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

July 14-30, 1997

The camps sponsored by hasidic groups operate separate sessions for boys and for girls -- the Karliner-Stoliner group and Dnipropetrovsk Chabad offering four week sessions for each, and Kharkiv Chabad offering three-week sessions for each. (By coincidence, the writer visited each of the three camps during its session for girls.) Almost all campers are halakhically Jewish. The camps enrolled a much broader age range, including some youngsters as young as six. Although both the Karliner-Stoliner and Chabad hasidic camps register campers from their own day schools, they also endeavor to recruit youngsters with no day school background so as to provide a positive Jewish experience for boys and girls with no previous exposure to Jewish tradition and culture. Some children return to the same camp summer after summer.

Most Jewish camps in the post-Soviet states are rented on a seasonal basis from factories or other institutions that operated them for the children of their employees during the Soviet period. With the loss of heavy subsidies that sustained the camps in the USSR, the owner-institutions are no longer able to offer camping experiences to employee families and are eager to rent the sites to organizations with foreign sponsors. The Chabad camp near Dnipropetrovsk differs from this pattern as it is actually owned by the Chabad synagogue community in Dnipropetrovsk; it may be the only Jewish camp in the successor states that is owned by a Jewish organization.

All of the camps are heavily subsidized by the sponsoring institution. Token fees are charged each camper, but these are adjusted when requested. Most of the camps accept some youngsters whose families are unable to pay even a symbolic amount. Some youngsters arrive at the camp with all of their clothing and other items for four weeks in one small plastic bag.

24. Yad Yisroel camp in Khmelnitsky. Karliner-Stoliner rabbis direct Jewish communities in three Ukrainian cities: Rabbi Yaakov D. Bleich in Kyiv, Rabbi Mordechai Bald in Lviv, and Rabbi Peretz Charach in Khmelnitsky. The movement sponsors day schools in both Kyiv and Lviv. As noted earlier in this report, Rabbi Charach expects to leave the Khmelnitsky community (which has been too small in post-war years to support a day school) later in 1997 to become the director of Karliner-Stoliner youth activities in Kyiv. Unlike Chabad rabbis, who operate independently, the three Karliner-Stoliner rabbis appear to serve under direction from Yad Yisroel (their administrative and support organization in Brooklyn) and their movement central office in Israel.

Prior to 1997, Yad Yisroel operated two separate seven-week summer camps in Ukraine, a boys’ camp in Khmelnitsky and a girls’ camp near Kyiv. Financial constraints forced a consolidation of camp operations into eight weeks at the Khmelnitsky site.

The camp is in a picturesque rural area in which at least four other camps and several health sanatoria are located. The Karliner-Stoliner camp is fairly compact, dominated by five large buildings (two dormitories, an auditorium, a kitchen and dining hall, and a building that houses showers and an indoor swimming pool). Several smaller bungalows accommodate staff and others associated with the camp. The terrain is hilly. The camp is within easy walking distance of a lake, but no activity takes place on the lake. Uniformed security personnel in combat dress protect the camp.16

Although the camp can accommodate more than 250 campers, only about 160 girls were present. Uncertain until late spring about their ability to fund the camp, the Karliner-Stoliner movement delayed registration until Yad Yisroel finances were secure before beginning to recruit campers. The July session, which had been designated for girls, was thus under-enrolled. With more time to recruit campers for its August session, the movement anticipated a capacity registration for the boys’ encampment.

Campers during the girls' session were said, officially, to range in age from eight to 18. However, counselors reported (and appearances suggested) that some girls were as young as six. About 40 percent were from Kyiv, 20 percent from Lviv, 20 percent from Khmelnitsky, and 20 percent from various small Jewish population centers in central and western Ukraine.17 Only about 30 percent of the girls attended the Karliner-Stoliner day schools in Kyiv or Lviv. In previous years, about 60 percent of the campers were also day school pupils, but when the uncertainty of 1997 funding forced a curtailment in recruitment efforts, the movement decided to focus on girls who had not been exposed to Judaism through day schools. By the time in late spring that operation of the camp was assured, many of the day school girls had already made other arrangements for July.

