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

July 14-30, 1997

The Chabad counselors thought that their presence in the camp brought two major benefits to the campers:

- Creation of a Jewish atmosphere, something many girls had never experienced previously; infusion of a Jewish spirit in their lives.

- Transmission of specific Jewish knowledge to the campers.

However, the heterogeneous nature of the campers regarding their Jewish backgrounds -- some with no Jewish education and some who were pupils at the Chabad day school -- created a trying situation; it was difficult to teach Judaism when the Jewish educational levels of campers within any given age group differed so substantially. (Two hours each day in the camp program were devoted to informal Jewish education.)

Regarding benefits that they derived from their camp counseling experience in Ukraine, the counselors concurred that the chief benefit was an appreciation for what they had at home, i.e., loving families and strong Jewish backgrounds.

Unlike their counselor counterparts at the Yad Yisroel camp in Khmelnitsky, the counselors at the Kharkiv Chabad camp quickly reached consensus on the desired future for the Ukrainian Jewish girls whom they had come to know. The girls should go to Israel and build lives for themselves there, the counselors said, even if family members do not want to accompany them and they must go alone. Several counselors stated that various campers told them that they saw no future for themselves in Ukraine.


Visits to Cities

29. The emergence of multiple national organizations (in Ukraine) purporting to represent the national Jewish population parallels Jewish communal development in other countries. The acceleration of this process in 1997 reflects both the accumulation of wealth by a number of Ukrainian Jews in the mid-1990s and the prolonged absence from the country of Rabbi Yaakov D. Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine.

30. Projected increases in Jewish day school enrollments following decreases attributed to emigration are puzzling (and, in any case, will remain only projections until confirmed by actual enrollments in September). Current speculation regarding reasons behind projected enrollment growth center on: (1) material benefits offered by most day schools, such as hot meals and free bus transportation; (2) growing reputations for excellence in general studies in many day schools, in contrast to the ongoing deterioration of secular public schools; and (3) attraction of Hebrew language study and other Judaic courses in day schools to families who are considering aliyah.

Jewish Summer Camps

31. The continuing demand for places in Jewish summer camps may reflect little more than the wish of parents to provide their children with a vacation in which their material needs will be well addressed. Nonetheless, experience in the successor states and elsewhere shows that participation in informal Jewish education such as that available in a Jewish summer camp can be very effective in enhancing the Jewish identity of children and, especially, adolescents. Notwithstanding their enormous cost (and the inability of the vast majority of Jewish families in Ukraine to pay even a small portion of the expense required for their child’s attendance at camp), Jewish camping experiences should be made available to more Jewish children and adolescents in Ukraine and the other post-Soviet successor states.

32. Two of the three religious camps visited by the writer -- the Yad Yisroel girls’ camp in Khmelnitsky and the Chabad girls’ camp near Dnipropetrovsk -- were seriously understaffed. Whereas financial constraints and/or other factors may preclude these camps from ever reaching the ratio of skilled counselors to campers -- one counselor for every five or six campers -- that is common in better American camps, it is likely that both camps will be able to increase their staff complement significantly without incurring extraordinary additional costs. Their own experience and that of other camps in Ukraine demonstrate that many effective counselors from the United States (and some from Israel) will pay their own airfare (or at least a portion of their airfare) to Ukraine and work as unsalaried volunteers

In addition to engaging more staff counselors, both of these camps require reinforcement of their management ranks.29 The Yad Yisroel camp was able to deal with a medical emergency during the girls’ session only because their director from New York happened to be visiting the camp at the time and was able to assist Rabbi and Mrs. Charach in addressing various issues that arose. It is likely that appointment of additional management personnel will entail ad-ditional expense.


33. The principle of accountability requires that donor-supported programs be accessible to donors and their representatives. Thus, thousands of foreign Jewish lay leaders and professionals in the UJA-Federation system (and its counterparts in other countries) have toured large and small Jewish communities throughout the vast territory of Russia, Ukraine, and the other post-Soviet successor states. Their major concerns have been operations of both the Jewish Agency for Israel (Sochnut), whose principal mission is to promote and organize aliyah (immigration to Israel), and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which supports a variety of welfare, culture, and education programs in Jewish population centers in the new post-Soviet states. Both organizations receive their primary American funding from UJA-Federation communities.

Few managers of such programs in the successor states would begrudge the interest of donors. Yet some donor visits disrupt the very activities that they support. Agency staff time is diverted to guest programming and supervision; guests with superficial knowledge (of the successor states, local Jewish popula-tions, and service agencies) often misinterpret what they see and hear and, subsequently, what they convey to others; and the needs of clients may be neglected in favor of the actual or imagined demands of guests.

Perhaps the greatest damage has been done to programs in some of the Jewish Agency summer camps. In several instances, camps have been convened (and then concluded) artificially early in the summer vacation period to accommodate the schedules of foreign guests who would subsequently attend the Jewish Agency Assembly in Jerusalem in late June. Camp sessions, now reduced in duration because of budgetary constraints, have been distorted further to provide rehearsal time for programs to be presented to visiting donors. The visits them-selves generate tension among both youngsters and staff.

Similarly, JDC escorts foreigners through the apartments of selected needy Jewish elderly in the successor states, exploiting their poverty and loneliness. Seldom are such visits preceded or followed by serious deliberation among the visitors about preserving the dignity of older Jews.

Both the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee summon pro-fessional staff members from distant points to meet visitors in a specific city, a practice doubtless more efficient than transporting donors to multiple points on the service map of an organization. Nonetheless, such travel by professionals is disruptive to the operations of the agency and often of little benefit to visitors who find it difficult to appreciate the role of individuals whose work in distant cities lacks local context. The presence of too many traveling professionals may also undermine the authority of local professionals.

Visits by donors and their representatives to UJA-supported programs in the successor states must and will continue. The organizers of such ventures should be certain that interests of all stakeholders are respected during such visits; current conditions do not justify such assurance.



Betsy Gidwitz
August 20, 1997

29. My visit to the Kharkiv Chabad girls’ camp was too brief to assess management at that camp.

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