Feature Stories

Reviving Baltic Jewish Communities One Camper at a Time

Irina with eleven-year-old Agata from Latvia, who has been attending Olameinu summer camp since age five with assistance from JDC's children in need program
Irina with eleven-year-old Agata from Latvia, who has been attending Olameinu summer camp since age five with assistance from JDC's children in need program photo: Debbie Zimelman

The great history of the Baltic region as a center of Jewish learning and culture—nearly destroyed by the Holocaust and decades of communist repression—is finding expression once again, with JDC support, in the reemerging Jewish communities of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the thriving Olameinu regional Baltic summer camp, where hundreds of Jewish children of all ages eagerly embrace Jewish knowledge and tradition each year.

The personal journey of Irina O., the camp’s 26-year-old director, mirrors the renewal of Jewish life in the Baltics over the past 20 years. Today all Olameinu camps are staffed completely by directors, teachers, and madrichim (counselors) from the local Jewish community. Here’s what Irina had to share about the camp—and about building the new Jewish generation in the Baltics.

Q: Olameinu, now in its 10th year, connects young Jews with one another and with their heritage, building a strong community foundation. When does camp start and how many kids will participate?

A: So far we have 180 registered for Olameinu’s end of July session for kids ages 7-12 in Estonia. In August we expect 180 teens (ages 13-17) for the session in Lithuania and 160 students, ages 18-35, in Latvia.

Also, we have a group of 55 kids from the Baltics leaving for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation/JDC International Summer Camp at Szarvas, Hungary.

Q: That’s a lot of children getting involved in Jewish life through camping. What was your first exposure to Judaism?

A: My Jewish journey began when I was 12 years old and my parents enrolled me in the Jewish school in Riga, where I completed 6th through 12th grade. Prior to that I knew was that I was Jewish and my mother’s parents lived in Israel (they moved there in 1995) but I didn’t grow up with Jewish traditions in my home because I was from a mixed family—a Jewish mother and Ukrainian father.

Starting Jewish school was really inspiring and changed my life! I started bringing my parents to school for all the Jewish holidays and to synagogue. My parents were happy to go because they figured if it brings the family together, why not?

Q: When did you first get involved in your Jewish community?

A: While still in school I started to volunteer as a leader and was quite successful. I’d never had the experience of being a kid at camp so when I turned 18 I went to Szarvas. I was so impressed that I sought out additional development, including the JDC-supported Kadima (Baltic madrich trainings at the Kadima School for Counselors), then Szarvas madrich training, and the regional Baltics madrich seminars.

Nine years ago I started as a madricha and then became an Olameinu coordinator. Today I’m the Olameinu camp Director and the Youth Program Director in Riga, Latvia.

Q: Your growth as a leader seems to reflect the expansion of programs for youth throughout the Baltics and even the maturity of the Jewish community in the region. What is Riga’s Jewish community like today?

A: I’ve been involved in the Jewish community professionally for eight years and I’ve seen it progress from a variety of disconnected programs to a united organization with common goals and bright leadership. I’ve seen it grow from a small community to a big, vibrant one.

For example, five years ago we had youth programs, elderly programs, programs for children, etc. Now we are all together and it is very nice to be part of something bigger, all under one roof.

Q: What is the balance between JDC’s stewardship and your community’s input into the programs you work on?

A: My team and I work all year long, creating programs for different ages. I coordinate all the youth programs (which covers a big age range, from two to 45!) We have weekly and monthly Jewish cultural programs … for small kids, families, teenagers ... and all are supported by JDC.

Both the community and JDC support our program development. They support our ideas, we jointly come up with the program goals, and then our local staff implements the programs. It’s a very good balance.

Q: With members of the community like you taking the leading role in driving the programs, is there a strong emphasis on developing young leadership to carry the torch in the future?

A: Yes, leadership development is very critical for our community.

When it comes to camping, we have many madrichim that start out in local clubs and local communities and then go on to Olameinu and Szarvas. (We also have kids that go to Szarvas and come back to be madrichim at our camp.) What’s great is that the youngsters feel that they can really contribute, participate, and fully express their ideas at our local camp. This is where they shine and I want to encourage that in every way. I see developing young Jewish leaders as a very important part of the camp that I am running.

Q: What are some of the programs that you are excited about this summer?

A: I’m excited about all of the programs because every single year I try to bring something new into the camps. This time, for example, it will be special for the kids to sing real Israeli songs with our singer from Israel and to learn Israeli rikudim from a dancer we’ve invited from Bulgaria.

This is also the first year that I am leading two of the sessions, so it is a new personal challenge for me. I am very excited about the theme that we chose: the Ten Commandments. Throughout the sessions kids will have a chance to learn about this theme and explore it through arts and crafts, workshops, games, and study sessions with their madrichim.

All in all, I feel very lucky because I get real pleasure from my work, especially when I see the kids smiling, feeling Jewish and joyous. That’s better for me than anything.

Tags for this story: Camps / Retreats, Children, Youth / Young Adults

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