone, and attend a religious day or boarding school/seminary in Israel; or (3) that the girls emigrate to the United States. The question elicited no consensus answer. The only suggestion offered by more than a few counselors was that girls who live in unstable homes should be provided with a more favorable environment for the remainder of their childhood and adolescence, but no strong views were expressed on the location of that environment. One counselor said that a seminary for religious girls should be developed in Ukraine, another suggested that any Jewish educational effort in Ukraine for young people should also involve parents, and a third commented that the strongest girls would find some way to leave Ukraine.20

25. Sochnut (Jewish Agency for Israel) camp in Khmelnitsky. The Jewish Agency for Israel camp in Khmelnitsky is located on the same road as the Yad Yisroel camp. The Sochnut camp is co-educational and holds two nine-day encampments, each for 150 youngsters between the ages of 12 and 16. The campers are from Khmelnitsky oblast and three other oblasts in central Ukraine.21

The site of the camp is compact, consisting of three large buildings (two dormitory structures and a central lodge that contains the kitchen and dining hall, a small auditorium, meeting rooms, offices, infirmary, and sleeping quarters for various administrative staff), a large soccer field and an outdoor basketball court, and several small service buildings. The camp buildings appeared to be in better condition than those in the Yad Yisroel camp.

The camp director was Eva Khramtsova, a resident of Khmelnitsky who directs Sochnut operations in Khmelnitsky oblast. Ms. Khramtsova, who previously was a section chief in a military factory, plans to emigrate to Israel with her (non-Jewish) husband in the near future. Their daughter lives in Haifa and their son, who was enrolled at the camp, would soon go to Israel in the Na’aleh 16 program.22



19. In a camp setting, vospitatel’nitsy live with campers and are responsible for their supervision during chores, preparation for bedtime, waking and dressing, showers, etc.
20. About half of the counselors had left the meeting to tend to campers by the time this question was asked.
21. An oblast (область) is an administrative region in Ukraine (and Russia) with authority between that of a county and a state in the United States. Ukraine contains 26 oblasts, two of which are cities with oblast status; these are the capital city of Kyiv and the military district/seaport of Sevastopol. The territory around Kyiv is an oblast separate from Kyiv itself. Jewish population centers in oblasts served by the Khmelnitsky camp are small, consisting of fewer than 8,000 Jews. (Sochnut operates a camp in Lviv oblast that enrolls youngsters from western Ukraine and a camp near Kyiv that serves Kyiv and Kyiv oblast. Youngsters from other regions attend other camps, such as the one in Dnipropetrovsk. See pp. 25 –26.)
22. Na’aleh 16 is a program in Israel for high school students.

 
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