Following my visit last summer to Ramah Yachad in Ukraine to celebrate the 15th anniversary of their Ramah programming, Amy Skopp Cooper and I, together with the Ramah directors and the leadership of Machon Schechter in Israel, planned a Steinberg Fellowship staff training program for a small number of our senior-most youth leadership at North American Ramah camps. We planned this carefully with Rabbi David Golinkin and Gila Katz of Machon Schechter, in partnership with Masorti Olami. We sent six Ramah representatives who spent a few days touring in and around Kiev , followed by an intensive Seminar and Shabbaton with Marom leaders from Eastern Europe, most of whom have been staff members at Ramah Yachad in Ukraine.
Below, please read Philip Sherman’s wonderful account of this trip. Philip is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, and senior educational leader at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.
When I was a little I asked my parents to let me go to Ramah for a summer. Twelve summers later I still find that same commitment burning inside of me. For many Jewish Americans, going to camp is a requirement from parents. First-time campers usually fall in love with camp after the summer ends, instead of wanting to go before they leave. Ukrainian children have very different Jewish upbringings that don’t immediately translate into committed Jewish individuals. Jewish families in Ukraine are still dealing with the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union – a lack of strong Jewish identities.
Traveling to Ukraine to meet with the staff of Ramah Yachad was truly one of the most significant learning experiences I have ever had in my life. These campers turned staff members came to camp on their own right, not because someone told them to. They went to Ramah because they learned of their Jewish heritage from their families and wanted to understand more of their true identity.
These Ukrainians traveled upwards of 16 hours to be with us for a weekend of learning and fun. Many did not speak English, but there were enough who did to make sure that no language barrier existed. None of us Americans spoke any Ukrainian or Russian, so a significant part of our experience was learning some interesting words together.
Our discussions covered many topics: what Ramah means to us, what we do with our campers, Halacha in our lives, Israel and the diaspora, and Parashat Ha’Shavua. We also had so many conversations while not in direct programming. Understanding the mindset of a Ukrainian was not easy, but finding clarity in their commitment and passion for Judaism was quite meaningful.
Creating successful and meaningful relationships with the young Ukrainian Jewish community, in my eyes, is one of the more important things young Jews of today can do. Jews around the world are beginning to establish significant communities that many in North America have yet to discover. Using Ramah as a catalyst for these relationships will not only help our youth, but also will connect their youth to a brighter future.
The Masorti Movement is at a crossroads – many Ukrainian Jews are searching for exactly what it has to offer, and we need to ensure that it continues its far-reaching efforts. The only way to ensure these relationships is to create opportunities for learning together, and a camp setting is one of the most important ways in which this can happen. One of the most important things I learned from this trip was that we have so much more in common with Ukrainian Jews than we differ. This bond was seen most clearly through our passion for Judaism and our excitement for Ramah, and bringing these two groups together either in an American or Ukrainian camp would be the most successful way to the ultimate goal of knowledge and support.
I’m so glad to have been part of this incredible cadre of North Americans who made this important journey. We struggled with language and understanding culture, and bonded over those very things. We met some of the most incredible individuals that will make progress in developing the Ukrainian Jewish community. Overall, this experience was one of the most humbling, memorable, and important times of my life.
Diane Meskin, a rosh edah from Camp Ramah in California, currently studying in Jerusalem, adds the following:
First of all I want to thank you for allowing me to be a part of the delegation – it was truly an unforgettable, educational, fun, and most of all inspiring experience. I know that I speak for all 6 of us when I say that we didn’t really know what to expect and we were absolutely blown away by the vibrancy of the Ukrainian Ramah community. I would love to tell you all about the trip because it was really an amazing opportunity. . . .
Most importantly, we connected on a personal level with so many of the Marom (Eastern European) participants. We stayed up talking with them every night and just had a lot of fun. The six of us all said that the last night felt like the last night of camp – we were taking pictures non stop and exchanging email addresses and stayed up really late just hanging out. A bunch of them even woke up early this morning to walk us to the bus. We truly feel like we just went to camp with our Ukrainian Ramahniks, which is such a special gift. They are so inspiring in the way that they create a full and incredibly important camp experience out of nothing. Many of them told us that for a lot of their chanichim, camp is the first time that they realize that being a Jew is not something to be ashamed of but rather proud of. The six of us want to brainstorm a project that all of our camps could do simultaneously this summer to support Machaneh Ramah Yachad somehow. We are also very interested in helping to arrange future exchanges during camp by campers and staff in some way and Gila also wants to help make it happen.