Thursday, August 9, 2007

It's a small world after all.

Watch the video.

You probably won't be surprised to learn that you are watching a group of Jewish teenage campers and counselors rocking out to a classic Israeli song.

It may surprise you to learn that these kids are a world away from the Canadian Jewish News- they are Ukrainian.

I recently went on a press tour to Ukraine with the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), which runs about 70 summer camps in the Former Soviet Union. A group of 5 journalists, myself included, got a tour of two summer camps in Ukraine, in Odessa and Kharkov. (And in case you are wondering, after Ukraine became an independent country, they are officially known as Ukraine...minus the "the.")

This video is from the Kharkov camp, for teens aged 13-17. The camp's theme was "Israel is Real," as you can see from the t-shirts. The week was organized like an Israeli life cycle, with days and activities revolving around things like university, army service and a tour of Yad Vashem. In total, the camp serves 750 kids, with 30 counselors (both local and from Israel), and about 150 kids per session.

We stayed at the camp for two nights, where we got to watch a Fear Factor evening program, an impressive Yad Vashem re-creation and tours, eat with the campers, talk with them and the counselors through a Russian translator and watch the evening program from which this clip is taken. It was a dance party, after which the kids made presentations about how Israel is, in fact, real. These creative expressions ranged from humourous sketch comedy bits to singing to dancing to artwork.

While I have about six words in Russian and none in Ukrainian, what was most striking about the entire Eastern European adventure needed no words to express itself. I have been a camper and then counselor at Camp Tanamakoon for the past ten summers; this is my first summer not being at camp.

What was amazing to watch was the passion and energy and love for camp that these kids and campers displayed. It reinforced the notion that kids are kids – literally all over the globe. While we didn’t speak the same language, the room was filled with understanding. The passion the campers and staff had for Israel was blinding. While my own camp was non-denominational, the Israeli devotion rang through loud and clear.

In the paper, I wrote about the conflict between promoting aliyah vs. building the community in Ukraine. It is almost inexplicably comforting feeling to see these kids' faces, fancy footwork and Jewish passion, because it reinforces that, in whatever form and with whatever the future holds, Jewish identity is thriving in youth across the globe.


Blintzkrieg said...

Very neat! Most people don't think of Ukraine when they think of Jewish communities. What's the Jewish population there now?

Abigail said...

It is extremely hard to calculate. Many Jews don't know that they are Jewish, or even know the definition of being Jewish, based on extensive intermarriage and generations of trying to hide their faith. There are so many factors in determining what the population is, and different organizations come up with widely different numbers based on their definition of "Jew," or desire to build the communities. According to JAFI, there are about 800,000 Jews in the Former Soviet Union on the whole.