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

July 14-30, 1997

Ms. Khramtsova said that many of the campers were from intermarried families. Although some were not Jewish according to halakha, all were Jewish according to the Law of Return. In response to a question, she said that most were likely to emigrate to Israel -- some in the Na’aleh 16 program and others in Chalom.23

The economy in the area served by the camp is severely depressed, and most of the campers live in poverty. Few opportunities exist for young people to build decent lives locally. Many local universities and institutes -- particularly the more prestigious ones -- demand that Jews pay heavy bribes for admission. When questioned, personnel at some of these institutions acknowledge that their admissions practices are discriminatory; Jews should pay more than others, they say, because most Jews will go to Israel and thus will not use their education to benefit the country. Ms. Khramtsova commented that such a policy is just the current version of continuous antisemitism от поколения до поколения (ot pokoleniya do pokoleniya; from generation to generation). “They don’t like us here,” she said.

The local economic situation was so desolate that even recent olim (immigrants in Israel) send money to family members still in Ukraine. Their daughter in Haifa sends them money because Ms. Khramtsova’s husband has been unemployed for some time with no likelihood of finding any work. She believes she is fortunate to be working for Sochnut, which pays her salary on time.

Recurring budget problems in the Jewish Agency had forced curtailment of the camp season from 17days a few years ago to nine days this season. It has been very difficult to compress 17 days of programming into nine. Because the intent of the camp is promotion of aliyah, nearly all programs focus on Israel and there is no longer time for sports, games, or other activities that do not relate to Israel. Campers study Hebrew every day. They hold festivals to highlight Israel cities, they celebrate Jewish and Israeli holidays, and they also commemorate the Shoah and other episodes in the history of the Jewish people.

An Israeli counselor uses a map to teach adolescents about Israel in a Jewish Agen-cy summer camp in Khmel-nitsky.

On the day that this writer visited the camp, mixed-age groups of campers were preparing “advertisements” or displays featuring the more prominent characteristics of about six Israeli cities. For example, the Jerusalem group had built a small replica of the Western Wall and handed out paper and pencils to passersby so they could write messages to be placed in the “wall”. A group promoting Eilat had made a large mural of a beach, in front of which paraded several girls in swimming suits. The Beersheva team created a Bedouin tent in which costumed campers served “Bedouin coffee” to visitors. Campers and counselors voted on the displays to select the best one.

Earlier in the same day, campers had Hebrew lessons in small groups and had seen a video on the Six-Day War. They were also scheduled for Israeli dancing and other activities. In common with the nearby Yad Yisroel camp, the daily schedule was posted in a prominent location.

Six counselors from Israel, all of them young women, were the senior counselors at the camp. They were joined by local young adults (who had completed Sochnut training courses) in providing leadership for the campers. The Israelis had brought with them various supplies for the camp, including a large amount of arts and crafts materials that are unavailable locally.

The Sochnut camp provides campers with three meals and two snacks every day. Most of the youngsters subsist on a diet of potatoes at home, said Ms. Khramtsova. The fee for the nine-day camp was eight hryvnia (about $4.80) to those who could afford it, but many campers paid no fee at all. Ms. Khramtsova said that operation of the camp costs $2,000 per day, including food, staff salaries, and rental of camp premises.

During the five to six hours that I visited the camp, the campers all appeared happy and occupied with camp activity. Notwithstanding the brevity of the camp session, Ms. Khramtsova seemed to know many of the campers personally, perhaps from her work as Jewish Agency representative in the area during the remainder of the year. Her relations with Israeli and local staff also seemed very positive.

26. Chabad camp, Dnipropetrovsk area. Located in Novomoskovsk, a 20-minute drive across the Dnipr River from Dnipropetrovsk, the Chabad camp is known by its name of Dubrava from the Soviet period and, reflecting its current ownership, also as “Camp Gan Isroel Or Avner – Chabad Lubavich”. It was purchased by the Dnipropetrovsk synagogue from a financially-troubled construction company for $50,000 in 1992.

On the shore of the Samara River, the camp is adjacent to a “tour base”, i.e., a camp ground, and close to one other camp and several other summer institutions. Its proximity to a stagnant river doubtless contributed to a severe mosquito infestation that seemed impervious to repeated sprayings.

The two most prominent buildings in the camp are the dining hall/kitchen and a semi-enclosed auditorium. Sleeping accommodations for campers are in several long single-storey buildings. Lavatory facilities are primitive and located a modest distance from camper housing. A rusting above-ground swimming pool is sited near the camp entrance. The camp lacks an enclosed central lodge or other indoor structure for rainy-day activities, arts and crafts, classes, or other programming that should be done indoors. In general, existing facilities are in poor condition.

The camp operates two four-week sessions, each accommodating 150 campers -- girls in July, and boys in August. Both sessions were at capacity in 1997, each with waiting lists.24 Almost all of the campers are from Dnipropetrovsk, but only about 50 percent are enrolled at the large Dnipropetrovsk Jewish day school. In common with his colleagues in the Karliner-Stoliner movement, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki recruits campers who do not attend day school so that additional youngsters can experience Jewish tradition and culture. Because of its proximity to the city of Dnipropetrovsk, the camp invites parents and other family members to visit campers on Sundays

Officially, the camp charges campers 50 hryvnia (approximately $30) for a four-week session. Most families pay 10 to 20 hryvnia ($6 to $12) per child, and some pay no fees at all. Rabbi Kaminezki estimated the operating costs for the camp over the entire summer to be $35,000, significantly less than those for camps of comparable size that must be rented from other owners.

