by Leah Snider
miracle of Pinsk
summer camp counselor instills Jewish pride into the lives of Russian kids.
his summer I returned home from the
experience of a lifetime. At the end of
June, I packed my bags and flew to
Pinsk, Belarus, to be a counselor for a month
in a Jewish girls' camp called Yad Yisroel
("Hand for Israel").
As counselors, we taught the 60 or so campers
about Judaism in a fun and positive way. And we
gave them a sense of Jewish pride that, because
of Communist ideals, has been lacking in their
country for more than 45 years. I thought I flew
to the former Soviet Union to give to the chil-
dren there but, in actuality, I received more than
I could ever have imagined.
Pinsk seems to be a town that toggles between
the past and the present. This makes for rather
ironic scenes — a horse and buggy stopping be-
hind new flat-screen traffic lights; young kids
brandishing sticks as they herd cows, music blar-
ing through their ear buds.
The U.S. dollar is worth about 3,000 Belaru-
sian rubles; a bus ticket costs about a quarter and
a taxi about $2. So moving around the city was no
A little history is in order: Before World War II,
74 percent of the Pinsk population was Jewish. Af-
ter the Holocaust, the few Jews left behind by the
Israel trips was because the majority of the partici-
pants went by themselves, without friends. I also
liked the fact that I would get to truly experience
Israel, not just feel like part of a tourist group.
Not only was I about to get the opportunity to
tour the must-see sites around the country, but also
to be with Israeli teens, go on an intense three-day
hike in the Negev, participate in a community ser-
vice project, do a cultural exchange with Bedouin
teenagers, explore the different facets of Judaism
and Israeli society and express my feelings through
personal art presentations.
The mission of the Nesiya Institute, based in
New York and Jerusalem, is not to present the coun-
try of Israel to American teens. Its Web site says its
mission is "to inspire North American and Israeli
young people from diverse backgrounds to enrich
Jewish life for themselves and others."
This doesn't seem like an accurate summary to
me, maybe because it is impossible for a participant
of the program to condense their incredible six-
week experience into one sentence. Still, the pro-
gram is unique in the way it creates a community
from people who have only one thing in common:
There were 120 people total and everyone was
Leah's bunk of 11-year-olds posing for a photo. Leah, back row, is
third from right.
Nazis were attacked and persecuted by Communist
Since the establishment of Yad Yisroel in 1991,
Jewish Pinsk has been revolutionized. Yad Yisroel
runs the local Pinsk orphanage, boarding schools,
the mikvah, medical aid, meals to the elderly, the
Pinsk Jewish burial society and summer camps.
Most of my campers, ages 10 to 18, were from
poverty-stricken homes, with literally only one set
of clothes to call their own. I found that many
kids had parents in jail or were orphans. But
these kids wanted no sympathy — they were glad
to be in camp, glad to be receiving food and to
be the recipients of our love and attention.
No, I didn't speak any Russian and most of
my campers didn't speak any English. Looking
back on it, I can't quite figure out how we com-
municated as well as we did. I gave a lot of hugs
and now consider myself a master at charades.
To see Belarusian Jewish kids with no former
Jewish background become people who are now
a credit to the Jewish people is awe-inspiring.
That towns like Pinsk are once again becoming
centers of Judaism, when Judaism was thought
to have been extinguished, is astounding. That
I could feel so much love coming from children
who didn't speak my language, who I loved and
who loved me simply because we were all Jews,
My journey to Pinsk changed my entire outlook
on life. What I learned from my Russian sisters this
past summer will remain with me for the rest of my
life: Miracles do happen. 1
Leah Snider, 16, is a senior at Bais Yaakov - the Oak Park-
based Beth Jacob School for Girls, part of Southfield-based
Yeshiva Beth Yehudah.
I could feel this personally;
being with my group on Nesiya
gave me a sense of belonging I
had never felt before. Not only
did I feel comfortable to listen to
and observe others, but also open
up and speak my mind. It made
me understand that community
does not have to be a group of
_ similar people, but can be made
of diverse (and amazing!) individ-
The trip itself was pluralistic to
uals who share a common goal.
make sure everyone was religiously
As I was waiting in the air-
comfortable, while also allowing
Israeli Moshe Wandam of
port for the connecting flight to
people to explore their own thoughts
Kiryat Malachi with Laura Katsnelson
Detroit with fellow Nesiya-ers
and beliefs. An example: I partici-
of West Bloomfield
Lani Levi of Southfield and Zev
pated in Orthodox, Conservative,
Adler-Goldsmith of Huntington
and Reform services and had the op-
portunity to create my own prayers during an alter- Woods, I naturally felt sad to leave Israel. But I real-
ized that my experience didn't have to end with the
native prayer option.
To make things more manageable, we were flight home. Instead, I try to apply what I learned
separated into three kehillot (communities), which on Nesiya to my everyday life and change the way
consisted of 40 chanichim (participants) and four I feel about my world at home. And hey, isn't that
madrichim (instructors). Each group traveled, had what life-changing experiences are for?
different as could be: American, Is-
raeli, Orthodox, Reform, religious,
secular, English-speaking, Hebrew-
speaking, kibbutzniks, city dwellers,
suburbanites, Ashkenazi, Sephardic,
Ethiopian, etc. Because each person
came from a different background
and had unique opinions and com-
fort levels, we had to be open-mind-
ed and respectful while building
discussions, studied text and did activities together,
which caused us to live up to the term and feel like
Laura Katsnelson, 16, is a senior at Walled Lake Western.
teen2teen September 10 • 2009 TT3