EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK .
Learning To Be Jewish Again
ntil the collapse of the former Soviet Union in
1991, it was common for Ukrainian Jews to grow
up without a hint of their Jewish heritage.
However, a summer camp marking its 10th
anniversary in Ukraine — a struggling nation of 52 million
people, including 500,000 Jews — can proudly point to
deepening the Jewish identity for hundreds of campers,
thanks to Farmington Hills attorney Gerald Cook, a major
Jews have lived in Ukraine for 1,000 years. Today, the
country is nationalistic, so it continues to be
a potential breeding ground for anti-Jewish
sentiment. At the same time, it's trying to
rebound economically and emotionally from
the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.
In August, 180 youngsters aged 9-16
arrived from 10 cities across Ukraine to learn
about Judaism and Israel at the Ramah
Yachad summer camp. It was held this year
ROBERT A. in the countryside near Kiev, a partner com-
munity of the Jewish Federation of
The camp, which moves around each year,
is part of Midreshet Yerushalayim, the Eastern European and
former Soviet Union outreach arm of the Schechter
Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, Israel's center
for Iviasorti, or Conservative, Judaism.
"This camp is about Jewish renewal and the future
of Judaism — and the joy of being Jewish — in a
region where it was almost wiped out, first by Hitler
and then by communism," says Cook, trustee for the
Detroit-based Ben N. Teitel Charitable Trust.
Through the trust, the member of Adat Shalom
Synagogue in Farmington Hills has given the camp
about $50,000 a year, this year almost 60 percent of
the $85,000 operating budget. Ben Teitel, who died
in 1985, was Cook's uncle and a streetwise native Detroiter
with a heart of gold.
Camp director Gila Katz looked back on this summer's
experience in a conversation with Israeli writer Simon Griver:
"In the first camp in 1993, the youngsters barely knew they
were Jewish, but after more than a decade of Jewish renewal,
these children have a sophisticated sense of Jewish identity."
Most campers attend Midreshet Yerushalyim-sponsored
school or enrichment programs. For some, though, Camp
Ramah-Ukraine was their first exposure to Judaism. Katz
recounted how 11-year-old Igor's "eyes lit up every time he
encountered a new Jewish ritual."
Cook's generosity is channeled via Midreshet Yerushalayim
to the two-week camp, which charges $10 for all but the
poorest children. Griver called that seemingly nominal fee "a
significant sum in a country where the average monthly
salary is S100." The Jewish Agency for Israel and the World
Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues also provide
funding. Still, there's a waiting list of 100. For information
on how to contribute, contact the Schechter Institute
through e-mail: email@example.com
The camp's 35-person staff serves up drama, music, danc-
ing, sports and swimming, as well as Jewish programming.
Philip Gelpert, then a Ukrainian high school student from
Uzgorod in the Carpathian Mountains, was a camper a
decade ago. He recalls a campground void of Jewish feeling.
He later made aliyah, but returned this year as a counselor.
He was impressed that "most of the children were familiar with
Hebrew and some could even fluently speak the language."
He added that prayer is no longer something to shun and
that Jewish knowledge abounds among the campers.
Food is a camp focal point. Breakup of the Soviet Union
forced the standard of living to fall in many Ukrainian
homes. "The physical and nutritional sustenance provided by
the camp is just as important as the spiritual benefits
offered," Gelpert told Griver.
Cook's late bubbe Bessie Teitel, who died in 1981, was
from Zhivatov, Ukraine. That link was the original spur to
his interest in the camp. Cook embraced the camp because of
its commitment to Jewish renewal. He wants Judaism to res-
onate beyond just Holocaust memories and support for Israel
— important as those things are.
His commitment is against a historical backdrop laden
with 70 years of communism and a Soviet regime that, as the
camp director told Griver, imposed "a cultural and spiritual
Holocaust on its Jewish citizens."
The Jewish spirit never died, said Gila Katz, a Ukrainian
native who made aliyah in 1996, "but the scars remain."
Today, she said, "Many Russian-speaking Jews still feel
ashamed of their Jewishness."
So Midreshet Yerushalayirn's challenge, she said, is
"to reconnect these people to their rich Jewish her-
itage, or to at least get them to agree to give their
children a Jewish education."
At least 700 former campers and counselors have
made aliyah; most are students or in the army.
Another 100 remain in Ukraine; many work in the
schools and all are active in the rejuvenated Jewish
Ties That Bind
Hagit Sabag, an Israeli-born rabbinical student at the
Schechter Institute, spent her third summer at Camp
Ramah-Ukraine this year. She wanted to visit Ukraine to
learn about Jews who speak Russian.
"Despite the differences between Russian-speaking
Ashkenazi Jewry and Israel's Oriental communities," she told
Simon Griver, "I still feel we are one people."
Ramah Yachad alumni no doubt will continue to help
influence the renewal of JeNvish life in Ukraine. Hurdles
remain, though. The federal government has helped fight Jew
haters, but they persist locally, where bleak economic, politi-
cal and social conditions converge to water seeds of hatred.
"This renewal," says Gila Katz, whose parents lost their
entire families in the Holocaust, "has been the most impor-
tant achievement of the Jewish people since the establishment
of Israel in 1948."
I thought Katz's assessment was a bit exaggerated until I
realized how remarkable it was that Judaism in Ukraine had
survived both World War II and the Cold War.
Jerry Cook hasn't yet visited the camp, but he hopes to do
so with his wife, Barbara. Their daughter Cheryl was a coun-
selor in 1993, the camp's first year.
Crucial to the camp's story, Cook says, is the role it plays in
attracting people — professionals, counselors and campers
alike — who want to transmit the Torah's gifts inside this
ancient land in the southeastern part of Central Europe.
Cook's greatest joy from Camp Ramah-Ukraine?
As the camp's mitzvah maker told me this week: "Seeing
happy children doing Jewish things."
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