Joining campers were a large number of non-camper young children, including 10 boys (at both the boys’ and girls’ sessions), who are offspring of camp staff, about five hesed clients (elderly Jews) on week-long vacations, and a half-dozen or so other adults with some connection to the Jewish community who had no official responsibility at the camp. No programming was available for any of the non-camper groups, except for attendance at plays, songfests, religious services, etc.

Fifteen students from Beit Chana, the michlala or teachers’ seminary in Dnipropetrovsk, served as unpaid counselors during the girls’ session. Their work was perceived as practice-teaching for which monetary compensation was unnecessary. Most were 19 years old; it appeared that none had any previous camp experience, either as a camper or counselor. They led prayers, some religious classes, arts and crafts, games, group singing, drama, and other activities. The camp had neither a director nor head counselors; no Israeli or American Jewish instructors/counselors were present.25 In common with the Yad Yisroel camp, Dubrava also employed vospitatel’nitsy to help in the supervision of campers.

Rabbi Kaminezki, his wife Chany, and their four young children resided in a camp bungalow throughout the camp season. Rabbi Kaminezki commuted into the city of Dnipropetrovsk Sunday through Friday. Preoccupied with care of their children, Chany Kaminezki was unable to assume any significant leadership role in the camp. However, she was very visible and served as a resource on questions of Jewish practice.

Rabbi Kaminezki gives a shiur (lesson) on Shabbat afternoons, attracting a small group of adults in the camp. Support staff and one of the hesed clients attended the shiur at which this writer was present. It quickly became a question-and-answer session, with several individuals asking the rabbi to explain several very fundamental points of Jewish law and custom.

As in the other camps visited by the writer, the campers at Dubrava seemed quite happy. Rabbi Kaminezki was delighted that the Beit Chana students, most of them ignorant of Judaism before entering Beit Chana two years previously, were able to lead campers in prayer and teach basic Judaism to campers.

Three counselors, all of whom are Ukrainian Jewish students at the Beit Chana Jewish Women’s Pedagogical Institute in Dnipropetrovsk, lead prayers at the Chabad camp near Dnipropetrovsk.

However, the inexperience of the students/counselors and their lack of supervision by a senior counselor and/or a camp director were apparent in several ways. At almost any time of day, small groups of campers milled about without any attention from counselors. On most such occasions, they were absent from some planned activity, but the activity failed to attract them and no one appeared to look for them. A few of the girls repeatedly stopped by the Kaminezki bungalow to play with or “look after” the Kaminezki children, occasionally for several hours at a time. No schedules were posted in the camp. The camp lacked a sense of cohesiveness. It often seemed devoid of spirit.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki and Chany Kaminezki recognized the “drift” in the camp and discussed potential resolutions. Reliance on the Beit Chana students had its advantages, both in eliminating the communications and cultural incompatibilities inevitable with foreign staff and in providing superb experience for the Beit Chana students. It also reduced transportation costs, telephone bills, etc. However, it is likely that most of these benefits can be retained and the camp improved significantly by the appointment of a camp director and several experienced senior counselors to supervise program development and implementation and to work with the Beit Chana students in improving their counseling skills.


23. Chalom attracts high school graduates for training in specific careers that are in demand in Israel, such as dental assistants or computer programmers. Ms. Khramtsova said that the Chalom program was very popular locally, but required significant adjustment for maximum effectiveness. First, the current timetable calls for candidates to take qualifying exams in April; they are notified of results only in September or October. However, by September, many candidates become impatient and, fearing that they would not be accepted in Chalom, they enroll in local courses so as not to lose the academic year. Once they begin local courses, they usually finish them and then remain in the area to find work geared to their training. They may also marry locally, sometimes to a non-Jew who does not want to go to Israel. Thus, Israel loses the potential immigrant. Ms. Khramtsova suggested that the exams be administered in winter and results be available in April so that candidates can make specific plans for the next stage of their education; under such a timetable, it is more likely that those eligible for programs in Israel will actually enroll in such programs. Second, Chalom should offer training opportunities in more fields. The most popular courses, said Ms. Khramtsova, are in hotel management, computers, bookkeeping, and for training as nursing or dental assistants. Young men from the Khmelnitsky area would also be interested in courses for drivers or auto mechanics, and some young women would like to train as pre-school teachers.
24. In addition to the two four-week sessions, shorter pre-camp sessions were operated in June for handicapped children and for boys from the yeshiva high school. In cooperation with the Chabad rabbi in Donetsk, a separate camp at a different site was operated for older girls from Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk who were interested in a more intensive Jewish learning experience.
25. In contrast, the boys’ session at the same camp was led by an experienced head counselor from abroad and numerous foreign staff counselors as well.

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