According to Rabbi Peretz Charach and his wife Esther (Esti), who direct the camp, operating costs of the eight-week camp season are about $100,000. Campers are charged ten hryvnia (about six dollars) for a four-week session “so that they appreciate it,” but many families pay only five hryvnia. At least 70 percent of the campers return from one year to the next, the remainder either emigrating or outgrowing the upper age limit.

The Charachs, whom the writer first met during a visit to Khmelnitsky in 1996, appear to be dedicated to their mission and very effective leaders and teachers of children, adolescents, and young adults. Committed Zionists, they recruited a number of older campers to continue their high school education in a new Karliner-Stoliner boarding school in Jerusalem that is geared to the needs of Russian-speaking girls.

Sixteen young women led the campers as counselors on a day-to-day basis. Most were 19 or 20 years old and the majority were Americans from Borough Park, but their numbers also included several Israelis and at least one young woman from Switzerland and another from Canada. In a meeting with the writer,18 only five said they were from hasidic families. All were Orthodox, and most of the North Americans had attended Beis Yaakov elementary and high schools. They were currently enrolled in various Orthodox seminaries. None appeared to speak Russian. They received no salaries for their work at the camp, and they or their families paid for their transporta-tion to or from camp.

Although lacking fluency in Russian, a counselor in the Yad Yisroel camp is successful in teaching campers about Judaism.

They viewed this volunteer experience as a privilege, an opportunity to work with [Ukrainian Jewish] girls less fortunate than themselves. They had learned about the camp from friends and relatives who had worked at the camp previously; they applied for counselor positions through the Yad Yisroel office in New York or the Karliner-Stoliner movement in Israel or by contacting Rabbi Charach in Khmelnitsky. Those who were attending seminary programs in Israel were interviewed there by Esti Charach.

In addition to the staff counselors, three women in their mid-twenties were employed as senior counselors. They not only supervised the younger counselors, but also did most of the program planning and scheduling. Because of their additional responsibilities, they received salaries. Each had been a counselor at the camp for at least three previous summers and each spoke some Russian. One had been at the camp every summer since its inception seven years previously and also had taught one year at the Karliner-Stoliner day school in Kyiv.

The camp program included small-group lessons in Hebrew and Jewish tradition as well as arts and crafts, music (mainly group singing) and drama, swimming, games, and occasional excursions to places of interest. Classes in Hebrew and tradition were often very small as efforts were made to accommodate the different knowledge levels of girls who attended day schools, girls who did not attend day schools but had previous camp experience, and girls who had no earlier Jewish learning opportunities at all. In addition to a routine daily schedule and observance of Shabbat, certain days were set aside for special pro-gramming. For example, Chanukah, Purim, Pesach, and other holidays were celebrated so as to familiarize campers with the Jewish calendar in a ‘hands-on’ manner.

Campers and coun-selors celebrate Purim in July at the Yad Yisroel camp in Khmel-nitsky.

A group of older girls (age 15 and above) elected to enroll in an intensive Jewish learning program that was known as “seminar”. Rabbi Charach, Esti Charach, and the senior counselors all worked with this group, which seemed to develop its own identity and to enjoy their classes (and a special status that developed therefrom).

The camp served three mails daily as well as snacks in mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Lunch and supper were both preceded and followed by singing, much of it boisterous. Prior to each meal, campers gathered at the entrance to the dining hall where counselors led them in various songs and chants, some of them nonsensical, in several languages (Russian, Hebrew, and English, although few campers understood English and their Hebrew was very uneven). Each age cohort was permitted to enter the dining hall separately; age groups were assigned specific tables, each of which was headed by the counselor for that group.

16. One guard was attired in the uniform of a U.S. army paratrooper, complete with insignia.
17. Some of the latter were from Berdichev, whose rabbi expressed the hope to this writer in 1996 that youngsters from that city would be able to attend the camp. Rabbi Shlomo Breuer, a Skverer hasid, visited the Berdichev campers when this writer was at the camp.
18. See below.

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