From the vast expanses of Siberia to the picturesque forests of the Baltics, Jewish children—some at risk from homes suffering alcoholism, drug abuse, or poverty—are learning about their Jewish heritage this summer. More than 60 American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee sponsored retreats throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union are offering an all-encompassing summer excursion, combining Jewish renewal with outdoor fun.
“By offering these children a Jewish experience that is both enjoyable and educational, far from the troubles of home, we are contributing to a new generation of Jewish leaders&rdquo’, said Steven Schwager, JDC’s Chief Executive Officer. “Our summer retreats are second to none in creating positive environments for children, and their families, to reconnect with their Jewish identities.”
JDC’s summer retreats, offering programming for toddlers to teenagers and their families, are based in Eastern Europe in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania. In the former Soviet Union, retreats take place in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Combining Jewish learning on the basic and advanced levels, as well as art, drama, English language studies, computers, sports, dancing, and music, JDC retreats transport children out of troubled situations to all-inclusive camping environments. The children, who come from either strongly affiliated or loosely connected Jewish homes, are from large cities and more remote parts of Europe and the FSU.
Among the FSU retreats, The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ)-JDC Partnership for children in the FSU led by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, ensures that children, youth, and families at risk or those who are economically disadvantaged receive a summer camping experience. The IFCJ–JDC Partnership is responsible for year-round welfare and relief programs for roughly 25,000 Jewish children at risk in the FSU.
Of the most impactful programs from the summer of 2009, those JDC retreats taking place in Siberia, the Baltics, and Poland offer a glimpse into JDC’s wide-ranging Jewish renewal and other programs for children:
For Dasha Mazanik, abandoned by her alcoholic mother after the death of her father, JDC’s week-long Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program for young Jews and their families in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, has provided a leadership opportunity she would have never dreamed of. Dasha’s served as a madricha (counselor) to more than 100 Jews who live far from the traditional centers of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. The program, created in 2005 by JDC Board Member Elaine Berke, ensures that Jewish coming of age ceremonies are celebrated again in a place that is better known for its historic gulags than for its Jewish experiences. The retreat included lectures, games, prayer, study, and discussions, culminating in a ceremony led by counselors from the region who, like Dasha, have participated in past programs and Rabbinical students from California-based partner, the American Jewish University (AJU).
In the midst of the catastrophic economic situation in the Baltics, one of the worst in Europe, JDC’s Bamba (in Tallinn, Estonia), Motek (in Riga, Latvia), and Dubi (in Vilnius, Lithuania) summer retreats are ensuring that more than 500 Jewish youth can escape cramped, often homebound situations this summer. Many of these children come from families whose parents have lost jobs and are struggling to pay mortgages, unable to give their children summer camping or vacation experiences. At JDC’s retreats, they receive three hot, nutritious meals; play outdoors; and reconnect to their Judaism.
For 120 Polish Jewish youngsters, this summer provided an opportunity to reclaim their Jewish heritage and learn about a culture almost lost to the horrors of Nazism and to Communism. JDC’s ATID (future in Hebrew) retreat at the Mazury Lakes in Rodowo, Poland presented an opportunity for Poland’s small Jewish community to give its children a chance to learn about Jewish religious traditions, history, and the precious legacy of their community. Due to the continued awakening of Jewish life in Poland and the revealed Jewish roots of some Poles, the camp has more than doubled in the last four years.