Growing up in Odessa, Ukraine until I was 15 years old I knew about two dozen Jews personally. Of those, only about five of them were under the age of 50 and did not open every story with: “When I was your age we shared one pair of shoes between five siblings and could only wear them to stand in line for food.” Until I was 15, what I knew of being Jewish was limited to my grandmother’s cooking, some Yiddish curses, matza babka for Passover, occasional stories about family members who perished at the hands of Nazis and random outbursts of antisemitism at school or on the bus. And then there was summer that changed my life forever. Three unforgettable weeks at a Jewish Agency for Israel summer camp by the Black Sea that blew my mind. It was a summer of firsts: meeting an Israeli for the first time, learning “Hatikvah” with 300 other Jews my age, and most importantly –finding out Jews could be significantly taller than my family’s average 5’3”!
My Jewish camp story began on the coast of the Black Sea and continued to the other side of Atlantic when my family immigrated to the United States. It turned into a life-long mission of making sure thousands of others like me have similar experiences. Why? Because while we make up at least 15% of the North American Jewish population (20% in some larger metropolitan Jewish areas) most Russian-speaking Jews have not spent time at Jewish camp.
There are many historical and social reasons why Russian-speaking Jews are not coming to camp. Though the Soviet Jewry Movement made it possible for nearly a million Russian-speaking Jews to successfully resettle in North America, almost eight decades of living a very different kind of Jewish life – life that led to a very individual, intellectual and cultural Jewish identity with no ties to Jewish religion, community or traditions – left Russian-speaking Jews on the sidelines of organized Jewish life. Therefore, over twenty years later Jewish camps that could be providing transformative Jewish experiences to tens of thousands more children are not even on the radar for Russian-speaking families.
Last week, Sarah Benenson, a 17 year old from New Jersey born to a Russian-speaking family, shared her Jewish camp story with a group of major philanthropists who came together at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Funders Summit: Engaging Russian Speaking Jews in Jewish Camp. Her story, not unlike mine, began with very little interaction with the organized Jewish life until she followed her friends to spend a summer at Havurah, a Jewish camp program for Russian-speaking teens at Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, NY. The experience led to three amazing summers as a camper, a summer as staff at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake and an upcoming year course in Israel. Sarah’s camp story is a success – a success that could be achieved for thousands of children and teens from Russian-speaking families. But such success can only be achieved when approaching engagement of this significant part of the Jewish community with intention and understanding of their unique interests and challenges; when hiring and training staff; and building programs that can address their interests.
I consider myself lucky. I found Jewish camp and strong ties to the Jewish community as a result. I spend every day at work making sure more great Jewish camp stories are written and shared. It is my hope that mine or Sarah’s stories are not unique and by sharing them we can engage families in Jewish life and build a stronger Jewish community.